From William Wordsworth to Extinction Rebellion: a history of Britain’s green activists

As Extinction Rebellion throws the spotlight on the threat of climate change, Karen R Jones chronicles the history of environmental campaigning in the UK – from William Wordsworth's vivid descriptions of the Lake District to the dystopia of Doomwatch

Extinction Rebellion take over Trafalgar Square, London, in protest on 16 October 2019. (Photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Climate change, plastic waste and industrial pollution have rocketed up the news agenda in recent months. From David Attenborough addressing crowds at this year’s Glastonbury festival to the Extinction Rebellion protests taking place across British towns and cities, ideas of environmental responsibility are prominent in today’s public discourse. In fact, concepts of environmental responsibility, appreciation and activism have a long and vibrant history. It’s a history that takes in a diverse array of historical actors, among them Romantic poets, Victorian campaigners for factory reform, advocates for the countryside and anti-nuclear protesters, and adds a valuable (and often understudied) dimension to the understanding of modern Britain.

Advertisement

Thinking about the beginnings of any ‘ism’ is a complicated endeavour, but many would point to the 18th-century Romantic movement as an important example of Nature (with a capital N) being invested with uplifting and aesthetic qualities beyond the demands of basic utility. Writing in A Guide Through the District of the Lakes (1810), William Wordsworth famously described the Lake District as a “sort of national property” that he felt everyone “with an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy” should have a right to: an early example of an appreciation for beautiful landscapes translating into a call for their protection. Two decades earlier, the naturalist Gilbert White, who is popularly credited as Britain’s first ecologist, wrote his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789) out of an abiding connection to the landscape, gained through close observation of local fauna and flora.

Looming large in an environmental and environmentalist history of Britain is the industrial revolution. While many celebrated this new manufacturing age, with its capital gains, factories and technological wizardry – postcards of sulphurous clouds and belching smokestacks lionised the productive spirit of ‘Beautiful Manchester’ – others were less sanguine. The modern city brought optimism and progress, but also environmental problems: cholera and various communicable diseases, chemical contamination and atmospheric pollution, to name but a few.

Victorian environmental concerns came in many guises, from fretting over the endemic smoky haze that covered the northern manufacturing centres of Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield to fears sparked by the ‘Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894’ and a capital drowning in equine faeces (a prospect avoided, somewhat ironically, by the invention of the internal combustion engine). Factory reformers, green space advocates, smoke abatement societies and activists against animal cruelty all became pioneers in environmental activism, drawing significant connections between a healthy environment and a healthy society.

As the urban world encroached, conservation became an important motif. The RSPB was founded in 1889 and, led by female campaigners, agitated for the protection of birds (and especially a limit on their use in millinery). The National Trust, founded by Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley in 1895, began to lobby for the preservation of sites on the basis of their “beauty or historical interest”, abetted by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (which was later joined by sister bodies in Wales and Scotland), established in 1926.

A passion for the countryside, alongside concerns over the privatisation of commons land since the early 1700s, invited an activist response on Sunday 24 April 1932, when hundreds of workers (many of whom belonged to ramblers’ societies) engaged in a mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire: an important act of civil disobedience that demanded a “right to roam”. Such campaigns for nature conservation led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949), and the dedication of the Peak District National Park in 1951.

Smog and seabirds

The post-1945 era augured a new phase in British environmentalism, one symbolised by the atomic bomb and a capacity for Homo sapiens to transform the biosphere on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Walkers marched from Aldermaston to London in Ban-the-Bomb protests led by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). Concerns about nuclear contamination were also joined by worries about pesticides and other encompassing threats to life, eloquently articulated by the US biologist Rachel Carson in her seminal tract Silent Spring (1962).

In postwar Britain, this sentiment was galvanised by striking examples of environmental crisis. London’s Great Smog of 1952 – a deadly conjugation of fog and smoke emissions – led to the deaths of 12,000 people, days of near-zero visibility and the removal of prized plants from Kew Gardens to Kent. The deleterious impact of modern industrialism was also made clear by the stricken Torrey Canyon oil tanker dumping more than 100,000 tonnes of crude off the Cornish coast in March 1967; images of mired seabirds capturing the public attention in an early example of TV environmentalism in action.

Significantly, these were the years in which ‘environmentalism’ as a tenet came to maturation, with single-issue campaigns giving way to protests in defence of biotic health. British sitting rooms were treated to a range of eco-disaster scenarios courtesy of the Doomwatch series (February 1970, with a first episode entitled The Plastic Eaters) and a plethora of BBC natural history productions such as Look (1955), hosted by Peter Scott. A 1956 episode of the BBC series Zoo Quest, in which David Attenborough went in search of a Komodo dragon, was watched by the equivalent of 50 per cent of the adult viewing public.

The 1970s – the so-called ‘decade of the environment’ – was ushered in by the first mention of the phrase “our environment” in a political party conference speech, by Harold Wilson at the Labour conference in Brighton in 1969. The seventies ended with growing concerns over acid rain, rainforest destruction, PCB chemicals and the plight of marine mammals.
Fuelled by a sense of environmental crisis and conscience, and drawing tactics and personnel from the counterculture movements, a new brand of mass-movement environmentalism was championed by Friends of the Earth (founded 1971), Greenpeace (1971) and People (1973, which went on to become the Green party). Radical eco-politics were to develop under the auspices of Earth First! (1980), while the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (1981) led a grassroots feminist campaign against the military-industrial complex. Both of them provided philosophical and activist foundations for today’s Extinction Rebellion.Environmentalism is a major part of modern British history. And living, as we are, in the age of the Anthropocene – an epoch defined by humanity’s capacity to transform the world around us – it is set to become more important still.
Karen R Jones is a reader in environmental and cultural history at the University of Kent.