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.
Thomas Fulljames’ watercolour of his plan for a Severn Barrage, ca. 1849. Source: Wikimedia Commons
In recent decades the interest in renewable energy from sources such as wind, solar and tidal power has steadily increased. However, this interest in harnessing “mother nature’s” energy is not new. Over the past 160 years the Severn estuary has been the focus of numerous proposals to provide a transport route over the estuary, improve navigation and to exploit its large tidal range to generate electricity. As a potential source of predictable, renewable and carbon-free power with the potential to supply up to 5 per cent of current UK electricity needs, such interest is understandable. Despite its potential, the latest proposals, like all its predecessors in the past century and a half, have failed to secure government and public support to build a barrage in the Severn estuary.
How is it that a barrage still has not gone beyond the drawing board? And why are companies, scientists and politicians still willing to invest time, effort and money in further proposals? Alexander Portch, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Bristol University, investigates these two questions. Although the past 150 years is the main focus, Alexander also investigates earlier efforts to harness tidal power of the Severn and how the activities of people whose lives were bound up with the estuary’s daily tides have shaped the estuary and lands bordering it. This episode of the podcast features an interview with Alexander Portch and his work on the history of the Severn Estuary.
Huis Den Berg in Dalfsen. Example of a country house in a park like settings. Source: Wikimedia Commons
When thinking of national parks most people think of famous examples like Yellow Stone and Yosemite in the United States or the Serengeti in Tanzania. These parks are large in scale with an emphasis on wild life conservation and the preservation of scenic landscapes. Human activity and presence are restricted and regulated and people are visitors.
In smaller and densely populated countries like Britain or the Netherlands, the creation of large national parks is complicated. In these countries landscapes are far from natural and humans are part of the fabric of the landscape. For this reason, it is difficult to restrict human access and activities to create national parks.
Map showing Nature Scenery Act estates, ca. 1950. Source: VU Geoplaza
In the Netherlands nature and human activity are almost inseparable because about half of the country is at or below sea level and is reclaimed or drained. Consequently, the landscape of the Netherlands is mostly the product of human intervention and can therefore be described as a cultural artefact. As a result, formal protection of landscapes and wildlife came late. One of the early attempts to create protected conservation areas came in 1928 with the Natuurschoonwet, freely translated as Nature Scenery Act. This Act was mostly about protecting country houses set in park like settings.
Wybren Verstegen, Senior Lecturer in economic, social and environmental history at the Free University Amsterdam has researched the Dutch Nature Scenery Act. On this episode of the podcast he discusses the Scenery Act and puts it in an international perspective. Wybren suggests that as an area of study, landed estates have been overlooked by environmental historians.
Within the general context of ideas about climate change and variability, the focus of the research described in the interview on episodes 71 and 72 of Exploring Environmental History, was confined to the contested debate about the climatic influence of forests during the period before the late 1950s (a preliminary assessment is shown in Legg 2014). That end date was chosen primarily because of the discontinuity thereafter in easily accessible digitised mass newspaper sources as a forum for public opinion. Nevertheless, some significant progress in scientific research on the climatic influence of forests has been made in recent years, and is worth noting here. These new scientific theories developed particularly from the late-2000s offer a greater sense of closure to the narrative – or perhaps more precisely, they mark the beginning of a new phase in the debate. A few comments are also offered below linking the study’s findings to the current issue of scientific consensus on the threat of the Enhanced Greenhouse Effect (‘Global Warming’) as well as a brief consideration of other public debates about perceived threats to climate in the period from the end of the Second World War. Continue reading
May 26, 2016 / K. Jan Oosthoek / Comments Off on Podcast 72: Contested climate: the debate on the climatic influence of forests – episode 2
Deforestation in the tropics by colonial powers as well as in settlement colonies such as Australia and New Zealand sparked fears of regional climate change. A debate that quickly spread around the globe and was publicly conducted in newspapers. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
How does one go about researching over a century of newspapers on the topic of the climatic influence of forests resulting in a few million hits? This was the daunting task facing Stephen Legg, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in History in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University. His research into the 19th century debate of climatic influence of forests in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States led him to trawl through tens of thousands of articles online collections such as Trove. This second of two podcast episodes with Stephen Legg, explores the practical and methodological issues surrounding the use of online collections of historical newspapers.
The second half of the podcast focuses on the relevance of the 19th and early 20th century debates on forestry and climate in the light of modern climate change. Can such parallels be drawn or does such “presentism” distort the history of what people thought at the time? These are not just important questions for historians of climate change but for environmental historical research in general.
May 18, 2016 / K. Jan Oosthoek / Comments Off on Podcast 71: Contested climate: the debate on the climatic influence of forests – episode 1
Example of a newspaper article on forests and climate: Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser, 23 January 1869, p. 4
Dating back to classical antiquity in the western world, the contested notion that climate was changing due principally to the human impact on forests was strongly revived in the mid-nineteenth century. Foresters and botanists, many of whom were employed as public servants, led the revival. They argued on the basis of the lessons of history and scientific evidence in an attempt to shape government policy on forest management. Much of the concern with the impact of forests on climate would have remained the almost exclusive domain of scientists, were it not for the role of journalists in popularising and politicising the idea. Throughout the latter half of the 19th and first quarter of the 20th centuries, newspaper coverage of the debate transformed a dusty scientific enquiry into a vibrant but increasingly polarised public debate. An increasingly widespread popular article of faith, the twin ideas of climate change and forest influence persisted until at least the 1920s buoyed by a sympathetic press and growing bands of conservationists. Ultimately, however, the ideas were debunked by climatologists and rejected by mainstream science.
Stephen Legg is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in History in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University. In this episode of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast Stephen discusses the development of the debate surrounding the influence of forests on climate, the role of the press in shaping and communicating scientific ideas and how it illuminates the broader role of science in society. He also compares the engagement of governments, science and the press internationally, and how this debate in turn related to ideas about conservation and climate change.
Further reading and resources
Stephen Legg, “Debating the Climatological Role of Forests in Australia, 1827 – 1949: A Survey of the Popular Press”, in: James Beattie, Emily O’Gorman, and Matthew Henry (eds.), Climate, Science, and Colonization: Histories from Australia and New Zealand (Palgrave, New York, 2014), pp. 119-136.
Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian shore: Nature and culture in Western thought from ancient times to the end of the eighteenth century (Oakland: University of California Press, 1973).
The decommissioned Hinkley Point A nuclear power station in its rural Somerset setting. Image: Adrian Flint
With its agro-pastoral landscape of hedgerows, fields, and rolling hills and levels, often-sleepy Somerset may be the very picture of rural England – the quintessential ‘green and pleasant land’. To reinforce this, the area gained a variety of landscape and environmental designations over the course of the twentieth century, including Exmoor National Park and the Quantock, Mendip and Blackdown Hills Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).
At the same time the Somerset region is a twenty-first-century hub of energy production that faces further intense energy development, both renewable and non-renewable. It is the site of the Hinkley Point nuclear power stations A and B, and, potentially C, as well as new supersized transmitter pylons. It is also increasingly – often controversially – dotted with wind- and solar-power projects.
To what extent are the two faces of Somerset in conflict with one another? After all, Somerset has a long, proud record of historical energy provision, if its coal mining and other industrial activities are taken into account. How is it that inconsistencies between public expectations of landscape beauty and energy security have developed?
As a historian of the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge, Jill Payne has worked on the historical dichotomy between energy provision and the aesthetics of landscape and environmental protection in South West England. In this episode of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast series, Jill explores what people have come to expect in terms of energy security and how this squares with the issues involved in the desire to protect and preserve landscape and environment in ‘green and pleasant’ England.
Quayside of the River Tyne with the Bridges connecting Newcastle and Gateshead. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Rivers are at the heart of defining the identity and lifestyle of many cities around the world, and that is nowhere stronger than in Newcastle on Tyne in the Northeast of England on the banks of the River Tyne. The people who live on the banks of the Tyne are fiercely proud of their river. Once the river was an industrial powerhouse of the British Empire, and by the 1880s the Port of Tyne exported the most coal in the world, and the river was amongst the world’s largest shipbuilding and ship-repairing centres.
There has been much consideration of how the River Tyne has shaped Tyneside and Tynesiders, but very little appreciation of the enormous extent to which people have shaped the river. To bear out this invisible history of the river, historian Leona Skelton, a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at the University of Bristol, has worked on a research project that challenges us to think from a river’s perspective and to include in our river histories the flow pathways which rivers ‘wanted’ to follow, regardless of the changes that humans have forged upon the river. On episode 69 of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast Leona challenges us to look at a river as an historical actor with its own agency.
Leona’s Research was part of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council funded environmental history initiative “The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures”, that focuses on environmental connectivities that have emerged in Britain since industrialisation.
Further reading and resources
Archer, D., Tyne and Tide: A Celebration of the River Tyne (Ovingham: Daryan Press, 2003)
Chaplin, M., Tyne View: A Walk around the Port of Tyne (2012).
Charlton, B., Upper North Tynedale: A Northumbrian Valley and its People (Northumbrian Water, 1987).
Cioc, Mark, and ebrary Academic Complete. The Rhine: An Eco-biography, 1815-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).
Levine, D., and Wrightson, K., The Making of an Industrial Society: Whickham, 1560-1765 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)
Mah, A., ‘Memory, Uncertainty and Industrial Ruination: Walker Riverside, Newcastle on Tyne’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 34, no. 2 (2010), pp. 398-413
Marshall, M., Tyne Waters: A river and its salmon (London: H F & G Witherby, 1992)
Rennison, R., Water to Tyneside: A History of the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company (Newcastle: Newcastle & Gateshead Water Company, 1979)
In 1928 the arboretum was established on land that was given by Peter Waite (1834-1922), pastoralist and benefactor, to the University of Adelaide. Over time the collection of the arboretum evolved into a valuable resource for teaching, research and a bank of genetic plant and tree material. The collection has been meticulously documented and in the 1980s the handwritten system cards were transferred into a computer database. Continue reading
Thomas Cole’sThe Oxbow (1836). The New England landscape that inspired Calvinist and Puritan ideals about landscape, a scientific world view and moral notions about use of the land. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Ever since Lynn White’s 1967 essay on “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”, it is common to read in many publications that Christianity is both too anthropocentric and not much concerned with the protection of nature and the environment. Subsequently the environmental movement has developed along very secular lines using science to underpin their arguments for the protection of nature and the environment. For religion there seems no place amongst modern environmentalists. But in in the late 19th century and early 20th century this was quite different and early American conservationists were often deeply religious but had no difficulties in combining this with new scientific ideas about nature. A recent book entitled Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism shows that religion provided early environmentalists both with deeply embedded moral and cultural ways of viewing the natural world which provided them with the direction, and tone for the environmental causes they advocated. It reveals how religious upbringing left its distinctive imprint on the life, work, and activism of a wide range of environmental figures such as George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, E. O. Wilson, and others.
This podcast episode explores the history of conservation and religion in America with Mark Stoll, Associate Professor of History at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Texas. He is the author of Inherit the Holy Mountain.
Mark Stoll, “Rachel Carson: The Presbyterian Genesis of a Nature Writer,” in: Nicolaas Rupke, ed., Eminent Lives in Twentieth-Century Science and Religion, 2nd rev. and much exp. ed. (New York: Peter Lang, 2009)
Mark Stoll, “Creating Ecology: Protestants and the Moral Community of Creation,” in: David M. Lodge and Christopher S. Hamlin, eds., Religion and the New Ecology: Environmental Responsibility in a World in Flux (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006)
When most people think of national parks they think of famous examples such as Yellow Stone and Yosemite in the United States or the Serengeti in Tanzania. These parks are large in scale with an emphasis on wild life conservation and the preservation of scenic landscapes.1 Human activity and presence is restricted and regulated and people are mainly visitors. This does not imply that the nature in these places has been untouched by humans. In Yosemite for example there was farming in the past and the management of he park is far from passive. The question is not wether untouched nature is good and anthropocentric influence on natural systems is less desirable.2 The question is wether we would like to protect nature for the sake of nature or for the benefit of ourselves and other species. It is a question of grades of human interference and impact not one of untouched nature.
In recent years discussions of how to protect nature has been intensified with the debate surrounding the rewilding of landscapes outside of these national parks and some have propose to give more space to nature and restrict human activity.3 A new take on this debate will come from famous biologist E.O. Wilson in a forthcoming book which proposes to set half of the land surface of the earth apart for wildlife. Unlike some others his take on rewilding is anthropocentric and he does not want exclude people from nature but regards them as an integral part of it.4 This sounds all quite novel but the reality is that in many countries nature conservation and human activity have never been separated like in Yosemite or the Serengeti. Continue reading
Sphere of satellites and space junk surrounding Earth. Image: NASA
Since the early days of the Space Age spent rocket stages, decommissioned satellites, and rubbish of all kinds have contaminated near-Earth space. At present more than 100 million pieces of human-made debris ranging in size from dead satellites to flecks of paint whiz around the Earth at incredibly fast speeds. This cloud of space junk poses a threat to our space infrastructure on which we now depend so much for navigation, communication, Earth surveillance, and scientific and industrial data collection, because even small fragments of a disintegrated spacecraft can seriously damage other satellites.
Does the creation of space debris mean that humanity has extended the “industrial sphere” into near-Earth space? Historian Lisa Ruth Rand, A PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses this question on episode 67 of Exploring Environmental History. She also examines why environmental historians should study the expansion of humanity beyond earth and other space environmental history related issues.
Further reading & resources
Lisa Ruth Rand, “Gravity, the Sequel: Why the Real Story Would Be on the Ground”, The Atlantic, 28 February 2014.
Lisa Ruth Rand, “How Apollo Astronauts Took Out the Trash. One small step for garbage. One giant leap for garbage-kind”, Popular Mechanics, 21 July 2015.