- The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism by Harriet Ritvo
The Dawn of Green narrates Manchester’s acquisition of Thirlmere, in the English Lake District, as its primary reservoir at the end of the nineteenth century. Harriet Ritvo begins with the romantics’ celebration of the lake as a place of natural beauty and power. She goes on to review Manchester’s growth and water needs, then examines the debates and processes of policymaking that led Parliament to allow Manchester to acquire Thirlmere in 1879. The fourth chapter concerns the building of the waterworks and Manchester’s subsequent administration of what Ritvo rightly recognizes as a distant colony. In the last chapter, she traces the town’s later water conquests of other pristine lakes, and the ultimate regionalization and then privatization of British water resources. Ritvo treats the Thirlmere affair as exemplary of environmental controversy: it is the model for the great American controversy over the Hetch Hetchy reservoir for San Francisco a generation later; equally, she argues, for the Aswan Dam and the Three Gorges project in China. In a brief epilogue, she notes that many of the anxieties that animated partisans on both sides had a basis in fact and points, tantalizingly, toward finding ways to mediate controversies that avoid the hardening of positions. But generally, the book is lean on scholarly context—Ritvo presents; she does not argue.
The book is gracefully written and nicely illustrated. But it is a moral tale without a moral. While Ritvo writes evenhandedly about a bitter controversy, her concentration on Thirlmere itself, rather than, say, the water resources and needs of northwest England, tilts matters. On occasion, the [End Page 980] paraphernalia of the controversy—what was served at the celebratory opening of the waterworks or the contradictory maunderings about the reservoir as a fishery—come at the cost of an analysis of how the parties came to the positions that they did.
One hungers for more—about historical context in the first place, but also of the nature of environmental controversy and of the manifold technical (and legal, financial, political) problems of urban water supply. For in many ways, the Thirlmere controversy was not unique. Almost always, Victorian environment-changing projects, whether sponsored by urban authorities or capitalists (less distinct entities than one might expect), generated conflicting appeals to public good, to rights, to aesthetics, and sometimes to proto-ecological concerns. The mediation of these overwhelmed parliamentary private bill committees, which granted power to raise capital or purchase land compulsorily. Thirlmere may indeed have been exemplary, but it was hardly a “dawn.” Moreover, jaded contemporaries were often rightly suspicious of the arguments in such controversies. Hidden agendas abounded; positions taken in both promotion or in opposition often were bargaining chips—what is at stake in such disputes may simply be the nature of an acceptable payoff. Rival towns, too, might lust for the same waters or simply perceive that whatever aided Manchester harmed them. Engineers, municipal officials, landowners, and contractors might be skillfully playing their own hands. Ritvo’s focus on the rhetoric of controversy may lead us to reify its tropes—preservationism, for instance— while overlooking more concrete motivations, substantive issues, and the details of negotiation. Finally, readers of Technology and Culture may want more on water engineering, not merely the guts of civil engineering practice, but the wider world involving the conception, financing, and promotion of big projects. Was this good engineering? Were there better ways of resolving Manchester’s water needs? Here, reference to G. M. Binnie’s classic Early Victorian Water Engineers (1981) would have been useful.
Ritvo’s poignant and perhaps even tragic case study is a delightful wallow in Victorian modes of public posturing. She rightly recognizes the case as an important one and has opened a door in this book. My hope is that others will go through it; we badly need general histories of the handling of environmental issues in what was known as “parliamentary practice.” [End Page 981]
Christopher Hamlin is...