Friends of the Earth in the UK and History & Policy organized a conference last Wednesday at King’s College in London to bring together historians and campaigners to discuss what we can learn from the past. The format of the conference was fantastic. In each of the four panels, three historians presented short 15-minute papers and a campaigner or journalist then commented on the papers. Instead of a question and answer session, the audience, who were carefully distributed in tables with a mix of participants, discussed the lessons of each session (note takers collected ideas from each table). At lunch we switched tables and engaged in a conversation with a new group.
The questions addressed by the different panels were difficult and any hopes for simple answers from the past were dashed by the end of the first session, which focused on: Why do norms change? Historians discussed what can we learn from the history of abolitionism, nineteenth-century gender dynamics, or the development of industrial-scale animal husbandry. These diverse papers were tied together by the commentator, Sarah Wootton, from Dignity in Dying. Wootton made it clear that her organization wants to learn all that they can from successful past campaigns, such as the growing cultural acceptance of homosexuality and the expansion of LGBTQ legal rights. This panel led to an engaging conversation at my table about what we can and cannot learn from these kinds of historical examples. We also ran into a core question: what is a norm and how is it different from an ideology? This was not an easy question to answer with two minutes left in our allotted conversation time.
The next two panels looked at the role of civil society in shaping change, and cities as the site of many important developments over the past two centuries. Some of the questions raised included: Are there historical examples of marginalized people working effectively for change, even as they remained excluded from the political system? What do we know about the effectiveness of NGOs in British politics? How has city planning worked in the post-war period?
The afternoon conversation at my table focused on two papers from these sessions, given by Simon Szreter and Stephen Mosley, on urban environmental conditions from the mid-nineteetn to the mid-twentieth centuries. This was a really interesting discussion because it overlapped with my research interests and Mosley was at our table to expand on his presentation. Smoke pollution and filthy conditions were normalized long before rapid urban growth in the nineteenth century and people were deeply attached to burning coal in their homes. Medical officials campaigned to improve the urban environment, but faced decades of inertia as politicians continued to promote the idea of a smoky city as a prosperous city. We discussed the parallels with the current climate crisis.
Smoke remained a problem until the mid-twentieth century, when London’s deadly Great Smog in 1952 finally spurred action. This was a depressing example that required thousands of deaths to finally instigate a drawn out process change. Other urban environmental problems improved decades earlier at the turn of the twentieth century. Numerous factors, from the expansion of the electorate to include lower waged renters, to the reduced cost of borrowing for infrastructure, and the declining number of horses (and quantities of manure), all combined to improve urban conditions and to reduce infant mortality. Most English cities were initially slow to address the unhealthy conditions that came with rapid urban growth. When changes began to occur in the 1870s, however, dozens of cities and boroughs acted independently and with different levels of enthusiasm, which together culminated with remarkably improved urban health across England by the early decades of the twentieth century. Changes came in fits and started with a patchwork of implementations, but they were a successful changes nonetheless. Discussing these examples led to more questions: What can we learn from the pace of change in the past? Will we need a major crisis to accomplish the transformative change we need, or will local efforts evolve into a global solution?
The final panel explored the conditions required for rapid change. David Edgerton asked if the Second World War is a particularly good model for examining rapid change? The economy transformed because of the War, but Edgerton is not convinced that it was a “people’s war” that resulted in long-term socio-economic and political change. Brodie Waddle discussed the end of famines in England at the end of the sixteenth century. This raised a really interesting question about what we can learn from the more distant past, by focusing on how people grappled with the biggest challenges of their time; the elite were scared of the social ramifications of high grain prices and famines. Does change require the threat of social disorder? Paul Warde address the question of energy transitions and demonstrated there have been rapid shifts to oil and natural gas since the end of the Second World War. Change is possible and the current UK energy regime only dates back to the 1990s, when the electricity providers shifted from coal to gas. Do these transforming energy regimes provide a model for more sustainable changes in the future?
The workshop led to more questions than answers. Nevertheless, it started a conversation between people working for change and a group of historians who study change in the past. Historians cannot provide a simple blueprint for environmentalists or dying with dignity campaigners, but we can provide them with a deep understanding of the multifaceted process of change in the past. Historians in the UK and beyond need to find ways to continue and expand this conversation in the future.
You can read more from those of us who Tweeted during the conference all gathered together on Storify: