Anniversaries…

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.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/02/Nelson%27s_Column_during_the_Great_Smog_of_1952.jpg

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.

From Toronto to J’burg: group’s international reach


From minutes of SOC’EM 5 November 1975, Tyne and Wear Archives, accession number 2659 – apologies for the quality – is easier to read as smaller image.

Today I came across reference to ‘Metropolitan Toronto Library’ – a request from them for information re. SOC’EM’s Motorway Report. The note was taken from their minutes from November 1975 and simply was mentioned under the category of ‘Correspondence’. But the library very kindly included money for the report to be sent. In January 1975 there is a similar comment for the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, showing SOC’EM’s international reach. Both request the report produced by SOC’EM and Transport 2000.

I seem to have come to the end of the archives and there is no letter in there from either Toronto or Johannesburg. I have contacted Toronto Public Library to see whether they have a copy of it or conversely can tell me how they heard about it. Their reply was, alas, that they no longer had a copy (if they ever did). They have got rid of anything not Canadian and less than 50 pages. The mystery of how two libraries on different continents heard about a small organisation in the North East of England remains.

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: http://www.theecologist.org/back_archive/19701999/).

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!

Built vs. Natural (or what is the environment?)

I came across a mission statement today for SOC’EM. What they stand for – ‘SOC’EM! is an action group devoted to the betterment of Newcastle upon Tyne as an historic [sic], living city’. They opposed motorways, wanted a better transport network, a better bus service and believe people come before cars.

They were anti-empty office blocks and wanted the conservation and continued use of buildings of architectural and historic importance. They wanted more trees and open space and were for a better environment.

They opposed pollution and waste and wanted an ecologically sustainable society. They supported social justice in the allocation of resources and believe the city belonged to the people and not just the planners.

Taken from March 1974, their mission statement is rather vast. I am still working through the papers, today’s boxes mainly concerned with 1978 and  1973. The former offered some information but much of it was not really useful for my research. The latter, however, opened up an interesting question. Last week’s boxes produced much from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and there seemed to be a pronounced shift away from environmental concerns towards building conservation. That is to say, from the natural to the built environment. In their mission statement about they mention both; in the later 1970s and early 1980s, however, there is about 30 or so letters from the Chairman to various organisations – local authorities, the Department for the Environment, the Victorian Society and the Civic Trust about various buildings in the area and what the proposals were for them. Mostly it was to demolish them, which the organisation – or the Chairman – opposed.

The question this offered up was how far is the built environment an ‘environmental’ concern as we understand it today (ie dealing with pollution, species extinction, climate change etc). Does it have a place in a thesis on environmentalism?

It will factor, only so far as to say SOC’EM moved away from the natural and towards the built environment as time went on. Had SOC’EM been concerned fully with historic building conservation from the outside and have no issues surrounding pollution etc, then it wouldn’t be looked at to the same extent.