What does it mean to call the environment political? Anyone who has lived through the past 18 months has been deeply immersed in the new environmental politics of the pandemic. Covid-19 is a micro-biological force that has disrupted human activity at a grand scale. It is also deeply human in its origins, spread, and impact. In response, we have witnessed the geopolitics of vaccine nationalism and border regimes; the choices different governments have made about regulating their economies and citizens’ behaviour; and the social and emotional politics of the household, the workplace, and public space. We are very far from being ‘all in it together’. Instead, interlocking and unequal power relations have structured very different experiences of the same pathogen, amongst neighbours living in the same street or city as well as between different nations.
Many have described the pandemic as a harbinger of the climate crisis that is already unspooling. Covid-19 has demanded unprecedented levels of global coordination and immense changes to the ways that we live, collectively and individually. It has also widened inequalities in decision making, vulnerability to risk, and access to resources. At the recent COP-26 conference, countries battled out questions of historic and future responsibility; fossil fuel lobbyists overshadowed indigenous groups and the countries most impacted by climate change; and activists challenged market-led solutions from outside. A deep disquiet remains about the ability of expertise or targets to translate into sufficient political action.
Collectively, the articles in this new series on The Political Environment explore two claims. First, they show that environmental change is political. As individuals and societies, we are never simply victims of necessity or nature, but – at various scales – make choices about how we use resources and respond to new risks. These choices are made through the lens of scientific knowledge, systems of social, emotional, and economic value, and political institutions and influence. In making choices, competing interests emerge that are structured by power relations and give rise to environmental politics.
Secondly, this series illuminates the importance of understanding environments as historical. Environments have been products and producers of human action over time. Ideas of sustainability, new consumer appetites for meat, relationships between states and polluting industries, and green spaces in cities all have histories. So do hurricanes, forests, and rivers. The Black Death not only altered the course of global history in the space of seven years, but has demanded new forms of historical research today. Stretching from the sixteenth century to the present day, from India to Orkney, the articles in this series suggests that the history of environmental politics offers crucial tools for our present moment. Whether tackling city floods or wood scarcity, these problems have been questions of political (in)action and social (in)justice as much as ecological peril.
Environmental phenomena take place on scales of time and space that disrupt the traditional units and narratives of both history writing and political action. Monsoons and cyclones cut across the boundaries of nations. The consequences of burning fossil fuels link distant generations and communities in chains of cause and effect, raising difficult questions of international and intergenerational responsibility and justice. Environmental historians have drawn attention to the specificity of resources, organisms, and environments and the demands they make in terms of management. Different ecological processes bring distinctive dynamics: the long time horizons of forests, the spatial fluctuations of flood, the mobility of viruses. We now find ourselves in a period in which human activity is identified as the primary driver of environmental change: the ‘Anthropocene’. This (hotly-debated) modern epoch is defined at a global level and on geological timescales, taking us out of the Holocene; a geological period which began some 11,650 years ago. Yet, the most visible and immediate way that climate change is manifesting today is in rapid floods and wildfires. These disasters are local in their impact on people’s lives and uneven in the resources available for resilience or relief.
The concept of the Anthropocene can leave a lacuna when thinking about forms of political action. Its emphasis on an undifferentiated mass of ‘humanity’ fails to capture the actors, inequalities, or histories that have led to this tipping point. At the same time, traditional concepts of politics offer insufficient tools to analyse the historical causes or cope with the consequences of the Anthropocene. The idea that nation-states form the territory of politics seems woefully deficient when we consider the global mobility of capital, resources, people, pathogens, and weather entangled in our current ecological moment. National governments have struggled to incorporate the citizens of the future or of elsewhere into their policy calculus. Meanwhile, actors and networks beyond the state have formed a dynamic element of environmental politics, be they NGOs, colonial companies, or activists, as do the local and social politics that emerge in response to floods, windfarms, or fracking. Unexpected ecological events can exceed the expertise, resources, and procedures underwriting existing systems of politics and give rise to new ones. They have demanded new forms of knowledge, organisation, and action, created new assemblages of actors, and brought communities into conflict or cooperation.
The articles in this series show that ecological action is rarely a case of technological, scientific, or even administrative methods of management. Nor can it be calculated solely by economic models based on ‘rational’ self-interest and cost-benefit analyses. The way that societies in the past have identified problems and imagined solutions has relied on ideas of risk, pollution, sustainability, or paradise. Environmental problems have been constructed and contested as ‘social facts’ in order to legitimate efforts to govern the environment and its resources. For example, defining a behaviour or system as ‘natural’ is a deeply political act of de-politicisation. Historically, science has acted as an agent of environmental change, not just a disinterested observer. Scientific methods of knowing nature have been implicated in projects of both nation and empire building and agendas to harness the natural world for profit, as will be discussed in a podcast in this series with Harriet Ritvo and Vinita Damodaran.
Solutions as well as problems are fraught with politics and laden with value. Despite their very different ecological footprints, wind turbines as much as power stations are situated in a nexus of local interests, aesthetic ideals, national policy, subsidies, and lobbying, global companies and markets, and labour politics and fuel poverty. This series examines how approaches to governing resources and environments have been inseparable from broader political processes and priorities. The creation of a US national park to preserve ‘paradise’ in the Virgin Islands, for instance, was facilitated by the colonial dynamics and unequal political relations between America and its overseas ‘possessions’. Questions of energy supply are also questions of state power and international politics, while urban planning has often placed the poorest most at risk of disaster and pollution.
Our own lifetimes are not the first time that a complex politics of scale has emerged around rapid environmental change. In my own work, I look at dramatic shifts in the scale and pace at which anthropogenic environmental change was imagined in seventeenth-century England, during projects to drain large regions of wetland. Propelled by agendas of central power, private profit, national wealth, and ‘the public good’, these state-led schemes redefined the fens as a disastrous environment and an impediment to agricultural development. They also raised urgent questions about who had the right to define, alter, or govern fen environments. Were wetlands a resource to be utilised for maximum productivity to feed the commonwealth, their value shaped by projections of future profit? Or were they the commons of local communities, governed by customary rights vested in ‘immemorial’ practice? Depending on the frame of reference, fen floods appeared either as an ordinary seasonal event that fertilised summer pastures for collective grazing or as an extraordinary and unacceptable risk to new forms of intensive cultivation and private property.
Drainage disrupted existing systems of collective ownership of land and communal management of water. It placed two-thirds of drained land in the hands of those who financed the project. In many places, new hydraulic infrastructure redistributed, rather than eliminated, flood risk: draining commons on the floodplain by casting waters on previous flood-resilient villages and land. One group’s land rights became another’s dispossession, while drainage in one place meant drowning elsewhere. This points to the importance of remaining alert to the politics of interventions taking place under the banners of development or sustainability, as Paul Warde has argued, by asking what is being developed or sustained, and for whom.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these top-down, coercive, interventions to redevelop wetlands failed to command local legitimacy. Fen communities responded with sustained legal challenges, petitions, and disorder, which became entangled with the events of the English civil war and wider political questions of sovereignty, liberty, and property. On the ground, rioters harnessed the mobility of flood waters and animal trespass to reclaim commons. In some places, drainage and enclosure were thwarted for more than a century. Even where reform is pioneered as a state project, therefore, neither environments nor people always behave in the ways expected and can capsize the best laid plans. As Joachim Radkau has observed, ‘The costs of conflict are generally high. In the long run, environmental protection has a chance only if local practitioners actively participate.’
In the coming weeks, we will hear about the ways that environments have been political and politics environmental in the past. Despite its urgency, the ‘climate emergency’ deserves deeper thinking about the political impasse in which we find ourselves ensnared. The voices that emerge from the archive – those marginalised from the machinery of government and those at the forefront of civic, national, or imperial projects of reform – suggest that environmental change is never natural, inevitable, or apolitical. By recovering the range of possibilities that were fought out over environments in the past we might identify the scope of our political imagination, action, and struggle in the present.
Elly Robson is a research fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge. Her work examines the social, political, and intellectual history of environmental change in early modern England and the Atlantic world. She is currently writing her first monograph, provisionally titled Violent Waters: The Politics of Wetland Improvement in Early Modern England. She is also managing editor at History Workshop Online, a co-founder of the Environmental History Workshop, and an academic member of the Legacies of Slavery Working Party at Jesus College. You can follow her on Twitter @EllyRobson9.