Category Archives: Research

Holidays…. and Inspiration

I’ve just returned from a holiday to Canada. This is probably the last holiday I’ll take before I submit my thesis next year. It is nice to have a break, but I did end up also thinking a little about my topic.

When I was in the temperate rainforests of British Columbia, I came upon an Ecology Centre, in Lynn Canyon Park. Mainly aimed at school children, it nevertheless contained some interesting things. One wall, dedicated to different biological processes contained information on DDT and with it also information about the effect of pesticides on wildlife. This included, of course, reference to Rachel Carson and Silent Spring.


Also in the forests surrounding the Capilano suspension bridge, there were many quotes about trees. My final chapter deals with environmentalism in the early 1970s. One of the issues I discuss is ‘Plant a Tree in ’73’ where the government encouraged people to plant trees. This was partly due to combat disease, but they also recognised the benefits of trees to the natural environment.


As part of the PGR Symposium here, which involved humanities PhD students presenting papers to our peers, I am tasked with giving a paper in November.

I notice that last August I wrote a piece on here about anniversaries. Well, November 2013 also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the long-running science fiction programme Doctor Who. I’ve already – briefly – blogged about Doctor Who and Silent Spring here. I will also be adding to this, talking about Silent Spring, and another Doctor Who story from the 1970s, ‘The Green Death’. This story does feature in my thesis and is discussed alongside the BBC science fiction series Doomwatch (which aired between 1970 and 1972). This series has many close links with Doctor Who as the creators of it also worked on Doctor Who in the 1960s and it is they who created the cybermen. Doomwatch was popular; many viewers thought it more science fact than science fiction and it covered many contemporary environmental issues.


I am currently writing the concluding chapter of my thesis. This is not an easy task, since I’m not entirely sure how to structure it. Various online sources have helped, and I am applying this information to my conclusion.

My thesis structure currently looks like this:

Chapter 1 – Introduction

Chapter 2 – 1940s & 1950s. I deal with air pollution and the Great London smog, nature conservation and the founding of the Nature Conservancy in Britain, and early environmental television programmes.

Chapter 3 – early 1960s. This discusses the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Silent Spring, and films, television programmes and literature. This is not an exhaustive list, and I am selective in what I discuss.

Chapter 4 – late 1960s. The Torrey Canyon oil spill of 1967, the battle over the reservoir at Cow Green and the founding of the Conservation Society all appear in this chapter.

Chapter 5 – 1970-1975. This concerns the first five years of the 1970s, when the environment had moved to the centre of British society.

Chapter 6 – Conclusion.

I think the biggest challenge now is consolidating everything analysed and evaluated in the individual chapters into one final concluding chapter.

PEOPLE – Green Party’s 40th Birthday


PEOPLE logo taken from “PEOPLE Election Leaflet February 1974”, supplied by Professor Michael Benfield

In November/December 1972 a new political party was formed in Britain. This year, despite two name changes, that party is still going strong and celebrating its 40th birthday. The Green Party was originally as PEOPLE in January 1973, holding its first meeting in February of that year, and changing its name to the Ecology Party in 1975 and the Green Party in 1985. Currently in the House of Commons there is one Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, who represents the constituency Brighton Pavilion. The party made its electoral breakthrough in the 1989 European elections when it gained 15 per cent of the overall vote.

In the first general election of 1974 (there were two that year, in February and October) PEOPLE fielded seven candidates, none of whom won. Yet in some places they came third and beat the larger Communist party. They got two councillors elected in the local elections of 1976 (the party was then the Ecology Party) and fought in every election since the February 1974 one. Proclaiming they were neither left nor right, PEOPLE was founded in Coventry by four people concerned about ecology and also the need for popular participation in government. Their name comes from their interest in population issues and also reflected the emphasis it took on participatory democracy. Their manifesto contained policies not just focused on the environment, but on issues that stretched across politics, from education, to social welfare, to population, employment and industry, pollution, transport, the economy, defence and foreign policy. PEOPLE’s fundamental philosophy was holistic, embracing the whole of society, hence the different policies in the manifesto.

PEOPLE appeared in a period when the environment was just becoming more integrated in society. The first few years of the 1970s was a period of rapid change in attitudes towards the environment. The decade began with the European Conservation Year, which encouraged governments across the continent to educate their citizens in conservation issues. The Ecologist also appeared in this year. The UN Conference was held in 1972, and the ‘Plant a Tree in ‘73’ campaign, which encouraged tree planting on a massive scale, happened the same year PEOPLE was founded. The BBC science fiction drama series Doomwatch had already entertained and educated people about environmental problems and there was a large increase in newspaper reports concerning the environment. The first few years of the 1970s saw environmental activist groups appear like SOC’EM and Commitment.

Some may ask therefore why the party was needed. Why couldn’t or didn’t the other political parties pick up the slack and adopt environmentally friendly policies. The Conservative Government, after all, elected in 1970 had established the Department of the Environment, there had already been the UN Conference in 1972 and a great awareness already existed in the British public of environmental issues. But PEOPLE and the Ecology Party, as it became, represented a ‘new approach to politics’, describing themselves as the only political party committed to economic strategy based on minimal growth and self-sufficiency; they were different because they not only preached devolution but practiced it too with the party structure; and were the only party which was influenced by ecological principles . One of the party’s slogans was “PEOPLE Puts Politics in Perspective”; another “The political party based on ecological principles”.

With the party celebrating its 40th birthday it offers a chance to reassess and revisit the founding of this party which appeared at a time when the environment was only just becoming a main part of British society. With the exception, perhaps, of Population issues, which are more contentious today, most of PEOPLE’s policies seem not dissimilar to the Green Party’s. And whilst electorally, in general elections at least, no PEOPLE/Ecology/Green Party MP got elected before the 2010 General Election, the appearance of PEOPLE raised the tone of the environment in the press and forced the other main political parties at the time – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberals – to raise their game on environmental issues. PEOPLE ensured that the environment became – and stayed – a part of British politics.

*My thanks go to Professor Michael Benfield, one of the four founders of PEOPLE, for providing me with original documents concerning PEOPLE/The Ecology Party’s early years, some of which have been made use of here: PEOPLE Election Leaflet February 1974; Facts About the Ecology Party 1976.



I wonder how many newspapers this week will comment on the sixtieth anniversary of the great London smog, which occurred between 4-9 December 1952, and killed an estimated 12,000 people. I’m sure some publications will have ‘From the Archives’ sections or the equivalent, which discusses it. In addition the fact it lasted for several days means the anniversary is spread out so it is harder to say ‘On this day 60 years ago…’. Yet this was a major disaster, even if it only affected London, and led to the Beaver Committee being established which led eventually to the Clean Air Act of 1956. Following this, other cities which had been plagued by air pollution began to act to clean their local environs of air pollution.

Picture of Nelson’s Column in smog, taken from Wikipedia –

Most of the literature at the time, and since, about the smog has been the effect it had on people’s health, which was grave, with the numbers who died not just during the week but in the days, weeks and months later. There is also, however, a small section which mentions the effect air pollution in general had on the environment. The Socialist Medical Association (now the Socialist Health Association) even produced a leaflet about air pollution – ‘Death in the Air! The menace of air pollution’. Dated around c.1956, this leaflet, brochure, whatever it was mentions specifically the environment effects of air pollution (the effect on plants and animals). All the more surprising, considering it came from a medical organisation.

There is a lack of environmental-analysis on the smog (and clean air), most discussion coming from the point of view of air pollution and its effects on human health. Understandable. Yet there was discussion about the environment at least in some quarters. The result of the smog – the eventual passing of the Clean Air Act of 1956, led to other cities in Britain controlling smoke and imposing clean air zones. Whilst the Clean Air Act did not immediately get rid of all smog, it did begin to ensure that air pollution was controlled more. And led people to think about what fuel they burnt, as part of the problem had been the low temperatures and households burning coal (as well as pollution from industry).

A weather system settled over London in early December 1952, creating fog and reducing the temperatures. Industry continued to bleech pollution into the air and the fall in temperature caused homes to use their coal fires to keep warm, creating more pollution. The still air reduced visibility to near zero, it aggrevated people’s lungs who breathed in the thick air, many who had previously been healthy, and people could not see their feet. One person has even described as following a bus in the smog and the bus driving up someone’s drive, having got lost where the road was.

Not everyone died that week; it was in the weeks and months following that some deaths came, although many people were admitted to hospital during the week the smog was present. What is significant is the effects it had – with the Beaver Committee and the Clean Air Act and on cities across the country to control their air pollution problems. To quote Wikipedia – “The death toll formed an important impetus to modern environmentalism, and it caused a rethinking of air pollution, as the smog had demonstrated its lethal potential.”

Wikipedia article on the smog –

Update (December 2013): I wrote a short blog post about this topic, linking it with current air pollution problems in China and other countries, here.

Silent Spring anniversary

Over at The Guardian at the moment there is a debate occurring about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring and how influential they were –

Picture from Wikipedia –

Whilst the author of this blog, and the blog itself gets a (brief) mention, it is fitting that Carson and her work are receiving the recognition they deserve. Fifty years ago today the book first appeared in the United States, starting a cataclysmic wave of debate about pollutants and the environment which we are still having today.

Carson, modest and humble, made a stand and got vilified for it. She wasn’t the first, nor was she the last. But, at least to most environmental historians (although this is changing somewhat), she is seen as starting the modern environmental movement. I think she deserves that credit.


I haven’t posted for a couple of months, due to research and writing up. I look at this year, 2012, and the big anniversary in environmental history is the fiftieth anniversary of Silent Spring. I even delivered a paper at a conference celebrating this anniversary.

Yet within British environmental history, and especially in the development of the post-war environmental movement in Britain, 2012 offers other anniversaries. It will be sixty years in December since the great London smog hit that city in 1952 which lead to approximately 12,000 dying, and the subsequent Clean Air Act, reducing air pollution across the country.

Image of Nelson’s Column during the Smog –   © Copyright N T Stobbs and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Forty years ago, The Ecologist magazine published ‘A Blueprint for Survival’ which explored ideas of decentralisation, small and de-industralised societies, using tribal societies as a model. The work was influential and was signed by over 30 leading scientists, although it did receive sharp criticism in Nature which stated that professionals should not tie themselves to works which created public fear.

In their own ways, both the smog and Blueprint were influential onthe development of environmentalism in Britain. The former can be described as the first post-war environmental disaster, and led to legislation which reduced air pollution in certain areas. The latter’s authors were invited inearly 1974 to assist the first environmental party in Britain, PEOPLE, to draft a joint manifesto between the party and the authors of Blueprint. Whilst only seven candidates were fielded at the February 1974 general election, mainly in the West Midlands area (PEOPLE began in the city of Coventry), and for many years was unsuccessful at the ballot box, PEOPLE did offer a new kind of politics to the British public. In 1975, PEOPLE changed its name to the Ecology Party, becoming the Green Party in 1985.

Whilst Silent Spring is critical when considering the emerging post-war environmental movement, the smog of ’52 and the battle against air pollution after the war in various cities across Britain, reflects a developing environmental movement, especially when smoke and smog was seen not just as being a danger to public health but also to the natural environment. And whilst Blueprint was influenced by Carson’s work, appearing when it did at the beginning of the 1970s, it arguably had more impact in Britain with is appearance coming on the back of the Department of the Environment, created in 1970.

“Litter is dangerous”….

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been in London (UK), researching. The results were mixed. I spent a few days at LSE – London School of Economics and Political Science – looking at papers of the Young Liberals and the Woodcraft Folk. Dating from the 1950s or 1960s, it warns against dropping litter in the countryside. Visually, it does its job quite well, depicting a calf lying on the ground injured, surrounded by litter, with the headline ‘Litter is Dangerous – Respect the Life of the Countryside’. There is then a list of the Countryside Code.

My trawl through the Young Liberal papers was for a specific reference for an organisation, Commitment, which was started by Young Liberals in 1971. My search was not fruitful and I could not find any reference there. But speaking to a member of that group the following week, did reveal much about the organisation and new avenues of research. The group staged a demonstration in London, for example, in December 1971 about pollution, carrying balloons full of ‘fresh air’ to Oxford Street. I was able to pinpoint key dates and going through old newspaper editions further enhanced the picture.

One thing LSE was good for is having a complete run of the magazine Resurgence, an early environmental magazine published from 1966. This allowed me to look at the complete collection upto the mid 1970s, and I’m still working through.

My second week in London I spent mostly at the British Library Newspaper Archive in Colindale, north London. Here I cross-referenced dates of Young Liberal and Commitment activities with other events and activism. The Guardian, the Observer, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express are all searchable electronically, as well as the Times, the New York Times, the Irish Times and the Times of India, which all cover my period. Other newspapers I’d have to look at via hard copy.

This gives a – somewhat – political balance – the Mirror usually supporting Labour, the Express usually more rightwing/Tory. The Guardian & its Sunday stablemate the Observer liberal/centre left, with the Times being centre right. The information gleaned about Commitment will be used for a forthcoming conference paper I’m giving in June. As ever, when you interview people, they suggest other people to speak to. The oral interviews are increasing as more and more people come forward.

Doing Oral History

ZOOM H1 – the recorder I use for oral interview

As part of my research, I am conducting oral interviews with various people who were involved in the green movement in some way. I thought I’d explain a little bit about my experience of oral history.

First, the equipment. I use a ZOOM H1 recorder (above) which costs about £80 from Amazon.  I bought this model, mainly for price (£80 is at the top of my price range but was one of the cheaper models that records in WAV format). I went on an introduction to oral history course run by the Oral History Society, who suggested we get recorders that record in WAV format for longevity. I am sure there are far better recorders out there, but within my limited budget, this seems to be excellent. I use the two microphones on the machine, rather than using an external. I am impressed with the quality of the recording. It is pretty simple to use too, so I can just set it down and hit record.

Before I could undertake any interviews I had to fill out an ethics form, and went on university wide ethics training. The ethics committee approved my project in January. I am focused on gathering information about environmentalism and the interviewee’s place within it, but also I sometimes ask about wider issues and how they relate.

When I go to the interviews, after it has finished I give the interviewee an information sheet about what I will do with the data. This states that the information might be used in my thesis but also in journal articles, book chapters, monographs and other academic-related things. I also make the point PhD theses are easily accessible now to the general public through EThOS, the British Library service.

I also stress that I am the only person who will have access to them and that they have the right to deny my use of any information for any future publications. I am always careful to maintain confidentiality and there is a section on the information sheet which discusses the use of names. If they do not want their name to be used we can come up with an alias or alternatively a numerical system (e.g. Interviewee 1). I would then be the only person who had access to who they really were. I get them to sign a sheet which states they’ve read and understood the other forms, and I sign one myself and give to them.

At each stage of internal assessment during the PhD (we have one at the end of every year – Annual Progression, as well as one 18-months in, Mid-Point Progression) the ethics stuff gets reviewed. I’ve not spoken to many people yet, and confidentiality and data protection is hugely important. All recordings are kept on an external hard drive stored in a locked drawer I only have access to.

A lot of people know each other and have also pointed me in the direction of others who may be of use. I’m just getting into this but I’m hoping new people will appear, and I’ve already had some recommendations.

University Newspapers

I’ve finally finished in the Special Collections at Newcastle University. I was looking the their newspaper, Courier, published from 1948. Other than many, many articles on the state of university food (both price and quality) and accommodation issues, there was little directly related to the environment. In fact most students weren’t involved with any activism, at least if not related to food or board. In the 1960s things slowly changed with issues about civil rights, apartheid in South Africa, and lastly CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).

But there was nothing directed towards the environment. Until, that is, I came to 1972, when issues begin to increase, mostly pertaining to ideas about population growth and sustainability, centred around the publication that year of A Blueprint for Survival (this can be accessed free online on The Ecologist‘s web archive of issues, 1970-1999 here:

There is discussion in one article, not of SOC’EM but of another environmental group locally, TEC – Tyneside Environment Concern. They, together with others (the North East section of the Conservation Society and Clean Air for Teesside) wanted a ‘Blueprint for the North East’. The article is interesting, insofar as it links social justice and environmental justice. TEC was holding a festival ‘Planning for People’ which described current planning in the city as crazy. The festival wanted to tackle issues pertaining to the North East – unemployment, the abandonment of mining communities, pollution and dereliction. It questioned whether tackling one would negatively affect another? All the problems could be tackled, the festival argued, by creating a new, sustainable society, a ‘Blueprint for the North East’.

Is this an early example of social ecology, argued by Murray Bookchin in Our Synthetic Environment, which said you could only solve environmental problems by solving social problems? I’m not sure – I don’t know how the festival was received. TEC do claim they are concerned with the quality of life, but more bothered about rampant materialism on the lives of everyone.

Built vs Natural 2…

Also today I found there seemed to have been a spilt in October 1973, when several members, including the former Chairman (and founder), his wife and daughter, and a couple of others, all resigned. This was in relation to an incident involving the Chairman – from what I can work out he had the society’s best intentions at heart but he exaggerated the number of members.

I don’t know anything more than that but it was in a local paper I think (this was referred to various times) and I will hopefully get to probe further. Also it is acutely clear that SOC’EM had money issues. A fundraiser held on 10 June 1974 at Balmbra Music Hall, aptly named “SOC’EM at Balmbra’s” included a timetable with times of performers to the minute. The show had a commedian compere, a conjurer, a fire eater, a folk singer, a jazz singer, an organist and an auction. They finished with the national anthem.

They held many jumble sales and sold Christmas cards and the impression is they were often in arrears. But also that their reach was quite long. There are many letters throughout the ten years of the group’s functioning from students and members of the public asking for more information about joining and information on specific issues relating to the group. Letters from students and staff at Newcastle University, Keele University, and Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University) as well as Newcastle Polytechnic (Northumbria University) show the bredth of knowledge this organisation had. They were usually about motorway and urban planning too and less about the natural environment.

Finally today’s visit also touched on tension between different environmental groups – which numbered 7 in the area in the 1970s, including SOC’EM; one member’s letter stated he was in shock why they were at odds with other environmental groups and not in coalition with them. He questioned who the enemy is – the council or the environmental groups!