It was not so much that Andrew Carnegie liked dinosaurs. He was friends with Herbert Spencer, and was deeply attracted to the now discredited theory which Spencer called Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism made Carnegie an alpha male par excellence and confirmed that only the smartest and strongest can or even should survive. Should survive? Yes, one of his foundations dabbled in “eugenics”, possible ways to eliminate the “unfit” from society. (The “unfit” seemed to be poor folks in the city who reproduced too often for some folk’s liking.) “Survival of the fittest” was something Carnegie deeply believed in, based on his own cold-blooded rise from working at a cotton factory to being emperor of steel production. Carnegie now had a pleasing narrative in which science seemed to show that barbarous competition was great, he was great, class divisions and poverty were inevitable and no pity needed to be shown to those who suffered (especially his own steel workers). Harm to the environment? What harm could there be? There was money to be made by the fittest of the fit.
So, of course, friend of science that he was, Carnegie funded dinosaur fossil-hunting expeditions and, of course, some anthropologists named a dino after his patron: Diplodocus carnegii (dubbed Dippy by a museum in Pittsburgh). Through a creative piece of animation, Ruth Ewan brings Dippy and Carnegie together for a tête-à-tête in a piece now showing at the Collective in Edinburgh. The purpose of the piece is to push the trajectory of the Carnegie narrative away from the beauty and benevolence of hand-out philanthropism and to look more deeply at how he affected the environment and masses of people in his rise to power and glory. His philanthropy can then be seen from another perspective. Ruth Ewan does this by having Dippy confront the animated Carnegie with the massive amount of harm the production of steel has done to the environment and Carnegie’s harsh treatment of his workers.
First, we can deal with the well-crafted story of Andrew Carnegie that kids find in their U.S. history books. Through hard work and diligence (he went from $1.09 a week to a fortune of $309 billion) Carnegie spearheaded the economic development of the US and then created his gospel of billionaires which is still followed today. Yes, he created the Gospel of Wealth and famously said: “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” It is difficult to discover the amounts of carbon dioxide or other pollutants that Carnegie spewed into the atmosphere or waters of America during his rise since folks in authority back then just did not care. Various measurements and ice cores have shown that CO2 emissions increased dramatically after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Instead of the tons of pollution created or worker mortality rates at his facilities, historians seem to prefer to focus on the billions Carnegie gave for church organs, eugenics foundations, libraries (for poor workers to possibly enrich themselves) and universities and foundations (for the children of the rich to further cement their social and economic status). I am more interested in the tons of waste created by his rise to the Gospel of Wealth, but this is not easily accessible. So perhaps we can look at steel production these days to get an idea of the horrors committed by Carnegie (and later J. P. Morgan – who bought Carnegie out in 1901) during a period of time when there was zero government regulation of the processes employed.
The exact pollution figures seem buried since the EPA was not created until 1970, but by 1897 Carnegie’s steel mills were producing more than 6,000 tons of steel a day. These days steel producers boast about how, within the past 50 years, they have reduced carbon emissions and waste in the steel production process by over 50%, but there has been a 10 fold increase in steel production in the last 50 years - so just imagine what the sky looked like in 1897 in Pittsburgh with zero regulation of this industry (Ewan does a good job of presenting a scenario in her animation). These days, steel production is one of the most energy using and carbon dioxide spewing industries in the world. After crude oil and coal, iron ore, for steel, is the 3rd most extracted commodity (according to volume). In fact, according to the website The World Counts 1.83 tons of CO2 is produced for every 1 ton of steel produced. 3.3 million tons of carbon dioxide are projected into the air annually. The mining of iron produces nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as well as heavy metals polluting water and acid from the mines also polluting water sources.
So Ewan would like to change the narrative a bit, and I would like to help her: Through hard work and diligence, Andrew Carnegie spearheaded a model of industrial development that has nearly killed the planet. After he made zillions of dollars nearly killing us all, and overworking his laborers to insane proportions (often 12 hours a day, 7 days a week – or until they dropped and were replaced – 20% of the men who died in Pittsburgh in the 1880s died because of steel mills), he donated a lot of money to causes that reflected his own limited vision of the social and personal development of humanity. His billions in contributions did not change the social or economic order nor make it more fair or just, his billions did not eliminate racism or sexism. Money does not do this. Maybe the dinosaur was right. Oh yes, let’s get back to that dino.
In Ewan’s animated piece Beast, Carnegie suddenly appears through thick smoke on a cliff overlooking an industrial center dominated by smoke stacks, disgorging pollution into the gray sky. The woman chatting with him reveals herself to be a dinosaur, not too pleased with the name given to her, which describes two rows of bones down her tail coupled with the Latinized version of Carnegie’s name; she begins calling Carnegie “Double-femur”. She is the long extinct conscience for Carnegie, come back to attempt to haunt him, to get him to admit he may not have been the benefactor of humanity he surely died believing he was. She cannot quite haunt a man who lives in total denial, however.
When they speak of the Homestead Strike, Carnegie blames Frick. The dino points out that Carnegie cannot absolve himself of the conditions present in his factories which ultimately caused the strike, and the dino points out that even the trees in Pittsburgh became stunted due to the activities of his steel factories. When Carnegie is confronted with the fact that 3,500 undernourished men were working around the clock in an inferno, Carnegie replies: “I have done more for the world than any man who has lived.” He sees himself as the “first and greatest philanthropist”. Just as it is in the history books, Frick becomes the fall guy for the kind-hearted Carnegie at Homestead.
When the dino asserts that Carnegie was motivated by greed, Carnegie repeats: “No man has done more: libraries, concert halls, research institutions…” To which the dino replies: “Why couldn’t you provide your workers with a wage they could survive on and feed their families with?”. She reproaches him as one who tried to change from wolf to lamb through philanthropic handouts and as a “creature who vandalized his world”. As the shade of Carnegie begins to dissolve, the dino implores: “Return to dust Andrew Carnegie!”.
Carnegie has returned to ashes, but the narrative remains the problem. As long as Carnegie is held up as a hero of development, and we believe in development by any means necessary, development as a means for a few to gather wealth while others are forced into poverty, we continue to take further steps toward destroying our planet. A narrative that places Carnegie and other Robber Barons in a more critical light in our history books is clearly needed. The concept of development has to be revisited, and a real understanding of sustainability must be embraced. If a by-product is produced and it can be seamlessly integrated within nature without adverse change, or it can be incorporated into a benevolent natural cycle, this is sustainability. If an industry just spews out 50% less of what it used to spew out, while increasing the number of places where the spewing occurs, and that waste remains as an adverse remnant and alters temperatures or cycles, that is not sustainability. We are working toward sustainability in the world, expecting businesses to develop and follow a new model – our narratives concerning this goal should be changing too and this is the purpose of Ruth Ewan’s Beast at Collective in Edinburgh (until September 18, 2022).