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Brendan Prendiville, David Haigron (eds.), Political Ecology and Environmentalism in Britain

Renée Dickason
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Brendan Prendiville, David Haigron (eds.), Political Ecology and Environmentalism in Britain (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020). 159 pages. ISBN: 1-5275-4247-5.

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1“Political ecology” and “environmentalism” are multifaceted concepts encompassing a range of social, political and economic factors affecting environmental, ecological and sustainable development issues. The expression “political ecology” was, it seems, first used in 1935 by Frank Thone in a Science News article entitled “Nature Rambling: We Fight for Grass” and was revived in the 1970s by American anthropologist Eric Robert Wolf. In 1970s Europe, “political ecology”, along with the evolution of environmentalism, was also at the core of important and vital issues. In Britain, the launch of the environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) in 2018, followed by the visit to Britain of Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmentalist, reflected the main trend of the ecological movement in a 21st century with its multiplication of actions intended to limit what the media have tended to call, with an appropriately apocalyptic rhetoric, the impending climate change catastrophe.

2This was the context in which Political Ecology and Environmentalism in Britain was edited by Franco-British political sociologist Brendan Prendiville and French social and political historian David Haigron. At first glance, this diverse collection of chapters focuses on the crucial and prominent current concern with environmental topics in Britain. The scope of this collective work is, however, not limited to the contemporary context; it is more ambitious as it also tackles the concepts of “political ecology” and “environmentalism” from a historical point of view, for, as Brendan Prendiville reminds us, the environmentalist movement dates back to the mid-19th century and has been an active, if intermittent, contributor to reflexions ever since then in Britain. As he rightly emphasizes, Britain has evolved from an industrial to a post-industrial society, with each development bringing in its wake different attitudes and reactions towards the natural and social environments.

3In the early years of industrialization, the main cause for concern was pollution. This phenomenon is amply depicted in the literature and the arts of the time and was graphically illustrated even before the official birth of the environmentalist movement and urbanization of the city by caricaturist and social reformer George Cruickshank in his famous “London’s water supply” (1828) and “London going out of Town – The March of Bricks and Mortar” (1829). Even earlier, in the 17th century, London suffered from malodorously unclean water and a polluted atmosphere for which the epithets the “Great Stink” and the “Great Smog” became commonplace. Nor was the capital the only British city whose unhealthy atmosphere was notorious, as exemplified in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, for Edinburgh rejoiced in the name of “Auld Reekie” at the end of the 18th century, and disease was to become endemic in the newly industrialized towns and cities in other parts of Britain, cholera being a particularly widespread and virulent scourge. Lively reactions were to emerge in the 19th century, but the focus was less on what we now call the environment than on the damage to human life and the welfare of society.

4Suffice to say that environmentalism means different things at different times to different people, which highlights the need to explore a variety of approaches (historical, socio-political, Marxist, regional/national, generational) to the questions of political ecology. These complicated matters are developed in a convincing manner by the other specialist contributors to this volume who explore the heterogeneous and fluctuating nature, aspirations and methods of the numerous groups and organisations striving to influence national and local policies in favour of the environment within the context of an electoral and political system where (even substantial) minorities find it hard to make their voices heard or to call governments to account.

5To conclude, this useful, well-balanced and accurate collective book gives the reader a general overview of a vivid, profound and universal issue in the singular history of the British Isles. It will be invaluable to those wishing to understand and appreciate the struggles of environmentalists in the early years of the 21st century and their antecedents, and with the so far untold repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, may prove to have been published at a major turning point in national and international history, the moment when desirable changes in human behaviour may become essential.

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Renée Dickason, « Brendan Prendiville, David Haigron (eds.), Political Ecology and Environmentalism in Britain »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 19-n°51 | 2021, document 8, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2021, consulté le 23 juillet 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/13230 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.13230

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Renée Dickason

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