The First Modern Environmental Battle Over Lake Thirlmere
Manchester’s industrial economy was growing. The city’s population continued to rise, having more than tripled in the first half of the nineteenth century. Standards of hygiene had also begun to improve with better understandings of the roots of disease and demands of public health. However, amidst all this good news, the city had encountered a growing problem: a shortage of water.
The solution proposed by city leaders in 1877 involved the damming of Lake Thirlmere, 100 miles away, to create a reservoir for the city of Manchester. Before long, supporters of the lake responded, forming the Thirlmere Defense Association.
Harriet Ritvo, author of the recently published The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism, argues that the conflict that resulted between these two parties constitutes the first battle of the modern environmental movement. Industry versus a cadre of activists attached to the lake for its environmental beauty and significance but without particular personal attachments to the area.
In the 1870s, Lake Thirlmere remained bucolic, relatively pristine and undeveloped. It lay at the heart of England’s Lake District, the crown jewel of England’s walking culture.
Essayist Rebecca Solnit has written in “Of Walking Clubs and Land Wars” that, whether or not the taste for the country evolved because or independently of dense cities like Manchester, it had assumed a lasting importance in British life:
Walking has a resonance, a cultural weight, [in Great Britain] that it does nowhere else. On summer Sundays, more than eighteen million Britons head for the country, and ten million say they walk for recreation…The American magazine Walking is nothing but a health and fitness publication aimed at women…but Britain has half a dozen outdoor magazines in which walking is about the beauty of the landscape rather than the body.
The early environmental advocates of this era fought to preserve these landscapes and they pleasure they took from them.
In contrast, a supporter of the Manchester dam, John Bateman, criticized the Thirlmere activists’ “sentimental idea that it was sacrilege to invade the precincts of the lakes for any such utilitarian purpose as giving a supply of fresh water to famishing thousands of the manufacturing districts.”
Harriet Ritvo compares Lake Thirlmere of 1853 to the Lake Thirlmere of today
In the end, the Manchester argument won. The Thirlmere Defense Association could only delay the dam project, which won final approval in 1879 and was complete fifteen years later.
In the years since the damming of Thirlmere, Ritvo has argued in interviews, debates like this one have shifted. More information about environmental impacts newly overpowers arguments over utility versus aesthetics. However, beneath current environmental disputes, over water supplies in California or climate change, she sees familiar outlines.
Ritvo told MIT’s Spectrum: “Giving something its historical depth can unveil the difficulty of a problem. You can see why compromise happens so seldom. The ideological commitments of the different perspectives are so strong, and often both very compelling. History helps us understand where opposing positions come from, what their roots are.”
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook
- 10 Shaq Confident He Will Eventually Make Funny Quip on TNT