By Beto Wetter (University of Oxford)
This blog post reflects ongoing research supported by the EHS Research Fund for Graduate Students.
With the generous £250 archival research grant, I will be able to conduct research in the National Archives at Kew. This short blog post will offer some initial points of interest for my dissertation.
In general, the topic of focus for my dissertation is to see if a politics of pollution emerged in Britain because of the First World War. I will investigate how people in Britain viewed pollution was framed around the idea of waste.
There were large slag heaps of coal or puddles of steel from the exhausted railroad industry across Britain. Waste runoff polluted rivers and lakes. Munitions were dumped into the Thames Estuary. However, what will be interesting to dig into the archives is to see the ways in which people in Britain viewed, or considered, pollution. Though it is likely that contemporary views of pollution in Britain during and after the First World War are different than modern views of pollution in an environmental sustainability context, what excites me is digging into the archives to see if a politics of pollution emerged in Britain after the war, and how it shaped British urban development.
This generous grant from the Economic History Society will help me access invaluable archives at the National Archives at Kew. A source that will be of particular interest is the Barlow Report (1937). The Barlow Report is important because it should help find some of the underpinnings about the degree to which industry represented an environmental problem in Britain after the First World War. I also intend to look at sources from the Ministry of Munitions and Ministry of Housing, for instance, to study the changes in perceptions around pollution while taking the historical context into account.
After taking North American environmental history classes at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, USA as an undergraduate, I was intrigued by the evolving relationship humans share with the built and natural environment. Specifically, reading William Cronon’s Changes in the Land opened a new door into the arena of environmental history. Reading environmental historians such as Cronon, Matthew Klingle (who was my professor at Bowdoin College), Andrew Hurley, and most recently Bathsheba Demuth continued to open my mind to the unique world of environmental history. While these historians approach the contingencies of environmental history in different ways, they share a common analytical thread by complicating a stereotypical narrative of nature in decline because of exploitation. While extractive industries do and continue to shape built and natural environments, it seems that a common line of thinking in North American historiography is how the changing relationship humans share with the built and natural environments often bring social, economic, and political consequences that in turn mark history.
Therefore, I am planning on leveraging valuable North American environmental history that may not be applicable to the British context, I am aiming to build off the work of past environmental historians in the North American context to help map out the politics of pollution that may have emerged in Britain because of the First World War. historiographical insight from these—along with other—North American environmental histories and apply them on to the British context, in conjunction with industrial histories and urban history of Britain. Although I anticipate there will be certain aspects of North American environmental history that may not be applicable to the British context, I am aiming to build off the work of past environmental historians in the North American context to help map out the politics of pollution that may have emerged in Britain because of the First World War.
Since environmental history is more common in the North American historiographical landscape, and the environmental history of Britain’s experience during the First World War is still an emerging field, I am excited to see where this research takes me this Fall and the upcoming academic year in studying the politics of pollution in Britain during and after the First World War.
In conclusion, when I finish my dissertation, I will acknowledge in clear terms how the generosity of the Economic History Society helped me complete the historical project.
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