London Fog: The Biography. By Christine L. Corton. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2015. 391 pp. ISBN 978-0674088351. £22.95. The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain. By Glen O’Hara. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2017. Xiii+313 pp. ISBN 978-1137446398. £66.99. ‘Environmental history’ is the study of human societies’ interactions with nature throughout time and, in turn, the natural world’s effects upon humanity.1 Like most recent histories of science, technology, and medicine (STM), it takes seriously the role of non-human actors.2 Animals, climatic events, disease, and natural resources (like coal, wood, or uranium) are all centred as historical agents in their own right.3 Drawing on Fernand Braudel and the Annales School, environmental historians often frame their work within a longue durée, capturing centuries-long relationships between human societies and their natural surroundings.4 Environmental history first cohered as a field in the USA during the 1970s alongside other contemporary departures from traditional ways of narrating the past, including social history, women’s history, and LGBTQ history.5 Like those historiographic turns, environmental history responded to a larger politics: namely, the rise of ‘ecology’, debates over resource scarcity, and anxieties about pollution. Its earliest proponents—Richard White, William Cronon, Donald Worster, Alfred Crosby, Carolyn Merchant, and Joyce Chaplin—are all Americanists.6 Successive editions of US history textbooks demonstrate how these authors gradually changed synthetic accounts, underlining the field’s significance to the wider sphere of American history.7 Due in part to this mainstream acceptance, environmental history remains comparatively strongest in the US academy. Where does this leave scholarship on Britain? Sverker Sörlin and Paul Warde’s useful overview of environmental history a decade ago highlighted its limited institutional status in the UK.8 They also commented upon a lack of clarity among fellow historians regarding its meaning and purpose, and pointed to a disconnect from mainstream history. Timothy Cooper similarly claimed a year later that in comparison with the USA, ‘it is not really possible to speak of a “British environmental history”’.9 The environment is not absent from British history, Cooper argued, but rather most work is subsumed within other subfields.10 W. G. Hoskins, for example, exemplifies a longer tradition of British landscape history.11 Scholars researching environmental topics regularly find homes within economic history, particularly those interested in Britain’s industrialization.12 Historians such as Peter Thorsheim, alongside those working in urban planning and ecological studies, like Daniel Schneider, have also made transformative contributions to urban history.13 Despite this important work, disparities over the standing of environmental history still exist between the USA and the UK.14 While there is no simple explanation for the difference, the widespread closure of geography departments by American universities in the post-war period propelled many environmentally inclined scholars into history departments. British geography departments, in contrast, proved more resilient and continued to house those writing environmental histories.15 David Matless, author of the influential Landscape and Englishness (1998), provides a salient example in this regard.16 Another explanation for the field’s variance between these two national contexts may lie in the historical tendency of Britons (or more specifically, the English) to think of their country as an already-cultivated ‘garden’, compared to Americans who prioritized ‘taming’ nature in the pursuit of westward expansion.17 Because of these cultural and intellectual legacies, British environmental historians tended to look outwards first. Richard Grove’s pioneering Green Imperialism (1995), for example, spearheaded important research on environment and the British Empire, reorienting thought on its origins and lifespan.18 While more positive accounts of British environmental history highlight work within other sub-fields to paint a broadly optimistic picture of its significance, Sörlin and Warde’s point still holds for twentieth-century British history.19 The most prominent scholarship on the environment within British history as a whole comes from early modernists. William Cavert’s recent prize-winning The Smoke of London (2016) is a case in point.20 Victorianists are also comparably better served.21 With a handful of exceptions, prominent conferences in the field rarely include papers on environmental topics and twentieth-century Britain, underscoring the imbalance in periodization.22 Such unevenness poses a conceptual setback, as environmental history promises altogether different interpretations of the significance of Britain’s twentieth century. Environmental history’s prioritization of both physical and social factors is especially valuable at a moment when scholars are reconsidering materialism after the linguistic turn.23 Emphasizing assemblages of human and non-human actors, technologies, and social and economic structures when explaining change can bring new questions into focus.24 Environmental history provides scholars of twentieth-century Britain with the means to recast timelines that traditionally pivot on democratization, the two world wars, and the rise and fall of post-war political ‘consensus’. The origins and impacts of the proposed geological period of the ‘Anthropocene’, for instance, is becoming a rich and novel avenue of historical inquiry for reframing debates in the modern period.25 However, ongoing discussions among modern British historians over the need for a new ‘meta-narrative’ to unite seemingly fragmented strands of research clearly demonstrate the inability of environmental approaches to achieve a wider purchase and bring these attributes to bear.26 In this journal’s 2010 round-table on twentieth-century British history in North America, no participant commented on the promise of environmental history to the field’s development.27 Neither of the two ‘Working Papers’ from Modern British Studies (MBS) at Birmingham mention environmental history.28 Online searches for ‘environmental history’ within Twentieth Century British History, Contemporary British History, and the Journal of British Studies produce no results.29 This does not mean that topics on environmental themes have not appeared in these journals. The most cited article in Twentieth Century British History is Abigail Woods’s insightful work on rethinking agriculture.30 Rather, it suggests British historians’ reluctance to self-identify as ‘environmental historians’, or to brand their research as such. The lack of an organizing historiographical category to bring together, and thereby make more visible, work on environmental topics perhaps helps explain their omission from synthetic overviews. New textbooks on modern Britain, while interested in transformations in agriculture and energy use during nineteenth-century industrialization, claim that we are still waiting for more environmental histories to draw from when telling the story of the twentieth century.31 At present, research related to the environment seems to be making few inroads into historians’ wider attempts to rethink the nation and modern Britain’s place in the world. This possibly results from a continued suspicion in some quarters of materialism as reductionist, and an inability to build on the insights of cultural theory while attending to structures, be they natural or economic. But British environmental history’s fragmentation also plays a central role. Buried in sub-disciplines, it is hard to see the woods for the trees. I Christine Corton’s London Fog: The Biography (2015) and Glen O’Hara’s The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017) arrive at a timely moment, demonstrating the potential contribution of environmental history to larger discussions within modern British history.32 London Fog is a cultural and social history of the effects of British industrialization over a longue durée. Corton shows how the great ‘pea-soupers’ of the early nineteenth century, caused by a combination of increased household coal smoke, factory emissions, and London’s cloistered location in the Thames basin, were ‘born’ during the industrial revolution, ‘matured’ in the 1880s, and ‘died’ after the 1962 Clean Air Act. Throughout, she connects this ‘biography’ to changes in British society, primarily using literature (reflecting her background in literary studies), but also art, cartoons, television, and film. Corton devotes ample space to textual analysis of her sources, illuminating how their authors drew on fog as metaphor. Fog analogies changed in line with the character of pollution itself and shifts in wider society. To Charles Dickens, for instance, the fog of the mid-nineteenth century, hanging over the city for weeks at a time, represented the moral decay of Victorian Britain.33 By the Edwardian period, depictions of fog in novels like Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger (1911) reflected anxieties about the changing role of women and the apparent dangers of their venturing out alone.34 Fog lost such charged meaning in the late twentieth century. Disappearing from the capital’s skies, it now acted as a hollowed-out signifier for ‘Victorian London’, useful for creating atmosphere in every self-respecting Sherlock Holmes adaptation from the 1970s onwards. In addition to elucidating the significance of pollution to British cultural life, Corton also connects environmental history with social history. She vividly illustrates how London’s fog profoundly influenced day-to-day operations for many of the city’s residents, even towards the end of the period. The ‘Great Fog’ of December 1952 threw London into darkness at 2 p.m.35 Bus and tram services ended at 10 p.m., creating an eerily silent metropolis. People could not see more than a metre or so in front of them, and bathed as soon as they got home in an attempt to rid themselves of soot. Sporting events were postponed, including all football matches and horce races—staples of working-class life. Mortality rates also spiked, with the elderly and sick struggling to breathe contaminated air. This all lasted for 1 week—a usual state of affairs for those alive in the late nineteenth century, when ‘King Fog’ covered London 1 day out of 4.36 From leisure to policing to health, pollution shaped urban life and therefore deserves a place in its social histories. One of the most surprising things unearthed in London Fog is the affection many expressed for the ‘London particular’. Claude Monet, among other Impressionists, deliberately travelled to London to paint the colours and shades of light unique to the city’s polluted skies.37 Even those who endured fogs on a more regular basis could hold positive associations: ‘The “London Particular” is the true London Pride’, declared The Times in 1924.38 These attachments impeded chances of tackling pollution by groups like the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, Corton argues. Defenders of the domestic coal fire presented their campaigns as ‘an assault on the hearth, the true centre of the English home’.39 II As Corton’s comments on the struggles to control fog suggest, environmental history can also relate to the wider spheres of politics, civil society, and the development of the modern state. These topics have always figured centrally in modern British historiography, and continue to occupy leading roles in new and forthcoming meta-narratives.40 Glen O’Hara, whose previous work largely focuses on British politics, ably demonstrates this point in The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain.41 Examining the 1940s to the 1980s, O’Hara assesses how governments and an evolving state apparatus interacted with water’s physical form and behaviour in a wide range of areas. From the material sites of rivers, lakes, and oceans, to the phenomena of floods, pollution, and accidental drowning, the author argues that water represents ‘a critical site of contestation in late twentieth-century Britain, as well as a means by which we might better understand that society’.42 One of the book’s central themes is what O’Hara sees as the ‘fundamental weaknesses of the British state’—shown by its inability to gather statistical knowledge about water—to respond effectively to crises, or quickly reduce pollution.43 The government responded sluggishly to the disastrous 1953 floods, for instance, which claimed 307 lives and caused significant homelessness. Reluctant to undertake large-scale investment in repairs or future flood defences, the Treasury responded with ‘parsimony’.44 The state also seemed unable, or unwilling, to understand the gravity of public fears surrounding issues like pollution or demands for higher water safety standards. At the beginning of the post-war period, the government did not possess accurate information on the quantities of oil released in British oceans, or even know which public body held responsibility for a particular stretch of coastline in the event of an emergency. The ambivalence or incompetence of the modern state when dealing with environmental issues is a theme where Corton and O’Hara’s books converge. Corton tells a story of a state too often in the pocket of industrial interests to enforce restrictions on smoke chimneys, or more preoccupied with appearances than decisive efforts to control pollution.45 Harold Macmillan, as Minister for Housing in the early 1950s, complained about the volume of public questions he received about ‘smog’, pointing to National Health Service-issued pollution masks as proof of the government’s responsiveness.46 ‘There are some short-term things which we have done, and can do’, he confided to Cabinet colleagues, bluntly telling them that the Conservatives could ‘gain popularity by doing them well—the masks, the warning signals, etc’.47 O’Hara reveals how both Labour and Conservative governments in the post-war period perceived important summits such as the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment as moments where Britain could assume a position of global leadership in tackling pollution. The country’s eventual success with cleaning up its own rivers often formed the basis of such claims. Motivations for British involvement, therefore, came from self-interest and a wish to shore up their own position in world politics as much as a desire to safeguard the planet’s water supplies. Through this commentary, O’Hara’s book productively places the UK within a broader conversation about the effects of industrial capitalism on the environment—useful for those interested in the global dimensions of Britain’s post-war role. O’Hara and Corton’s positions on the frailties of the post-war state demonstrate how environmental approaches can offer fresh perspectives on debates usually dominated by political parties, economic policy, or welfare politics. Emphasizing a similar point in his conclusion, O’Hara writes that, ‘if we look away from the bricks-and-mortar results of party political competition’ we can see how ‘unclear, confused and extremely granular environmental debates…were more important than many of the more traditional and obvious political constellations of the mid-twentieth century’.48 There remains, however, a risk that such arguments will still not achieve the wider purchase they deserve. This results from both authors’ lack of an explicit linking of environmental history to the concerns over meta-narrative outlined above. Corton can perhaps be forgiven for this. Hers is a book for a popular audience, and she does not primarily work within the discipline of history. Readers may wish, though, that O’Hara fashioned a more overarching story to advance his claims that environmental approaches illuminate wider avenues of inquiry. Beyond showing how water constituted a ‘contested’ site for politics and social life, and for all its many merits, The Politics of Water does not offer a forceful argument about what this means for post-war Britain in general. III Part of the answer, then, is for monographs like these to more directly engage the issues that have long defined the modern British field. The books reviewed here relate to cultural history, everyday life, the state, and politics—all pertinent to the concerns of general historians. While it can sometimes prove difficult to break out of a sub-field and make inroads into the larger conversation, the intensity of the present debate over the condition of British history as a whole shows that opportunities to do so are clearly there.49 Hopefully then the twentieth century might see more work like Rebecca J. H. Woods’s recent The Herds Shot Round the World (2017), which applies an environmental perspective to provide a new understanding of domestic Britain’s links with the wider world.50 Of course, environmental historians should not have to shoulder the burden alone. Colleagues citing environmental histories and including an environmental perspective in teaching would help. Few syllabi on twentieth-century Britain currently include works from environmental history. Their addition would make students more aware of moments such as the 1967 Torrey Canyon disaster—the world’s largest oil spill at that point—and the importance of pivotal shifts in things like energy use and food consumption to Britain’s development. One final way that environmental approaches could gain broader traction in twentieth-century British history is if those who advanced them became more willing to adopt the label ‘environmental history’, rather than or in addition to alternative descriptors like ‘economic history’ or ‘urban history’.51 Pruning back sub-field distinctions might allow environmental history to grow into more than a sum of its parts, encouraging new directions in the stories we write about modern Britain. Footnotes 1 An early and influential statement comes from Donald Worster, who presents environmental historians as doing at least one of three things: studying ‘nature itself’ (both organic and inorganic aspects, including humanity as a species), analysing socio-economic interactions between humanity and nature (how tools and labour practices were arranged to produce goods from natural resources), or exploring how society has conceptualized ‘nature’ in the past. See Donald Worster, ‘Doing Environmental History’, in Donald Worster, ed., The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (Cambridge, 1988), 289–93. 2 Many studies reflect the insights of Bruno Latour’s ‘actor-network theory’, which insists upon the agency of non-humans in a network between the human, natural, and technological worlds. See Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford, 2005). 3 Joseph E. Taylor III, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle, 1999); John Robert McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (Cambridge, 2010); Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, MA, 2012). 4 Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (London, 1972). 5 T. C. Smout, ‘The Environmental Historiography of Britain’, in T. C. Smout, ed., Exploring Environmental History: Selected Essays (Edinburgh, 2005), 7–20; Andrew C. Isenberg, ‘Introduction’, in Andrew C. Isenberg, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History (Oxford, 2014), 4–5. 6 Richard White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle, 1980); William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York, 1983); Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York, 1985); Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge, 1986); Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill, 1989); Joyce E. Chaplin, ‘The Other Revolution’, Early American Studies, 13 (2015), 285–308. 7 Isenberg, ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History, 1–3. 8 Sverker Sörlin and Paul Warde, ‘The Problem of the Problem of Environmental History: A Re-Reading of the Field’, Environmental History, 12 (2007), 107–30. For similar conclusions, see also Smout, ‘The Environmental Historiography of Britain’, 15–19. 9 Timothy Cooper, ‘British Environmental History’, <http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/environmental_history.html> accessed 11 January 2018. 10 Synthetic accounts of Britain and its environment do exist, however: notably, B. W. Clapp, An Environmental History of Britain Since the Industrial Revolution (London, 1994); I. G. Simmons, An Environmental History of Great Britain: From 10,000 Years Ago to the Present (Edinburgh, 2001); John Sheail, An Environmental History of Twentieth-Century Britain (Basingstoke, 2002). 11 W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (London, 1955). 12 E. A. Wrigley, ‘The Supply of Raw Materials in the Industrial Revolution’, Economic History Review, 15 (1962), 1–16. For a reinterpretation of British industrialization on ecological lines, see Edmund Russell, Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth (Cambridge, 2011), 103–31. 13 Peter Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain Since 1800 (Athens, OH, 2006); Daniel Schneider, Hybrid Nature: Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem (Cambridge, MA, 2011). 14 It is also important to note the number of scholars working in North America on non-US environmental history. For Asia, see Brett Walker, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan (Seattle, 2010); David Biggs, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (Seattle, 2011). 15 I am grateful to Rhodri Hayward for this point. 16 David Matless, Landscape and Englishness (London, 1998). 17 See William Beinart and Peter Coates, Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the USA and South Africa (London, 1995). 18 Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860 (Cambridge, 1995); William Beinart and Lotte Hughes, Environment and Empire (Oxford, 2007). 19 Carry van Lieshout, ‘British Environmental History’, <revistas.um.es/areas/article/download/279131/204111> accessed 11 January 2018. To reiterate, it is not that this work does not exist. See Timothy Cooper's important research, including recent work with Anna Green: Timothy Cooper and Anna Green, ‘The Torrey Canyon Disaster, Everyday Life, and the “Greening” of Britain’, Environmental History, 22 (2017), 101–26. 20 William M. Cavert, The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City (Cambridge, 2016). See also Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (New Haven, 2013). 21 James Winter, Secure from Rash Assault: Sustaining the Victorian Environment (Berkeley, 1999); Harriet Ritvo, The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism (Chicago, 2009). 22 See the programmes over the past 10 years for the North Atlantic Conference on British Studies (NACBS), <http://www.nacbs.org/conference> accessed 11 January 2018, alongside ‘British Studies in a Broken World’ at the University of Birmingham on 5–7 July 2017, <https://mbsbham.wordpress.com/programme-british-studies-in-broken-world/> accessed 11 January 2018. 23 Kenneth Lipartito, ‘Reassembling the Economic: New Departures in Historical Materialism’, American Historical Review, 121 (2016), 101–39. 24 Timothy Mitchell’s work demonstrates an attention to constellations of material and social factors to reconsider historical change, such as the relationship between fossil fuels and democracy. See Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London, 2011). This approach has also contributed to the boom in the ‘New History of Capitalism’. For one of its leading proponents, see Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, 2014). 25 Paul Warde, ‘Social and Environmental History in the Anthropocene’, in John H. Arnold, Matthew Hilton, and Jan Rüger, eds, History After Hobsbawm: Writing the Past for the Twenty-First Century (Oxford, 2017), 184–99; Benjamin Kunkel, ‘The Capitalocene’, London Review of Books, 39 (2017), 22–8. 26 For recent depictions of modern British history as fragmented and without a central organizing principle, see James Vernon, Distant Strangers: How Britain Became Modern (Berkeley, 2014), 10–16; ‘Modern British Studies Working Paper No. 1’, February 2014, <https://mbsbham.wordpress.com/working-papers/working-paper-no-1/> accessed 11 January 2018. 27 ‘Roundtable: Twentieth-century British History in North America’, Twentieth Century British History, 21 (2010), 375–418. 28 ‘Modern British Studies Working Paper No. 1’; ‘Modern British Studies Working Paper No. 2’, January 2015, <https://mbsbham.wordpress.com/working-papers/working-paper-no-2/> accessed 11 January 2018. 29 Search completed on 11 January 2018. This excludes the few references in book reviews and when ‘environmental history’ features in the titles of books cited. 30 Abigail Woods, ‘Rethinking the History of Modern Agriculture: British Pig Production, c.1910-65’, Twentieth Century British History, 23 (2012), 165–91. 31 James Vernon, Modern Britain: 1750 to the Present (Cambridge, 2017), 109. 32 Christine L. Corton, London Fog: The Biography (Cambridge, MA, 2015); Glen O’Hara, The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (London, 2017). 33 Corton, London Fog, 74–6. 34 Corton, London Fog, 121–9. 35 Corton, London Fog, 279–85. 36 Corton, London Fog, 85. 37 Corton, London Fog, 182–5. 38 Quoted in Corton, London Fog, 244. 39 Corton, London Fog, 245. 40 Patrick Joyce, The State of Freedom: A Social History of the British State Since 1800 (Cambridge, 2013); Jim Tomlinson, ‘De-industrialization Not Decline: A New Meta-narrative for Post-war British History’, Twentieth Century British History, 27 (2016), 76–99; David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History (London, 2018). 41 Glen O’Hara, Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progress, 1951-1973 (Basingstoke, 2012). The author has written on environmental themes previously, however. See Glen O’Hara, Britain and the Sea: Since 1600 (Basingstoke, 2010). 42 O’Hara, Politics of Water in Post-War Britain, 2. 43 O’Hara, Politics of Water in Post-War Britain, 252. 44 O’Hara, Politics of Water in Post-War Britain, 61. 45 Corton, London Fog, 250–9. 46 Corton, London Fog, 298–301. 47 Quoted in Corton, London Fog, 300. 48 O’Hara, Politics of Water in Post-War Britain, 254. 49 The onset of ‘constructivism’ in the history of science, technology and medicine from the 1980s is an earlier example of anguish about whether a sub-field’s work was now too disconnected from general history: see Jan Golinski, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science (Cambridge, 1998), 186–206. 50 Rebecca J. H. Woods, The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800-1900 (Chapel Hill, 2017). 51 Sörlin and Warde reference an environmental history conference in Cambridge with contributors ‘beginning their presentations by stating that they were not environmental historians, before delivering magisterial papers on environmental history!’, Sörlin and Warde, ‘The Problem of the Problem of Environmental History’, 126. © The Author(s) . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 20, 2018
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