Gender, Class and the Victorian Fight to Protect the Environment

In December 2019, Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, was named TIME magazine’s person of the year. Though just 18 years old, her work in applying pressure so that the powers-that-be might recognise the true destructive capacity of climate change has proved even more important since the start of the pandemic. While Greta represents a new generation of modern environmentalists, her shared heritage with 19th-century climate scientist, Svante Arrhenius, reminds us that the climate crisis is not a modern issue but a centuries-old one, that’s just long been deprived of urgency.

In 1896, Arrhenius published the first accurate model of the greenhouse effect, detailing the detrimental consequences of increased CO2 levels on the planet. Although a revolutionary thinker, he wasn’t the first to notice how rapid Western industrialisation was depleting the natural world. Nor was American essayist, Henry David Thoreau, who opened his 1862 manuscript, ‘Walking’, with these famous words:

“I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil- to regard man as an inhabitant or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society.”

Recorded timelines cite Arrhenius, Thoreau, Earl Anthony Ashley of Shaftesbury and other middle and upper-class men as the key early advocates for our planet’s health. These men may have been instrumental but the original whistleblowers were, in fact, farming families (many of whom were working-class) who had no choice but to keep an eye on things as their entire livelihoods depended on the subtlest changes in the environment. Out of the concerns raised by farming communities was born the historical science of climatology, a mixture of disciplines merging academic studies of physics, geography and medicine with communal practices of ‘citizen science’, wherein ordinary people would report on the weather and its effects on their health, crops or yields.

Today’s scientists may not consider it of much merit but this union between academia and everyday folk led to an increased trust in science, all too important in a society that was more inclined to the superstitious than the scientific. Unfortunately, as the industrial revolution raged on, farming communities dwindled and the fight for a cleaner environment found a place in a new frontier- the factories. In this country, the gruesome realities of 19th-century factories and workhouses were suffered mainly by women and children, who made up the majority of the industrial workforce. Because they were poor, female, young (or a combination of the three), wider society didn’t initially care much about the dangerous and unsanitary conditions they were forced to work in, until the problems spilled out onto the streets and the emergence of evangelical Christianity awoke a conscience in the middle and upper classes.

As factories and workhouses expanded so did the new urban metropolises in which they existed. Environmental problems in the cities of Leeds, Manchester and London (to name but a few) were rapidly increasing, due mainly to the chemical waste produced by the factories and the biological waste produced by the growing populations of workers (otherwise known as shit). This caused the wealthy to flee while the poor remained in the cities, inhaling toxic air and drinking contaminated water. This was a time period defined by smoky hazes, faecal crises and disease outbreaks, which eventually prompted a new wave of activism, from factory and public health reformers to animal conservationists.

So many monumental correctional bills were passed in the UK between 1837 and 1901, that historians often refer to it as ‘the age of reform’. The people passing those bills may have been men but a good chunk of those campaigning on the ground were gentry housewives. The RSPB, for example, was founded by four women, through the merging of regional groups organised to protect birds from the popular trend of fashioning hats with colourful feathers.

Focused on their individual causes, reformers at the time didn’t know that they were contributing to the unified plight against climate change but the things they achieved, such as the founding of the National Trust in 1895 to protect green spaces and the London sewage clean-up of the same year which led to the return of many fish species to the Thames, bought extra time for generations to come and is part of the reason why activists like Greta can have hope for a greener future.

This post was written by The Herstorian's writer, Memuna Konteh. Memuna is a 22-year-old Sierra Leonean woman who was raised in North Yorkshire and is currently based in London. She aspires to be the kind of writer who gives voices to the marginalised and silenced. Find her on Twitter @memandms and Instagram @memkonteh

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