Extinction, industrialisation, resource extraction, colonial expansion, environmentalism, land reformulation, capitalism — these entangled areas, and their impact on the human and more-than-human world, loomed large in nineteenth-century imaginations across cultures, as they continue to do in our own. It was an era in which coal became cheaply and readily available, emergent tropical medicine blended with prejudicial theories in the colonies to respond to biological threats, the concept of ‘the Land’ destabilised agricultural identity, and extinction narratives were being reimagined for their place in the museum. These issues pervaded science, technology, industry, literature, art, politics, and quotidian life to inform diverse cultural responses: whether through ridiculing woolly mammoth preservationists in the periodical press, or defending natural resources for Nation and Empire through the Royal Agricultural Society.
This online workshop, hosted by CNCSI, features a series of multidisciplinary talks by an international cast of academic experts exploring nineteenth-century engagements with and theorisations of the environment — from the origins of fossil fuel’s entrenchment in today’s societies, to emergent conceptualisations of environmentalism, and to the legacy and relevance of these engagements and ideas to today’s climate crisis.
10:45-11:00 (CET): WELCOME ADDRESS
Speaker: Bennett Zon, Durham University
11:00-11:45 (CET): SESSION 1
Chair: Emily Vincent, Durham University
Speaker: Karen Sayer, Leeds Trinity University
Keyword “the Land”: Meanings and Legacies?
“The Land remains, [the cultivation of the soil goes on] …beyond the interests of individuals, above even the interests of the present generation, is the interest of the Land itself. … the land must be fairly dealt by, and the maintenance of its fertility should, in the national interest, be the paramount consideration” (Henry Rew, 1913: v-vi).
The aim of this paper is to consider whether the concept of the Land as represented in nineteenth century Britain might be read as an emergent conceptualisation of environmentalism. The idea of “the Land” for agricultural commentators like Henry Rew included the geographical bounds and acreage of the UK, its natural resources (woodland, cultivated land, grazing etc.), the soil and underlying geology, but also something of the nation and its history that lay beyond the ‘human’ world of individual landowners and farmers while connected to the legacy of their work with it. Something in and of itself that persisted, landowners were its custodians. Highly idealised, and predicated on inheritance, “the Land” nevertheless at times seems to have captured a sense of unease at the emergence of the highly capitalised High Farming that not only came to dominate Britain, but also its colonies. Focusing on the publications of agricultural commentators such as Young, Caird and Rew, whose work was treated as authoritative, the question of the relationship between ‘Practice Through Science’ (the strapline of the Royal Agricultural Society of England), High Farming and the emergence of tensions between land as resource, generating calories for Nation and Empire, and the Land as something that must be ‘fairly dealt by’ for the future will be weighed.
12:00-12:45 (CET): SESSION 2
Chair: Nanna Kaalund, Aarhus University
Speaker: Vanessa Heggie, University of Birmingham
Temperature and Temperament: Saving humans from the Environment in the Nineteenth Century
European expansion and colonialism in the early modern period exposed European bodies to new, and often threatening environments. While historians have traced medical theories of acclimatisation, adaptation, and seasoning well into the 19th Century, towards the end of the century attention tends to shift to the new Tropical Medicine, to germ and parasite driven theories of disease and health in the ‘tropics’. In this paper I look to methods deployed to protect human beings from their environments at the end of the twentieth century; in contrast to large-scale interventions such as swamp or forest clearing, I want to make a case for the personal environment, for the everyday and the quotidian. Simple technologies such as food or clothing were blended with complex theories about race and evolution, in an attempt to ensure the survival of white bodies, and the preservation of white cultures, on expeditions and in colonial settlements.
13:00-14:00 (CET): LUNCH BREAK
14:00-14:45 (CET): SESSION 3
Chair: Emma Merkling, Durham University
Speaker: Sarah Wade, University of East Anglia
Reimagining Historical Natural History Display to Address Twenty-First Century Wildlife Conservation Concerns
Natural history collections, many of which were founded in the nineteenth century, are well placed to address ecological crisis today due to the types of collections in their care. In recent years, activity in response to this critical issue has been curatorially wide ranging, including large scale masterplan projects, temporary exhibitions, interventions in historical collections, the commissioning and display of contemporary art, participatory events and digital engagement activities. Yet these diverse approaches have been united by placing human activities at the heart of environmental breakdown, foregrounding the entangled reality of the ecologies of life on Earth. While artists and curators have intervened in natural history museums in manifold ways, they have also reimagined nineteenth century modes of display such as the habitat diorama, presentations of taxidermy hunting trophies and the aquarium for the 21st century to address the anthropogenic threats facing the planet. This paper examines various instances of this field of practice revealing shifts in how wildlife conservation has been perceived and represented in display from the nineteenth century to the present day. I demonstrate how historical displays resulting from the destruction and exploitation of wildlife have been reorientated to address wildlife protection in the present day.
15:00-15:45 (CET): SESSION 4
Chair: Thomas Hughes, The Courtauld Institute of Art.
Speaker: Rebecca Woods, University of Toronto
Ephemeral Extinction: Woolly Mammoths, Industry, and Ice in the Long Nineteenth century
By the early years of the 19th century, the once mysterious elephant bones found fossilized throughout the northern hemisphere, far beyond the known stamping grounds of tropical elephants, had largely been accounted for: they were the remains of woolly mammoths, an extinct ancestor of living elephants described as such by Georges Cuvier in the late 18th century. Interest in these remains persisted, especially in the context of their potential industrial applications. Mammoth ivory, like elephant ivory, could be used in manufacturing. Frozen mammoths—rare specimens whose hair, hide, and flesh persisted across millennia, protected from regular processes of decay by Siberian permafrost—were, in the eyes of the British press, natural examples of a technological novelty (frozen meat) in the context of a newly inaugurated imperial trade in frozen and refrigerated meat. These discourses refracted emergent notions of extinction. The abundance of preserved tusks from extinct mammoths in Siberia could be likened to a vast coal field, poised to rescue African elephants from their own impending extinction, while Henry Howorth, antiquarian, parliamentarian, and the author of a learned text on “the mammoth and the flood,” could be pillaried in Punch as the Prime Warden of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Extinct Mammoths.
16:00-16:45 (CET): SESSION 5
Chair: Efram Sera-Shriar, University of Copenhagen
Speaker: Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, University of Chicago
Fossil Futures: Revisiting Nineteenth Century British History in the Age of Planetary Emergency
The planetary crisis of climate change unsettles not just present politics but also our sense of the past. In this talk, I will apply the lens of climate science and energy analysis to suggest a new interpretation of British nineteenth century history that deepens our understanding of how and why fossil fuel became so entrenched in modern societies. Rather than dwell primarily on the factory system as the locus of change, we need to explore the full range of energy intensive forms of work and consumption that shaped the fossil economy. These sites include the canal infrastructure that made coal mobile and cheap; the deep coal mine, which was the first workplace to be reshaped by steam engines; the coke-fired iron industry with its close ties to a new fossil protectionist state; and the coal burning household where fossil fuel transformed childcare, cooking, and hygiene. My talk tracks the multiple transformations wrought by coal in British society after 1760 from the infrastructure of the canal network and the steam-powered colliery to the coal-fired household and the emergence of a new ideology of fossil growth in politics. Fossil fuel even colonized the future as geologists and politicians debated the duration of the national coal supply. From such historical investigation, I try to construct a new picture of the origins of the fossil growth imperative, starting not with the climate denial of big oil in recent decades, but a much earlier interpenetration of fossil fuel, state power, infrastructure, and ideology which emerged in the period 1760-1880.