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Exploring Environmental History is the podcast about human societies and the environment in the past. The periodic programmes feature interviews with people working in the field, reports on conferences and discussions about the use and methods of environmental history. You can listen to these audiocasts on your own computer simply using the on-page players. Podcast episodes of previous years can be found in the annual archives shown in the sidebar.

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Enjoy listening to the Exploring Environmental History Podcast!


Podcast 75: Water Resilience in Western Australia since European Colonisation

running out cover

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.

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Podcast 74: Environmental History of Tidal Power in the Severn Estuary

Severn Barrage, ca. 1849

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.

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Podcast 73: Cultured nature: The Nature Scenery Act of the Netherlands

Huis den Berg

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.

NSA estates map

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.

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Podcast 72: Contested climate: the debate on the climatic influence of forests – episode 2

Deforestation

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.

Read also Stephen Legg’s postscript blog post on climate and forests and modern climate change.

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Podcast 71: Contested climate: the debate on the climatic influence of forests – episode 1

Newspaper article climate forestry

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).

 

Music credits

Silica” by fluffy, available from ccMixter

C120-12string-guitar-arps” by Javolenus, available from ccMixter

Podcast 70: Somerset, a ‘green and pleasant’ energy landscape?

Hinkley nuclear power station

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.

Further reading and resources

Jill Paynes blog posts on the Power and the Water website.

Quantock Hills blog posts on the Histories of Environmental Change website.

Luckin, Bill, Questions of Power: Electricity and Environment in Inter-War Britain (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1990).

Nye, David E, American Technological Sublime (MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1994).

Williams-Ellis, Clough, England and the Octopus (Geoffrey Bles: London, 1928).

 

Music credits

Marcos Theme” by Loveshadow, available from ccMixter

Out in the rain” by offlinebouncer, available from ccMixter

 

The production of this podcast was supported by the Power and the Water project and the AHRC.
AHRC Power and the water