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About this book

Environmental history - the history of the relationship between people and the natural world - is a dynamic and increasingly important field. In An Environmental History of Twentieth-Century Britain, John Sheail breaks new ground in illustrating how some of the most pressing concerns came to be recognised, and a response made. Much use is made of archival sources in tracing a number of key issues, including:
* management of change by central and local government
* the manner in which natural processes were incorporated in projects to protect personal and public health, and ultimately environmental health
* new beginnings in forestry
* the emergence of a third force alongside farming and forestry in the countryside
* management of a transport revolution, and mitigation of environmental hazards

Such instances of policy-making are reviewed within the wider context of a growing awareness, both on the part of government and business, of the role of environmental issues in the creation of wealth and social well-being for us all. An Environmental History of Twentieth-Century Britain is essential reading for all those concerned with these issues.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Histories of Their Time

Abstract
Some of the most exciting research occurs where academic disciplines meet. Such meeting-points may be planned but more often than not they just evolve around a common interest — in this case what has come to be called the ‘environment’. If ‘environmental history’ is quite literally ‘a history of the environment’, no wonder it has become a somewhat crowded meeting-point. There is a twofold interest. One is the intrinsic fascination of recreating the past — in answering the question, What was the Victorian, or the early-twentieth-century, environment really like? The other motive is to help explain how today’s environment has come about. As Ian Simmons wrote, in his introductory text, Environmental History, there is no breaking point — a time when the past can be forgotten (Simmons 1993).
John Sheail

Chapter 2. The Management of Change

Abstract
Even if nothing else had happened, the changes in the number and distribution of people would have made the late nineteenth century different from what had gone before. The population doubled. Where every second English person was an urban dweller in 1851, four out of five persons lived in towns and cities in 1911. Through advances in science and technology, town and country were reshaped in both their physical appearance and social structure (Newsome 1997). Most growth occurred within and around existing industrial centres on, or near, the Pennine flanks, in the North-East of England, the West Midlands, and around the coasts of the British Isles. London was by far the largest centre, attaining a growth rate of 170 per cent in the 60-year period, 1851–1911. London was both a ‘world city’ in the sense of being so large (Briggs 1968), and ‘an imperial city’ — the capital of a formally constituted and governed empire that extended to every continent and ocean, except Antarctica. The imperial metropolis was at the heart of the largest empire the planet had ever known (Schneer 1999).
John Sheail

Chapter 3. Nature Incorporated

Abstract
In a study of nineteenth-century industrialisation in New England, Theodore Steinberg wrote that, whilst Nature had been there all along, historians have largely neglected its role. He accordingly adopted the title Nature Incorporated to emphasise how New England’s productive output had expanded as new technologies were manipulated and applied to the region’s available natural resources. The ‘commodification’ of the water bodies had called for particular management skills. Where land might be fenced off ‘into discrete bundles of commodities’, there was almost invariably complaint from other user-interests of the water being depleted or fouled. Close study and prescription were called for, if such water bodies were to be sustained and the maximum productive value therefore realised (Steinberg 1991).
John Sheail

Chapter 4. New Beginnings in Forestry

Abstract
A doubling of the woodland area of the UK within a century might seem like planning history writ large. The campaign was centrally directed, closely focused, and sustained. It was driven at least initially by a conscious desire to learn from the lessons of history, namely that the nation must never again run short of timber during a military crisis. Of the European nations, only Portugal had proportionately less woodland cover at the turn of the century. High-quality timber could be imported so easily from Scandinavia, Russia and North America that even where woodlands existed they tended to be managed for game and amenity, rather than for timber. Reflecting the generally low standards of husbandry, home-grown timber acquired a poor reputation for its quality (Scottish Record Office (SRO), AF 79, 1). Some 95 per cent of the woodlands were privately owned — the principal exception being the Crown Estate.
John Sheail

Chapter 5. A Third Force

Abstract
Gilbert White had been dead for a hundred years. The editor of a further edition of his late-eighteenth-century journals, the Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, found it hard to explain its continued popularity. Gilbert White’s village of Selborne in Hampshire seemed so remote from the ‘stern reality’ of the 1890s. And yet, in another sense, the spread of the factory system, and consequent growth of huge towns, had strengthened, rather than weakened, the love of things rural. Where once the country had been simply ‘home’, Warde Fowler (1893) wrote of how ‘we pine for the pure air, for the sight of growing grass, for the footpath across the meadow’, without first having to pass through ‘grimy suburbs’. There was now ‘a touch of self-consciousness in our passion for it, which finds expression in a multitude of books’.
John Sheail

Chapter 6. Environmental Conservation

Abstract
The Council of Europe formally announced in 1966 that the year 1970 would be European Conservation Year (ECY). It began with a European Conservation Conference at Strasbourg in February, with representatives from more than twenty countries. As well as five princes and ministers, there were 350 officials, business leaders and representatives of professional voluntary bodies present. The overriding purpose was to raise environmental awareness and thereby ‘to encourage all Europeans to care for, work for, and enjoy a high quality environment’. It was one of the most successful ‘Years’ of its kind (Sheail 1998, pp. 152–5).
John Sheail

Chapter 7. Transport and the Environment

Abstract
In its report, Transport and the Environment, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution further highlighted the deep and widespread concern as to the continued increase in traffic. Road construction and the pollution caused by vehicles had become highly controversial issues (PP 1993–4). Some hundred years earlier, a balance had also been sought in the developing technologies and institutional arrangements required for capitalising on the undoubted benefits of modern communications, whilst minimising the unintended consequences for both the individual and society at large (Bagwell 1988).
John Sheail

Chapter 8. Environmental Hazards

Abstract
If there is anywhere on earth where a community might feel ‘safe’ from natural hazards, it must be the British Isles, where the elements (on land at least) are relatively benign. More often than not, an environmental hazard has arisen only through some human activity. A devastating example was the Aberfan coal-tip disaster of October 1966. Whilst the processes that caused the down-slope movement of the coal wastes onto the Welsh valley village were natural, the loss of the 144 lives stemmed from the creation of the tip in the first place and the inadequate management of its drainage. Such a combination of natural and human forces, and their impacts, have provided writers with plenty of scope for mounting a ‘vigorous indictment of ruthless, profit-seeking industry’, the indifference of central and local government, and of public apathy (Barr 1969).
John Sheail

Chapter 9. The Century of the Environment

Abstract
Much of this book has been concerned with thought, communication and action as they affected human relationships with the environment over a wide range of temporal and geographical scales. Scientific discovery and technological development promised to free humanity from much of the disease, hunger and poverty that had previously made human life so miserable. But such advances were not cost-free. That rapid change of fortune for an increasing proportion of the human population pressed against ‘the finite resources’ of the natural environment. It seemed to threaten social structures and time-honoured values (Howard and Louis 1998).
John Sheail
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