Welcome to EH Resources the home of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast.
Throughout history, humans have been affected by the natural environment, but they have also been agents of environmental change. Historians are now providing fascinating insights into the relations between humans and their environments in the past. This website explores the ways in which people have interacted with their environments in the past. Read more >>
The Puckapunyal military training grounds during the Second World War. Large swathes of the Puckapunyal site were left barren and denuded as the result of military exercises. Source: Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.
Military operations can have repercussions for environments and landscapes a long way from the battlefields. In the case of Australia most military action during the 20th century happened far from its shores, apart from the incidental bombing by the Japanese of Darwin and a few other northern coastal towns during World War II. It is therefore surprising that an Australian historian, Ben Wilkie, Honorary Research Fellow in Australian Studies at Deakin University, researches the environmental histories of military conflict. This edition of the podcast explores some of these histories of militarized landscapes in Australia, and the evolution of Australian Defence Force environmental policies in the twentieth century with Ben Wilkie.
The relief of Leiden, 1574. Note the large area inundated for military purposes between Rotterdam and Leiden. Source: Wikimedia Commons
For centuries, the Dutch have fought against their arch-enemy: water. But, during the Dutch War of Independence in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch found an ally in their arch enemy. Their struggle against Spain seemed almost hopeless because the rebels were facing the best trained, supplied and funded European army of that era. As the underdog, they turned to water and used it as a weapon against the Spanish by planning and carrying out a number military inundations, intentionally flooding enormous swaths of land to stop or even defeat the enemy.
However, it is possible that during the Dutch Wars of Independence the province of Holland could have been permanently flooded and lost to the North Sea. The Spanish, hurt by the military inundations, hatched a secret plan that aimed at defeating the Dutch by turning their watery ally against them. Luckily, this plan was never carried out. While Holland survived, the Dutch constructed a line of fortifications and waterworks to facilitate military inundations, which became known as the Dutch Water Line. This militarization of the Dutch landscape had profound long term political, social and environmental consequences for the province and the region.
Episode 77 of the Exploring Environmental History podcast explores these social, political and environmental issues with Robert Tiegs, Adjunct Professor at Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada.
Scholten’s potato starch factory at Foxhol around 1930. Note the large geometric fields and straight canals. (Image: Collection Veenkoloniaal Museum Veendam).
In the mid-19th century the first potato starch and strawboard factories were established in the Groningen Peat Colonies (Veenkoloniën) in the Northern Netherlands. The number of factories increased to more than thirty by 1900. These industries brought jobs but also water pollution and stench caused by the release of thousands of cubic metres of waste water into the canals. For most of the 20th century pollution was not an issue but the industry believed that large amounts of useful substances were “wasted” by dumping it with the waste water into water courses. Experiments were set up to extract minerals and other substances for the production of fodder or fertiliser. None of these efforts resulted in solving the water pollution problem of the Groningen Peat Colonies. The pollution persisted until the latter quarter of the 20th century.
Episode 76 of Exploring Environmental History investigates the origins and extent of the water pollution in Groningen and why it took more than a century before the problem was solved. It highlights why the early experiments failed and the consequences of this for water quality in the province of Groningen.
When European Settlers arrived in Western Australia they brought their own conceptions of water security and agriculture with them. Initially the land around what is now Perth was presented as a green and pleasant land. But the reality was very different.
The water supply of south Western Australia fluctuates throughout the year and as a result, ground water resources and their demand rise and fall in response to prevailing patterns of rainfall. The flow of rivers varies according to the amount of rain the Westerlies bring to the region, leading past engineers to classify the region around Perth as a ‘hydraulically difficult country’. This tough reality complicates agricultural production in the region and turns Perth’s suburban green spaces and gardens into a political hot potato. Add climate change into this already fraught mix, and it is expected that the current drying trend will contribute to further desiccate this already dry land. The title of a recent book about the water history of Western Australia, “Running out?”, seems to refer to this uncertain future.
However, “Running out?” authored by Historian Ruth Morgan of Monash University in Melbourne, is by no means a story of doom and gloom. It argues that Western Australians have a strong sense of their vulnerability to water scarcity and climate variability and this has long fueled environmental anxieties. To understand these real or perceived perceptions of water vulnerability, Morgan’s book places those anxieties in their ever changing historical contexts. This edition of the podcast explores the history of these water anxieties with Ruth Morgan and asks the question – what lessons can be learned from the water history of Western Australia.