Pylons with smoke through haze

Witness Seminar: The Birth of the Modern Environmental Movement in Britain

A guest blog from Mitya Pearson (King’s College London):

In June King’s is hosting a Witness Seminar on the birth of the modern environmental movement in Britain. This group oral history event will bring together individuals who were involved in environmental campaigning in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s alongside academic and non-academic experts in the area and contemporary environmental activists. This session will feed directly into my PhD research which is focused on the early history of British Green Party. So far, this research has included fifty extended interviews with early party activists and around twenty-five supporting interviews with individuals involved in other environmental campaigning activity during the 1960s and 1970s.

But how new was the environmental politics of this period? There is an ever-present danger of pinpointing expressions of environmental concern at different points in history and falsely ascribing a novelty to them. William Cavert’s work has demonstrated that while many have suggested concern about smoke (what would now be termed air pollution) was a reaction to the industrial revolution, it was already present in Britain throughout the early modern period. Discussion of nature and humanity’s relationship to it has been a feature of Western political thought since Ancient times.

Scholars concerned with the history of ideas have highlighted the links between contemporary environmental politics and various earlier movements including the romantics, pastoralism, Malthusians and, even, the Nazis. When tracing the concrete developments in the history of the environmental movement in Britain it is generally to the nineteenth century that people have been drawn. This is when the first environmental groups were formed including some which are still very prominent such as the RSPB and the National Trust.

There are though reasons to see the 1960s and 1970s as representing something of a discontinuity from what came before and, in some ways at least, the birth of modern environmental politics. Among various other related developments, this period saw an unprecedent growth in the size and number of environmental campaign groups. It is also widely agreed that there was a shift in approach during this period, environmental campaigning moved beyond concern about landscape and conservation and engaged much more with the underlying social, economic and political reasons for environmental degradation.

The aim of this session is to hear from some of the individuals who were motivated to campaign for the environment during this time. This will comprise a variety of perspectives including those involved in local voluntary activity and those who helped to setup and run national groups. The panels will also include individuals from some of the groups which were formed in the 1960s and 1970s as well as representatives from more traditional organisations which had been around for decades by the 1960s.

The witnesses on the first panel will provide their early memories of their efforts in either joining or setting up environmental organisations. The second panel takes inspiration from Stephen Hussey and Paul Thompson’s approach to studying what they describe as ‘one of the most profound changes in human consciousness over the last fifty years’: the realisation that nature is not an inexhaustible resource which we can plunder indefinitely to satisfy our immediate needs. It will focus on the ‘life stories’ of the individuals, how and why they came to be motivated to campaign on the environment.

To register for the session or for more information about it follow this link.

Mitya Pearson is a PhD researcher at the Centre for British Politics and Government (Department of Political Economy), King’s College London.

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