The Invention of Air – Nostalgia for the Enlightenment

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air is a short, entertaining intellectual history of Priestley, an enlightenment polymath and radical who left his mark in science, religion, and politics. Johnson’s book is part of a genre, from Neal Stephenson to a spate Franklin biographies expressing nostalgia for good old fashioned enlightenment values in the age of the Bush adminisration’s anti-scientific, paleo-religious, wannabe tyranny.
Interesting the connections that Johnson draws and implies. Johnson hails Priestly as the forebear of ecoscience, since he was the first to identify plants creating the essential substance for animals to live. Johnson also notes that Preistley was the financial ward of England’s early industrialists who build the industrial age on the energy of burning fossil fuel and the labor of workers in the mines and factories. The seeds of the sustainability critique were planted at the same time industrial pollution began.
The book sympathizes with Priestley’s enlightenment critique of religious orthodoxy & political tyranny and pursuit of science, and the way his rationalist enthusiasm connected them all. Rather than connecting with the left’s critique of industrial waste, pollution, and oppression, Johnson emphasizes Priestley’s irrepressable optimism. Even as a scapegoat in his country and a political exile, Priestley kept up his experiments, preaching and polemic.
Perhaps the lesson for us is that we can learn from enlightenment optimism, too. What’s the right balance between skepticism toward an ideology of progress which blinds us to booms and hidden costs, and optimism that lets us create new solutions?

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