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BACKGROUND

Fantasy setting, highly rural/pastoral. Social landscape is significantly more egalitarian (but far from idyllic) with no serfdom tying a peasant class to the land. Magic exists, but wizards, as a social class, are estranged from others and have little interest or incentive to meddle in the affairs of mortals. Technological level is intended to be roughly analogous to the first industrial revolution, and the setting is experiencing increased urbanisation and the rise of cities, but…

QUESTION

I’m in the early stages of working on a setting for a tabletop campaign, and I’ve hit a bit of a snag. As mentioned above, I’d intended for the technology level to be that of the first industrial revolution, but I’m having some difficulty envisaging how such a thing would succeed in this setting. There’s a number of political forces arrayed against them, but I think the tipping point would be the popular outcry against the smog and smoke generated by factories powered by coal. A second, perhaps even more important concern, is that on a meta level I feel having the city inundated with the kinds of pollution London saw would undermine the aesthetic I’m going for. Dark smokestacks belching out ominous black smoke should be reserved for evil wizards making their own little Isengard.

So, I’m at a bit of a loss. I’ve considered moving the technology forward a bit to allow for electrical generators and grids, which would get rid of the the visible pollution (for the most part, pushing the power plant away from population centers) and handwaving away the in between steps, but I’d feel I’d be stretching credulity if I also wanted to keep the vibe of (mega)cities being a “new thing”. Also, on a very petty note, I’d be losing steam trains, and I do enjoy them. Am I overthinking this or is there an obvious solution I’m missing? Is there a way to maintain a bright, clean aesthetic without handwaving things and hoping nobody looks too closely?

Edit 1: A couple of clarifications re: social landscape and scale of city

Edit 2: Available feedback has helped me greatly narrow down my concerns and has been very helpful, thank you all. So, if no pollution is a non-starter, is there an alternate power source that would provide a cleaner aesthetic but fulfill the role of coal in powering engines?

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    $\begingroup$ If you take a bright approach in your world and avoid putting the words "pollution" and "ecology", it might be just enough ^^. In other words, don't talk about what you don't want to talk, talk about the themes you wish to explore :). $\endgroup$ Aug 30, 2023 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ how much do you need to solve it, an alternative power source is possible but a lot of coal burning was for actual heat for smelting, kilning, or glass making $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 30, 2023 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ @John It's seeming very unlikely I'll be able to avoid widespread pollution (which fair enough, it's a hard ask and one that predates coal). Considering the feedback I should refine the question on how I can avoid overt, visible pollution? Akin to how natural gas is colourless and odourless but still very much a pollutant. Is there another power source that could fill the role of coal without being as visibly polluting? I'll give the question another once over. $\endgroup$
    – user105657
    Aug 30, 2023 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ Power can be generated from water, wind, geothermal, and solar thermal. the question is what you burn to smelt metal, make glass , cement, fertilizer and other chemicals. also of course to cook food $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 2, 2023 at 17:49

8 Answers 8

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Industry is not the issue

The first factories were powered by water wheels, not coal; so, you can make your cities a bit cleaner by sticking with this. Ancient Rome for example ground enough grain for over 1 million people using just 12 water mills powered by the water brough in by thier aqueducts. They also had water powered saw mills that they used for mass producing plywood, and there is no telling how many other things they powered with the water they brought into thier city.

That said cities were already nasty, polluted, smoky places LONG before the industrial revolution. The biggest problem is not the coal factories invented a few hundred years ago, it's all the wood burning stoves and fire places that have been around for millennia. If your industrial era city is not a smoky, nasty place, then it's not historically accurate... unless your city has a methane pipe system.

Unlike wood or other fossil fuels, methane burns cleanly into just CO2 and Water with no ashes, tars, or other waste products so there is no visible or smellable smoke. It is also colorless and odorless (without modern additives to give it a smell); so, even if you have some leaking here and there, the pollution will not be apparent either. By 1816, Baltimore installed the first piped methane powered street lamp system and by the 1830s you start to see the first gas stoves being produced; so, this places piped natural gas replacing wood and coal burning well within the bounds of a late industrial era society. The downside of methane is that until very recently, it was only available as a byproduct of the coal industry meaning that many cities that burned methane in homes also burned coal in thier factories. To remedy this, it means you need to place your coal powered factories and such outside of town limits (or sell the coal to those evil polluted cities), and then pipe in the methane byproducts of your coal mining as a fuel for use inside of the city for cooking, heating, and light which will give you relatively clean air in the city itself.

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    $\begingroup$ These are all very valid points and thank you for bringing them up. I had such a myopic focus on coal and smokestacks I completely forgot about the awful state of cities before coal ever took center stage! I fear you are quite right in your assessment but I'll leave the question open for a couple more hours to see if anyone wants to take a crack at an alternative power source before I mark this as answered. Once again, thank you for your input! $\endgroup$
    – user105657
    Aug 30, 2023 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Grimm edited my answer after you accepted it. Turns out, commercial scale methane production has been around for even longer than I realized making it not anachronistic for an industrial era society... just not necessarily the norm. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 30, 2023 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, one of the things that powered the industrial revolution were the laboratories that depended on a good supply of quality raw ingredients - coal, coal gas, oil, methane. Many big cities quickly switched to coal gas (or methane) when it became available, and while the coal gas plants themselves weren't exactly clean (there's a lot of stuff in coal), they got better over time. And it was still cleaner than most existing alternatives, it's just that the pollution was more concentrated (city -> cleaner, plant -> dirtier). Of course, the supply increased demand... Dyes exploded with coal $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Aug 31, 2023 at 6:19
  • $\begingroup$ Do methane pipes reduce the amount of smoke and smog? I searched it up but I only saw stuff about leak detection and the removal of landfill gas. $\endgroup$
    – Martamo
    Sep 1, 2023 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Martamo Yes. Burning methane produces no visible or smellable smoke. My own home has a methane stove and water heater and you can not see or smell anything coming off of them unless there is a leak in which case you can only smell the additive they put in it to let people know there is a leak. Coal Methane still contributes to global warming because the CO2 it releases is not part of the planet's natural carbon cycle; so, I'm not saying it is a truly environmentally friendly fuel... but it is leaps and bounds above coal or oil. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Sep 1, 2023 at 15:04
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There may be a bit of misinformation here.

  1. Those "dark satanic mills" arose almost two centuries after the start of the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization began with waterwheels, and hydropower was the power source which drove the rise of factories for a very long time.

  2. London was not typical, like, at all. The smog of London was mostly due to local climatic conditions and the universal use of bad coal for domestic purposes; factories did play some part, but they were not the dominant factor. For example, Paris, with different geographical conditions, never came close to London with respect to smog and bad air.

  3. Feudalism is by far the most decentralized political system in human history. I am at a loss to imagine anything more decentralized than the High Middle Ages.

  4. Electricity could have been discovered and used at any point in history at least from the classical age onwards. It is a bit of a historical mystery how come we had to wait for the 18th century. They had copper, they had zinc, they had iron, they had acids, they had wire: there was no material element missing.

  5. But what I really don't get is the part about cities being a new thing. Cities are a really really old thing. Cities came five thousand years before the Industrial Revolution. Basically, cities exist to support trade; that's what they are for. Without cities, you cannot have the economic base where an Industrial Revolution can arise.

And about the pollution, you may be overthinking it. You just cannot avoid pollution in the city, not with a pre-21st century technological base; but you do not have to dwell on it.

To give a practical example, one of the most pressing pollution problems which faced 19th century cities was horse manure. London alone had about 150,000 horses towards the end of the 19th century, and each horse produced about 10 kg of manure per day, to say nothing about the smelly liquid waste and the swarms of flies. That's 1,500 tons of manure per day which had to be collected and carted out of the city. On the other hand, have you ever read a historical or fantasy story, or seen a film, where the horse waste problem was shown in its gross magnitude? No. It was carefully placed aside. Nobody wants to read a story or see a film about the problem of collecting and carting a thousand tons of manure per day.

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    $\begingroup$ @JaniMiettinen: You are thinking about the absolute monarchies of the Early Modern period. Louis "The State Is Me" XIV of France, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick the Gross of Prussia, Maria Theresia of Austria and so on. Feudalism has died some hundreds of years before their time. Decentralized does not mean egalitarian. Yes, most people did not have a voice in the operation of their political structure. The king did have a voice, but it was a very small voice. A typical feudal kingdom consisted of many almost fully autonomous domains, with minimal interactions. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 30, 2023 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ @JaniMiettinen: For example, how important was the king in a feudal kingdom was explained hands-on to King John "Lackland" of England at Runnymede in 1215... For a visual example, look at a map of the Holy Roman Empire in the 13th century: each of those countless colored patches is a state, notionally subordinated to the Emperor but in practice much more independent than a modern member-state of the European Union. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 30, 2023 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @JaniMiettinen: Yes, OK, but those legislative and executive powers belonged to the local baron, not to the state. Medieval states did not have any kind of central government in the modern understanding. Each and every feudal lord was chief justice and chief executive in his or hers lands. Quiz: when did France acquire a uniform legal system? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 30, 2023 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki: In what way? Athens had a few hundred thousand inhabitants, all obeying the same laws, all subject to the same set of magistrates, etc. Moreover, Athens was the central ruling power over a sizeable empire. Decentralized simply means without a strong center, it does not mean democratic or anarchic. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 30, 2023 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ With regards to electricity, until the industrial era, they didn't have wire, at least not in the quantities and lengths needed to make an electric motor. Drawing wire by hand is a slow, labor-intensive process, and most ancient wire was used for jewelry, not tools. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Aug 31, 2023 at 2:03
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You can't avoid pollution: just consider that algae and photosynthetic organisms polluted Earth so much with their waste gas to seclude anaerobic organisms into remote parts of the planet where oxygen can't easily reach.

And algae are far away from anything resembling an industrial revolution.

Getting to something closer to our context, early bronze age people heavily polluted their environment with the wastes of copper mining, increasing the local concentrations of arsenic thanks to the wastes of smelting. And, again, they were far from being an industrial revolution.

You simply can't produce a lot of something without having also a lot of something else in the form of wastes and polluting agents. It's the amount in itself that turns the waste into pollution.

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  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, the industrial age became rather unprecedented in how much of the waste was further processed into something useful. That might sound weird thinking about modern "waste on purpose" like plastic packaging, fast fashion, stupid cars and disposable everything, but a lot of the industrial revolution was built on extracting every possible thing out of the resources you had. Coal was no longer just burned - it was separated into coke (metallurgy) and coal gas (lighting, heating), used to produce dyes and fertilizers, sulphuric acid... Things got progressively cleaner. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Aug 31, 2023 at 6:12
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    $\begingroup$ Sure, horses could be considered "more natural", but tractors were cleaner (though they brought pollution of a different kind)... and only got cleaner as time went on. Cars were seen as a wonderful thing that finally eliminates the dirty horses out of big cities and bring much cleaner environment... which was true, up until the point where the scale exploded beyond anything horses could ever provide. And scale is the main thing that ultimately made the industrial revolution "dirty" - a huge increase in population (and density), in stuff produced, and unprecedented scale of warfare. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Aug 31, 2023 at 6:15
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If you want a different outcome, you need different motivations

If you assume a capitalism first approach, you should expect similar outcomes to our history. You don't have to assume that capitalists are evil, it's just that they will be more focused on profits and the downsides of pollution will not be changes behavior until it becomes obvious that the downsides are significant, widespread and detrimental.

If on the other hand, the people have widespread honest respect for the environment, and this is truly considered as a first principle, then even those few that don't respect the environment will still take into account environmental impact because the consequences of becoming known as a polluter will be too harsh to ignore.

Even then, if some people think they can get away with it, they will pollute as a shortcut cheap solution to waste disposal. However, the widespread pollution of London or rivers that catch fire should be rare due to a few bad actors.

The short-term economic benefits of simple dumping waste to land, water, or air must be over-powered by the bad karma of doing so. Thus, the compulsion to be clean must be strong.

Many people believe that the culture of the native Americans was such that they were in balance with nature. Though certainly not true in a universal sense, such a culture would be a plausible basis for such an outcome.

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    $\begingroup$ The widespread pollution of London had little to do with industry in the first place, though. Which was why people didn't see the factories as such a big deal at first - when people burn coal (and unrefined coal at that) in their fireplaces, and with the massive amounts of horses everywhere, factories that bring jobs and prosperity aren't such a big deal. The pollution from coal-powered factories started being significant as London switched over to coal gas for lighting and heat, which were much cleaner. Other cities tended to avoid coal, but wood burning is still pretty awful. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Aug 31, 2023 at 6:01
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    $\begingroup$ Incidentally, "rivers that catch fire" were caused by those coal-gas plants, which provided the much cleaner environment... they just had a "few" snags along the way. Heck, one of the things that eliminated huge amounts of waste, as weird as it may sound today, was the spread of internal combustion engines - finally, instead of dumping all the waste oil products (oil was used exclusively for the production of kerosene for lighting - a rather small fraction of the raw material), they could be used productively at least. And fewer horses. If people cared about the waste, they wouldn't get there. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Aug 31, 2023 at 6:04
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    $\begingroup$ And as for the popular myths about Native Americans, it would be better if they had any basis in truth at all :D It's even thought that the massive die-off of the native population (in Europe too, of course) was one of the causes of the Little Ice Age, as people stopped burning so much wood and much land returned to wilderness, sequestering humongous amounts of carbon dioxide. There's no evidence pointing to Native Americans being any different from Europeans in that regard; most of the popular culture is either long past European colonization or outright invented out of thin air. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Aug 31, 2023 at 6:08
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I suggest that you postulate different sources of fuel.

For example, if there was a unique species of ballon tree that grows over coal deposits or swamps and extracts methane chemically from the coal or decay via the root system. This would form havestable sources of methane for your world.

As another example, your world could be rich in magnetite for some reason, and the prevalence of magnetic sources led to the discovery of electricity as a power source before coal. Turbines could be water, wind, or animal driven.

If there was some cautionary tale in the recent history of your world which led to a civilization-wide adoption of environmental responsibility "lest that tragedy repeat" could also help reduce the impact of industrialization.

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TL;DR: Venice + Iceland for the win!

Other answers have mentioned the two main sources of pollution in a London-like city at the start of the Industrial Revolution: coal/wood burnt to in houses, and horse manure.

Iceland: cleaner energy source

Burning coal or wood happens for two reasons: heating and cooking.

You can mostly eliminate heating needs by relocating to a hotter area year long, and the little coal or wood used for cooking should not be much of an issue provided there's enough wind to disperse it.

If you do not wish to go for a more "tropical" climate, however, another solution is a land with plenty of hot water underground that you can tap into. By redirected this hot water into houses, you solve the heating issue. There are villages, in France, where houses have used floor heating for a very long time, by piping naturally hot water into the floors; it really cuts on the heating bill.

If the water is hot enough -- as in, scalding hot, or above 70C -- it will be free of any bacteria, and may thus be used as is for cooking.

Given that Romans were building aqueducts and sewers in the Antiquity, an early Industrial Revolution society clear has all the technical know-how to pipe hot water from the ground. And should hot water NOT be universally available, it would explain why the city sprang up here, and not anywhere else: it's a prime spot to survive cold, harsh winters.

Venice: cleaner transportation

You can eliminate a lot of horse manure issues by switching from land-based to canal-based transportation. A horse (or other) is nigh required to pull a cart because the cart is so heavy, however the same load can be transported by boat fairly easily -- especially in the absence of current.

A city ala Venice (or Amsterdam, or Copenhagen) with an array of canals criss-crossing it would be more likely to rely on boat transportation than horse-drawn transportation, at least within city limits.

Combination

Combining the two will require a specific geographic location.

Thermal "hot spots" are most likely found in mountainous areas, so the city would likely be in the mountains -- though it may be close to the bottom on the nearby plain.

Canals require a plain, and likely a slightly "spongy" one (marshlands), close to a source of water -- be it river or sea.

A city combining thermal "hot spots" and canals would thus likely be located close to either river or sea, in a flat "marshland" area, with hot water being piped from nearby mountains.

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Several other answers have briefly mentioned methane. Perhaps your world's industrial revolution is centered around farming and breeding microorganisms that turn farm waste or other organic materials into methane fuel; this would also clean up the natural smoke and dirt of a city that burns wood or charcoal for its fuel. (Smoke from indoor fires is a significant cause of health issues in pre-industrial or partly industrialized urbanized societies, even if the fuel is wood or dung.)

This science article for kids has a good overview of biological (anaerobic decay microorganisms, cattle farts, ) and non-biological (mostly volcanoes) sources of the methane in our environment, though you could make your planet be a bit different: https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2019.00133

This rather technical article discusses some of the ways that methanogenic archaea can be, and are being, used to generate methane which is burned for electricity and or purified and compressed into transportation fuel: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7289024/

The biggest issue here is how to trigger initial uptake of these technologies. We learned to burn coal to smelt iron because there were places in the world where small coal and iron deposits were close to or at the surface, and easy to access; only once the technology was proven at that level did we start mining more inaccessible deposits at the scale needed to drive a full scale technological society. One possible scenario would be clay deposits in bogs, where people learned to use the methane from the peat bogs to fire clay objects on the spot.

This article talks about how some bogs have a clay layer underneath them and others do not, though it is mostly focused on using bogs to grow cranberries: https://www.cranberries.org/exploringcranberries/into/beneath_back.html

Hopefully this gives you some ideas to start from.

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A bit more fantastical - what if uranium was exceedingly common in your world?

Wood stoves are replaced with tiny RTGs, and there are myths or experiments with larger ones with occasionally terrible consequences.

Of course, people have developed some resistance to radiation, but not full resistance. The evil wizards know this, moved to coal, and is in-part why they have “supernaturally” long lives compared to commoners. That lifespan difference can even serve as an added friction between the two groups.

From the outside, the nuclear people would have almost no pollution. Just some magic stoves and increased illness rates in a time when illness is already rampant and poorly understood.

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