The birth of environmentalism in the Lake District

November 16, 2009
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Seemingly but one of the many placid bodies of water carved out of the glaciated rock that inhabits the heart of England’s Lake District, the man-made Thirlmere—which since the late nineteenth century has been supplying water to the city of Manchester more than 160 km away—was once the focus of one of the first conflicts pitting industrial progress against a burgeoning conservation movement. In her new book, The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism, Harriet Ritvo offers the fascinating tale of Thirlmere’s construction and the struggles to stop it, all while delivering an insightful analysis of how this conflict can inform modern environmental and conservation campaigns.
In a recent review of the book for The Independent, Emma Townshend writes:

Ritvo’s account of this confrontation between industrial commerce and early environmentalism is clear and utterly readable. Thirlmere was the first modern conflict between these two camps, so difficult to reconcile. Ideas about natural beauty versus the need for modern utilities were discussed here in detail for the first time. But the consequent history of big-dam making has proved equally controversial—such as at Hetch Hetchy in the US, a parallel turn of the century project to bring water supplies to San Francisco by creating a dam in the centre of the new Yosemite National Park.
In our own decade, the Three Gorges project on the Yangtze took its place in the history books as the most destructive dam ever built in archaeological, cultural and human terms, having displaced some 1.24 million people from their homes and contributed to the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin. Yet the project is also hailed in China for its formidable contribution to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions: in its first three years the dam has already generated enough electricity to cover a third of its building costs, and it provides significant winter flood protection to the provinces downstream, including several of China’s biggest cities.
There are no easy answers, and the dam at Three Gorges demonstrates exactly why Ritvo’s fascination with the conflict at Thirlmere remains relevant to us today.

For Townshend’s complete article navigate to The Independent website.

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