Category Archives: Environmental History

Asking the Right Questions: Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall

Below is a link to the audio of a brief talk I gave at the Environment and Susatinability Institute at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in November 2014. It covers the topics of history, environmental catastrophe, everyday life, and most importantly, the democratic deficit in decisions regarding the fate of the world around us. The original text of the talk is also included below.

Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall


Sustainable Cornwall

Asking the Right Questions: Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall

I wish to start with some questions, and to emphasize, as a whole, the idea of sustainability as a question, rather than as an answer to a question:

1. What does it mean to say Cornwall should be sustainable?

2. Whose sustainability are we talking about?

3. Should we be seeking to sustain what we have? (Is it really the best we can imagine?)

Why such queries? Because, I have real problems with the idea of sustainability as something we are searching for in the here and now. Something we should be producing by influencing behaviour or attitudes. I think this ‘project’, if it deserves the name, hides as much as it reveals.

From a critical perspective sustainability can be argued to be a conservative ideology. Keeping things as they are (sustaining the natural or the social world) is very much the project of the rich and powerful. From their perspective things are just fine, and we should keep them going very much as they are. Sustainability promises to stave off change, to do just enough to ameliorate social and environmental catastrophe such that our society’s power relations (especially the class relation) remain the same.

For those of us who desire change, who really want a fundamentally different and more just form of society, sustainability is the enemy. For us any demand for sustainability always comes too late, for the catastrophe is already upon us. Whether it is the global catastrophe of climate change, or the personal catastrophe of foodbank poverty, we already inhabit an apocalypse. Future risks and disasters hold no fear; we are already living with disaster.

Indeed, it is this idea that we already inhabit a catastrophe that I would like to explore now by looking at some of our evidence from an oral history of the Torrey Canyon oil disaster in Cornwall, which took place in 1967. This incident (which is both carefully remembered and carefully forgotten) is of interest not simply as an example of an environmental and social disaster close to ‘home’, but also for the way in which those interviewed about it consistently critiqued and undermined common academic and governmental notions of what sustainability is all about. They point to the reality of modern ‘resilience’, that life under capitalism was, and continues to be, a life of uncertainty, insecurity and risk, in which there is no choice but to be ‘resilient’. More than this, they suggest what is really missing in terms of most discussions of sustainability – radical democracy and revolutionary change.

One of the most striking things about people’s memories of the Torrey Canyon going aground was the importance of fear in the experience. Apart from the smell of the oil, fear was a profound and common memory of the disaster. Unsurprising you might think, but this fear was not, in general, grounded in concerns about damage to the natural environment or risks to human health, as would have been perfectly reasonable. Rather it was grounded in economic insecurity, and the fear that the destruction of Cornwall’s beaches might spell the end of the tourist industry on which many families in Cornwall were increasingly reliant by the 1960s. One interviewee, from St Ives remembered going to the shops for a newspaper and the owner shouting that “we’re finished, we’re finished, the summer is gone”. Others recalled ‘panic’, and ‘overwhelming fear’ that the economic basis of local society was about to collapse.

Such fears partly (but only partly) explain the nature of the response to the incident, the large scale (and excessive) use of toxic detergents to disperse the oil. The use of detergents, as anyone who has followed the results of the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or elsewhere, will know was an ecological catastrophe, destroying much of the inshore marine ecology of Cornwall. As there was no extensive baseline ecological research of the shoreline undertaken before 1967, we are still unsure exactly how disastrous this was, or how long-lasting. But many of our interviewees felt the results were profound and permanent.
In short, to save the local tourist economy Cornwall’s coastal ecology was sacrificed on a vast scale. Yet, this deliberate sacrifice was a kind of ‘sustainability’ in action. The key emergency was a social and economic one, and this took priority in terms of the state’s response to the disaster.

Whose sustainability was reproduced in the context of this disaster? That of the local tourist industry for one, but also that of a global oil production and distribution complex. The catastrophic loss of one of the world’s first supertankers led to an international legal effort by the Labour government to recover some of the cost of the clean-up, but the fundamental right of giant corporations such as Barracuda Oil and BP to transport such cargoes at such risk to maritime populations was not, and never has, been challenged.

As such the Torrey Canyon remains a warning of the contradictory consequences of following the dictates of sustainability, without recourse to the democratic question of what one is choosing to sustain. In the end the Cornwall of tourism and large-scale marine transportation was sustained at the expense of local nature, the fishing industry and possibly the health of the local population. This choice was never subject to any democratic right of decision.

And it is important to remember that there was a choice. In France the spill was met with a the use of far less detergent and far more labour to clean oiled oyster beds, which were deliberately protected by the decision to avoid use of dispersants.

Since the Torrey Canyon went aground, we have lived with its consequences. In the short-term much of the oil was dispersed by a combination of the huge human effort to clear the beaches, and natural action. But the material evidences of the disaster remained and were permanent. Our interviewees consistently recalled the way that beaches continued to show the evidence of the disaster through small balls of tar stuck to the bottom of children’s feet. The gutted marine life returned, but slowly, with new and unfamiliar crowds of strangely coloured red seawracks and seaweeds colonising the shoreline.

For others, marine coastal users of various sorts, surf-lifesavers, fishermen and others, there was the memory of all the toxic detergent used to control the impact of the spill and the unknown long-term risks it posed to human and animal well-being. But for many the only available response was to endure. People learned to live with disaster, to forget, even where they remembered, that they lived in an environment permanent transformed by a catastrophe. They were, as they always have to be, resilient, in the face of disaster.

Resilience is the normal, everyday response to catastrophe, the aim to get things back and running as they were. It is a necessary and hopeful response, particularly to those of us who fear for the future of a world that is apparently politically incapable of responding realistically to climate change. Yet, at the same time this resilience poses a political problem. It stood in the way of critical questions being asked about the incident. Why it had taken place? What were its long-term effects?

Most of our interviewees did not respond to the Torrey Canyon by becoming environmental activists or anything like that, though a few did. For many Torrey Canyon was just another, if bigger, marine disaster on Cornwall’s shores, as easily forgotten as it was remembered. One might contrast this to other incidents such as the Exxon Valdez disaster, where local communities in the wake of the catastrophe organised (and continue to organise) for restitution and demanded recognition of the environmental and health impacts of the spill. In Cornwall people were perhaps too resilient, if anything, too willing to go on with life once the immediate fear of economic ruin was past.

Asking Critical Questions
This point is not meant as a criticism of the people of Cornwall. Rather it is a pointer to the ways in which sustainability is as much a political problem as an environmental or social one. Ironically, the Torrey Canyon disaster showed Cornwall to have a very ‘sustainable’ social system. Despite poverty and insecurity, despite an environmental catastrophe of long-lasting consequence, the people of Cornwall got on with living life. Today there are no local movements for environmental justice built around the experience. Some local people found their way into environmental movements, but often cited the later role of organisations such as Surfers Against Sewage, rather than the direct effects of the Torrey Canyon as part of this trajectory.

Nonetheless, I would like to suggest that, hidden deep within our interviews, there were and are still critical questions asked about what sustainability might mean in the context of the Torrey Canyon disaster, but that they are questions that await a proper democratic space in which they might be addressed, or even, for that matter, heard. Take this memory from one of our interviewees.

“To be honest we had never thought about a 100,000 ton tanker running aground. The same with nuclear waste being distributed around the country. It’s just accepted and nothing’s made of it, and you just accept it. We now think, well, moving that amount of oil, is it really a good thing? It’s got to be done, because people need energy, people need heating, warmth, and so on. But there have been a number of ships run aground, oil tankers especially, up in the Orkneys there’s one… Everything’s got to be moved, it’s nice to consider the environment, or you’ve got to consider the environment, but people need heating, people need lighting. But would you prefer to have tankers running around the coast? Or would you prefer wind turbines? Or would you prefer solar panels? I think I’d prefer solar panels to the wind- turbines (laughter)”.

What I love about this response is its intellectual honesty. Its willingness to ask the question that is staring us in the face. What do we want? How do we want to reproduce (or sustain?) our daily lives? Do we want a global oil industry? Or nuclear power? Or windfarms? When you need to consider both the environment and people’s lives what is the right way to go about it?

Yet in the end, as the laughter indicates, we know these questions are a joke. A joke because though we recognise the question, and the problem to be solved, we also recognise that no-one is really going to ask us how to solve it (leave alone allow us the power to decide whether supertankers should be allowed to ply the highseas). That power of decision rests in the hands of transnational global corporations. We know that we have to be resilient, to endure the potentially catastrophic consequences of this condition of things, because we are not offered another choice. We know that there is no democratic mechanism at present capable of allowing people to determine how we make and sustain both people and environment.

Merely asking the right questions doesn’t change these facts, but at least it is a place to start.

News from Somewhere?

I recently attended an event with History and Policy and Friends of the Earth in which a number of historians were invited to offer their comments on the FoE policy review process Big Ideas Change the World. After the event the participants were invited to contribute their own ideas and responses in the form of blog posts. The following is the text of my own reflection. The views expressed are, of course, mine alone.

Tim Cooper


For the historian and critic, the Friends of the Earth paper, Big Ideas Change the World: Mapping a Route from a Planet in Peril to a World of Well-Being, makes fascinating reading. The title sets up an opposition between historical failure and future possibility. As Mark Levene has written, in the anthropocene, it is exactly this gap between history and the future which is a potentially productive point of ethical intervention for the historian.

‘Smart optimism’ is the watchword of this document. But a more compelling vision might be that of pragmatic utopianism. In the face of astonishing environmental crises, the authors dare to think in extraordinarily hopeful terms about the future. In so doing they draw upon the resources of hope to be found in history, not least the knowledge that sudden and radical change is not only possible but is, if anything, likely. It is a powerful practical account of why history remains crucial in thinking about the future.

Consider the quiet, but remarkable, radicalism of the claim that global ‘well-being’ should offer the founding principle of social life in the future. This is not simply a claim about fulfilling needs. This is a potentially open-ended, promise. Well-being is, rightly, not delimited to a set of objective economic criteria; it is opened up to being a subjectively open set of social and cultural desires. This is a call for a politics of care that flies in the face of the politics of what Molly Scott Cato has called Austeria.

One is reminded throughout this document of News from Nowhere, William Morris’s compelling vision of a communist England. Framing this document is a vision of how the world will be in 2050. This world of well-being has no material poverty, environmental destruction has been reversed, population stabilised, the fruits of modern production are distributed more equably, and there is good health and health-care for all. Society is still globalised, interconnected and cosmopolitan, but this is no longer the imposed cosmopolitanism of the capitalist market, but a voluntary collaborative cosmopolitanism.

But why is this the world of 2050? How are we to get there? The wonder of News from Nowhere is that Morris brings his utopia into present reality through the dream of his narrator. But in FoE’s route map this utopia remains distant. Perhaps this is one of the profounder weaknesses of time, our timidity in dreaming. Whereas nineteenth-century utopians would unashamedly dare to dream of their tomorrow as already present in their today, we see this as too risky. Our fear of disappointment is palpable.

For most of us 2050 is so far away as to be unimaginable. Ironically, to really radicalise this vision one has to cut out the complex historical process of actually getting there. One must demand this world not for 2050, but for 2014, for tomorrow, for today. One can imagine here a fantastic arts project based around envisioning this world of well-being as the world of today. Not something absent, but something present. That is what political hope is.

And to whom would such a project speak? Who can enact this world of tomorrow today? To whom should this route map be addressed? One must doubt whether it should be ‘policy-makers’. Twenty years of all the policy-making in the world in the field of climate change has enacted one of the most complete failures of politics in the history of modern democracy, perhaps only surpassed by appeasement. The Mauna Loa index of atmospheric carbon dioxide it the historical record of this failure. To ask policy-makers to carry out a revolutionary transformation of our common social life is to suggest they are about to utterly reverse this story of failure.

No! This routemap needs to speak to everyday life. As Alex Loftus argues, it is everyday life which must ultimately be transformed. It is everyday well-being that is at stake. It is to the opponents of incinerators and fracking, the recycling and anti-bin tax campaigners, the wind-farmers and opponents of wind-farms that a political strategy focussed on well-being must address itself. It is in this realm of everyday experience that modern democracy might yet be revolutionised and modern life transformed into a world of well-being.

We are all aware of living with the consequences of the past two-hundred years of capitalist history. We already live in a world living with the effects of climate change. We have a permanent oil crisis that confronts every opponent of fracking or parent on the daily school run. The limits of parliamentary democracy in tacking such existential issues is abundantly clear as politicians dump green levies to subsidise energy monopolists.

If history tells us anything, it is that the change to come is not an issue for 2050, it is here already. The historical moment of transformation is already upon is. It is what we do today, and how people in their real lives are mobilised for change now that is building the future world of well-being. FoE’s future strategy must be a strategy for the transformation of everyday life, or it will be nothing.

Litter post at ‘The Conversation’

In defence of litter

By Timothy Cooper, University of Exeter

What propels us to notice when a place is badly littered or surprisingly clean? When abroad, why do we often make comparisons between well-swept cities and badly kept ones?

Of course, there is the banal response that cleaning our city streets is necessary to keep people and traffic moving, so obviously we notice when this has not taken place. But it’s interesting that the positive condition of urban “sustainability”, which includes the vast and expensive complex of refuse collection and disposal, only becomes apparent when it fails. The experience of litter, then, is the experience of negativity – when the positive order on which contemporary life is dependant displays its hidden existence to us.

Perhaps a more important question, then, is why we notice litter when we refuse to see its necessary obverse: the heroic labours of urban cleansing that grease the wheels of life in cities. There are no workers more essential to our world than the refuse collector and the street-sweeper.

Litter and littering are historical phenomena. They were invented in the early twentieth century, and are distinct from previous urban concerns with street-sweeping that can be traced back to every form of urban existence. Medieval parishes in England paid for the removal of dead dogs from the streets, for instance. “Littering”, by contrast, emerged in the years after the Great War. Urban officials had certainly noticed this “other great nuisance of the roads” in the period before 1914, but it was only after 1918 that littering became a subject of popular concern and effective political campaigning.

The emergence of littering was partly a consequence of the changing patterns of an intensified consumerism in the early twentieth century. But this is not really enough to fully grasp its rise. For littering was, at the outset, a class phenomenon. It was presumed that the “Litter Habit” was learnt by working people experiencing the new freedoms of public holidays and the pleasures of consumption, and who were unused to the ways of the countryside or careless to the civic well-being of towns. In a world with an emerging Communist superpower, littering was also a sign of the decay of the rights of property. The “litter bug” did not simply defile landscapes; they also symbolically affronted the basis of capitalism itself by claiming, through careless disposal, the very property on which they stood.

“There is apparently a feeling”, a Times correspondent wrote in 1925, “that a place dedicated to the people (parks) has not really passed into the possession and usufruct [right to enjoy other people’s property] of the people unless they are allowed to do exactly as they please in it… to leave behind them any rubbish which they are too lazy to conceal or take home with them.” One landed MP complained of finding a family out picnicking on his drive about to “leave behind them a mountain of mess”. When asked to take their refuse with them the father of the group replied, “if you can afford a place like this, you can afford to have somebody pick up the mess”. This was not mindless vandalism, this was a very deliberate act of resistance to private property.

Little wonder then, that after the Second World War the Litter Act 1958 sought to abate the “litter nuisance” by applying a £10 fine to offenders. The act brought tangible benefits to the Keep Britain Tidy Group, formed in 1954 by members of the Women’s Institute. It received a £1,500 per annum grant to publicise the new act. By the 1980s it had a £500,000 income from both public and private sources to contribute to this disciplining and control of public behaviour.

And yet as we all know, littering did not go away. While the heroic figure of the father littering in pursuit of the class struggle may be a rarity, there are probably few people who have not carelessly (or perhaps joyously) infringed the law by tossing away an odd cigarette butt or paper cup.

This is the dark, but necessary, underside of noticing litter. Littering is a means to resist the tired domination of petty officialdom over everyday life. We can all experience the momentary freedom of rule-breaking by littering. The irony then is precisely this double-sided character – in litter we recognise and abhor rule-breaking, yet at the same time we also see our own fantasies of liberty. Perhaps this is why littering has never really died out, and why there will always remain a need for those heroes of the cities, the street sweepers.

Timothy Cooper does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Waste, Social Change and the Politics of Everyday Life in Twentieth Century Britain

The following is the text of a short piece I submitted to the ongoing Friends of the Earth policy review:

Where are the resources to transform the relations between humans and their environment to be found today? One of the common answers to this question is in the combination between technology and government policy. However apparently attractive this answer may appear, in so far as it leaves out of account the everyday lives of real people, and their desires and capacities to transform their own worlds, it is inadequate to the tasks ahead. Policy alone does not allow us to ask what our common challenges are, or what kind of environment or society we wish to live in. To address these questions, we must look at the level of everyday life.

One of the central environmental questions of everyday life in twentieth-century Britain was that of waste disposal. In the 1900s there was widespread advocacy of incineration as a disposal technology by many experts. By the 1930s, controlled tipping (landfill) had come to serve this role. The objective of such technologies was to render the city sustainable by cleansing it of filth and refuse, the products of which were deposited upon marginal areas. This story is well-known. What is less well-know is the sometimes vehement opposition of those affected by refuse disposal. Local authorities, central government and private companies were all subject to complaints by residents affected. One of the key issues was the priority afforded by experts to the needs of the city over those of rural/marginal urban areas, where disposal sites were often located. At stake was a fundamental power struggle to control technology and the privileging of urban space and different conceptions of the value of nature. Opponents of controlled-tipping were often at pains to protect old-quarries and pieces of ‘waste’ land from being transformed from spaces of play and enjoyment of nature, to flat artificial spaces of plain, boring utility. Indeed, in everyday opposition to refuse tipping the defence of play was as often as important as the defence of nature.

The 1970s saw the first attempt to politically mobilise the power of these everyday politics in the rise of a recycling movement propounded by organisations such as Friends of the Earth. In its early days recycling was very much a ‘people’s’ movement, coming out of local communities as a political intervention into what was seen as the excesses of consumerism. Unfortunately, this link between recycling and everyday life was diluted in the 1980s and 1990s, as recycling schemes were increasingly subsumed by local authorities and then private industry. Today, recycling imposes a great deal of household labour, the profits of which go largely to privatised waste collection and disposal firms. However, the everyday politics of waste are still with us in, for example, the vehement opposition across the country to the imposition of waste incinerators as the ‘green’ alternative to landfill. Historically speaking, this opposition is quite right to be sceptical, as technologies of disposal have come and gone during the twentieth century, often with little regard to the needs of people or environment.

In terms of social change, all this suggests that any really effective change needs to go far beyond relying on the disciplinary mechanisms of policy and technology, which privilege some people and spaces (cities) over others (country, suburbs). Instead, it needs to devise means to reactivate the concerns of people for their everyday environments, and to support their struggles to protect them as meaningful spaces. An everyday politics of environmentalism may be the most effective untapped resource for social and environmental transformation yet. It might partly be possible to tap these energies with history itself, and by careful listening to the knowledge and memories of places and spaces facing the pressures of, for example, climate change.

400ppm as Historical Event

When the Guardian reported last week that the famous ‘Keeling Curve‘ measure of atmospheric carbon dioxide, made at the Mauna Loa observatory, has hit an average 400ppm, it did so in terms which emphasized the moment as an historical event. A kind of step-change, or barrier passed. Of course, in scientific terms, 400ppm does not necessarily tell us very much. Climate modelling and prediction are heroically complex tasks, not reducible to crudely picking  a number from a series as a ‘turning point’. In part the choice to highlight this measurement now is part of the the continuing scientific struggle with the apologists of inaction, who have recently been seeking to selectively exploit recent temperature data to suggest global warming has stalled.

Yet, what is interesting to me as an historian is the representation of the ‘curve’ as historical, and in particular as evidence for a future historian looking back. This representation of the historicity of an attempt to measure and model our atmosphere and climate is both intriguing and important. It demonstrates the way in which the so-called ‘debate’ on climate change (something that would better be understood as a struggle) is deeply structured by our sense of time and history. In part it is perhaps an attempt to fill in for the fundamentally ahistorical, or perhaps, impossibly-historical, character of this field of science. One of the great problems for climate scientists, is that while they have developed powerful tools for understanding past and future climatic change, it is often difficult for these to talk to the human historical dimension. When told we are heading for disaster, we tend to ask “When will the disaster strike?”, or, “When is the point of no return?”. Such questions, which in some ways obfuscate the nature of the political issues at stake, stem from the historical turn of mind.

With this in mind, it is useful to look again at the curve, to consider the nature of the historicity it seeks to communicate. One is struck by the way in which the curve emerges from nowhere, the arbitrary starting date of 1958 is when Charles Keeling began recording the data. From that point, its repetitious peaks and troughs rise almost relentlessly. We can imagine it gently rising in the same manner well beyond 400ppm. As such this is a record of a natural catastrophe, a sign of some mechanism of transformation functioning beyond human control, the ever increasing energy demands and atmospheric pollution of industrial ‘progress’. It is the history of the ‘non-history’ of capitalism itself, ever on the rise, acting independently of human good or human will.

For this historian, however, what is evident is the absolute absence of historicity from the chart. There are no dramatic interventions into its data anywhere, no ‘events’ in the traditional historical sense, merely a continuous intractable rise. This lack of historicity, the absence of an ‘event’, is, however, what is most compelling and provocative about this graph. In the end, 400ppm is just another point on a line. It too will be surpassed in time and concentration like all the others. No human intervention has yet made any difference to the upward trajectory of the curve. Ultimately, the Keeling Curve tells us a story about the absence of a turning point, the absence of a political choice, and this is perhaps the source of our fascination with it. We study it in the hope of the appearance of an historical rupture; a point at which we choose to survive; the point at which capitalism is rendered no longer a natural force acting against our will, but subject to rational control.

We study this chart, then, for signs of revolution, and we are troubled by its absence. For we already know that only with the intervention of a political event will the Keeling Curve finally have been rendered truly historical.

Thinking with history about the future

Where do we stand today in relation to environmental change? Why have we failed so badly to respond adequately to the problem of climate change? Can historical knowledge help us to guide us in thinking critically about our present predicament? My aim in this blog is to bring together historical work on these themes with the work of students and others to rethink how we engage with humanity’s future dimension. The basis assumption of this site is that a critical utopianism is a necessary prerequisite to establishing a common future for all. Our environment cannot be left in the hands of technocrats, politicians and businessmen, it must be politically reclaimed as the space of democratic practice. This means restablishing the temporal dimension of environments, as places with both a past and a future. In this project historicity, in the broadest sense,  is central.