This article was first published in the November 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine


Imagine a future in which urban Britain is reclaimed by nature: forests have grown up obliterating former towns and land once tamed for cultivation. This is not a 21st-century vision, but a story created in 1885 by the ruralist writer Richard Jefferies.

Jefferies’ novel After London offers a fantasy of how wilderness could triumph over civilisation, yet, even in this imaginary country, the traces of man’s impact on the environment could not be entirely swept away. In the depths of Jefferies’ ‘wild England’ lurks the noxious swamp once known as London, so polluted that nothing can live there, and too dangerous even to visit: “Upon the surface of the water there was a greenish-yellow oil, to touch which was death to any creature”.

After London is a reminder that anxieties about man-made threats to the environment significantly predate more recent concerns about radioactive contamination and global warming. In the 19th century, notions of economic progress tended to be measured by the increased speed of communications, volumes of production and the greater availability of consumer goods. But there were many good reasons for being sceptical about the resulting character of modern life. Urban development, the proliferation of factories and the demand for fuel left much of the population exposed to adulterated food, contaminated water supplies and smoke-filled air which darkened the skies and contributed to respiratory problems. In the 1880s, at the time that Jefferies was writing, groups were campaigning to improve air quality, as London smogs claimed the lives of hundreds of people. Descriptions of chemical residues and poisonous fumes were far from simply a novelist’s fantasy.

Legislation and regulation offered possible answers to the environmental challenges presented by modern industry. But some individuals saw the future differently, in a return to nature and in lifestyles which we can recognise as precursors of ‘green’ approaches today. They aspired to the ‘simple’ life, usually in a rural setting, eschewing mass-produced goods in favour of traditional workmanship, less-cluttered homes, a plain, healthy diet and ‘natural’ clothing.

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Nowhere was this better exemplified than at Edward Carpenter’s rural retreat at Millthorpe in Derbyshire, his home from 1883 to 1922, where visitors were often presented with a pair of handmade sandals, treated to a vegetarian diet, and even encouraged to try their hand at a little wholesome agricultural labour.

In Carpenter’s view, modern civilisation was characterised by disease, the result of imprisoning people in the artificial, indoor life of cities and breaking their connection to the natural world. His 1889 book, Civilisation: Its Cause And Cure, encouraged readers to embrace a more physically active, open-air existence. For Carpenter, living in unity with nature was a spiritual as much as a practical matter, requiring a revolution in social norms. Others, he noted, treated it more as “a gospel of salvation by sandals and sunbaths”.

Natural fashions

Adopting a ‘natural’ lifestyle became fashionable among more radical sections of society. Those who flaunted their toes in progressive sandals were also likely to be wearing Jaeger underwear, following the scientific system of dress reform promoted by the German doctor and zoologist Gustav Jaeger in the 1880s, which rejected plant-based fabrics in favour of the supposedly more ‘sanitary’ option of all-wool clothing.

Green sensibilities also encouraged more far-reaching visions of an alternative society. Modern injunctions to “reduce, reuse, recycle” are the most recent manifestation in a history of critiques of over-consumption and the impact of mass manufacturing. John Ruskin and William Morris imagined economies and communities that rejected the values of industrialism, favouring a return to medieval craftsmanship, physical work and a close relationship with nature. Attempts to establish centres of craft manufacture in the countryside, as when the arts and crafts designer CR Ashbee moved his East End workmen out to the Cotswolds in 1902, reflected a belief that the rural environment would allow for better ways of living and working.

The relationship with the natural world was often regarded as vital to the health and identity of the nation itself. Fears about the mental, cultural and physical well-being of the population encouraged green approaches to education, as a way to strengthen future generations against the physical damage of modern urban living and even the perceived moral dangers of capitalism.

The evils of industrialism

In the mid-1920s the youth movement, the Woodcraft Folk, presented an educational system to train children in co-operative virtues and improve their health and fitness through outdoor activity and engaging with the rural environment. As they went camping, learning practical skills and respect for the natural world and their fellow man, Woodcraft Folk were (supposedly) being equipped to withstand the evils of industrialism. Their ‘Headman’ Leslie Paul enthused about the way in which, “The sky, the chasing clouds, the sun, the lush grass caressing bare feet, the aisles of beeches and the battlements of pines conspire to revive those powers that the city crushes”.

Yet the challenges posed by modern development were not solely about the impact of urban industry. Commitments to green living increasingly offered critiques of agriculture as well. Green pioneers championed organic farming in the 1920s – well before the widespread introduction of inorganic fertilisers – often as part of a wider commitment to reforming modern society and the capitalist economy. And when the drive for increased food production during the Second World War led to a significant rise in the application of chemicals on the land and greater mechanisation in farming, Lady Eve Balfour responded with The Living Soil (1943), which became a founding text for the modern organic movement. The Soil Association was formed in 1946 to promote organic ideals, but in a period when public concern was primarily about the availability and cost of food, the technological revolution on the land was accepted by most people as something to be celebrated rather than questioned.

Green living in the 19th and early 20th centuries was often more about protecting the health and welfare of individuals than about the future of the environment as such. In fact, anxieties about the long-term impact of present-day pollution did not gain prominence until after the Second World War. In 1962, an American biologist, Rachel Carson, introduced her book Silent Spring with a fable about a transformation of the countryside into an environment so poisonous that men and animals die suddenly of mysterious illnesses. The blight on the community seems like an evil spell, the only clue as to the cause being traces of a white powder which had fallen from the skies. The world takes on an eerie silence, as there are no birds left to sing.

In her characteristically poetic and portentous style, Carson spelt out the moral: “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves”. The countryside had long been viewed as a place of sanctuary, a retreat from the dangers and unpleasantness of urban smoke, dirt and pollution. What was so striking about Carson’s revelation was that the lethal threat originated within the countryside itself, in the devastating effects of modern agricultural practices, notably the widespread use of pesticides.

The other potentially cataclysmic threat to emerge following the war was the use of nuclear power, and campaigns against this helped to shape the green movement as a political force in the 1970s. It was at this point that the term ‘green’ became attached to the agenda of political activists, notably in West Germany. The Green Party in Britain began in the early 1970s, operating first under the name ‘People’, and later as the Ecology Party, before adopting its current name in 1985. In 1989 it achieved 15 per cent of the vote in British elections to the European parliament. However, green politics often made a greater impact outside the realms of conventional politics, for example through the international campaigning bodies Friends of the Earth, founded in 1969, and Greenpeace, which began in 1971.

Being green in the 1970s was not only an ecological position but an economic stance, in which some tried to escape from the capitalist framework altogether. Self-sufficiency in suburbia was immortalised in the television sitcom The Good Life (1975–1978), and the green movement found a new manifesto in EF Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, published in 1973. Sub-titled, A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, the book encouraged readers to reject the association between progress and ever higher levels of consumption, and dismissed arguments justifying nuclear power: “The idea that a civilisation could sustain itself on the basis of such a transgression is an ethical, spiritual and metaphysical monstrosity”.

A catalogue of disasters

During the 1980s the dangers of environmental catastrophe became ever more difficult to ignore and added a greater intensity to the discussion of green issues. The decade was marked by a catalogue of ecological disasters: the poisonous gas leak at Bhopal in 1984, the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986 and the contamination following the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in 1989.

The green movement has always combined principled critiques of industrialism and economic development with practical efforts by individuals to adopt a more environmentally responsible approach in their daily lives. When the first Cranks vegetarian restaurant opened in London’s Carnaby Street in 1961, its name played on a prevailing reputation of vegetarianism as an eccentricity, and many elements of green living came in for similar ridicule and suspicion. But by the 1980s, aspects of an alternative lifestyle were becoming more mainstream, serviced by commercial businesses and infrastructure. Anita Roddick’s The Body Shop, founded in 1976 to retail ethically sourced, sustainable products, brought green principles to the high street. The Green Consumer Guide first appeared in 1988. Recycled glass and paper became more widely available, and customers in supermarkets were offered free-range eggs.

All this may seem a far cry from the radical anti-capitalist and anti-urban sentiments of some of the early ecologists. Yet many of the ways in which people today express their support for a green lifestyle stand in a longer tradition of anxiety about losing touch with a more organic way of living, and of a belief in the benefits that will follow – for individuals and for society – from a reconnection with the natural world.

Clare Griffiths is senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Sheffield, and the author of Labour and the Countryside. The Politics of Rural Britain 1918–1939 (Oxford University Press, 2007)


Books: The Origins of the Organic Movement by Philip Conford (Floris Books, 2001); Early Green Politics by Peter C Gould (Harvester Press, 1988); Green History: A Reader in Environmental Literature, Philosophy and Politics by Derek Wall (Routledge, 1994)