Research Portfolio | History

Could environmental advocates win more often?

The same arguments emerge in every modern dispute over development. One side says that natural resources must be tapped for the sake of industry, progress, and the general welfare. The other insists that landscape must be preserved intact.

From the Lake District to the Arctic 
This sounds like the current conflict over drilling for oil in the Arctic, but the same arguments were made in 1870s England, when the first modern environmental dispute erupted over the damming of Thirlmere, a picturesque lake in the region made famous by William Wordsworth and other Romantic poets.

"The Dawn of Green"
“The shape of environmental arguments has remained remarkably constant,” says History Professor Harriet Ritvo, who explores their emergence in a recent book, The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press. “The same positions are articulated again and again.”

Who are Landscape Stakeholders?
Before the Thirlmere controversy, local property owners might make a fuss about development, but the general public did not feel empowered to claim a stake in threatened landscapes, Ritvo says. The “industrialization” of the lake, which was dammed to supply water to the growing manufacturing city of Manchester, struck a nerve throughout the English-speaking world, prompting novel assertions of a spectatorial right to the land.

A grassroots organization sprang up to oppose the dam, and against all odds managed to delay it for a few years. But in the end, industry won and the dam was built. The lake, though changed in appearance, seems attractive today. So, what have we learned?

Change and Human Presence
“One specific lesson is that defenders of the environment tend to make claims that are emotionally compelling but logically indefensible,” Ritvo says. They tend to argue that certain landscapes are “pristine,” that the forest is “primeval.” But landscapes are constantly changing, and many considered “untouched” have been heavily shaped by human activity. Ritvo advocates for tolerance between groups with differing views, and for environmental activists to employ the power of pragmatism.

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About Harriet Ritvo, Arthur J. Conner Professor of History

Not Easy Being Green | MIT News

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