Enlightenment Ghosts and Ecological Utopianism in the Scottish Highlands

Here at the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds, our eighteenth-century reading group has spent the last few weeks looking at Fredrik Albritton Jonsson’s Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (2013). During the eighteenth century, Enlightenment figures looked to the Scottish Highlands as an untapped source of natural wealth. Agriculture, mines, fisheries and townships emerged from the imaginations of natural historians, surveyors and agricultural improvers. Colonisation and prospecting in the Highlands occurred in conjunction with a flurry of Enlightenment ideas and values. Belief in a divinely-ordered nature led Scottish naturalist John Walker to survey the wilderness for minerals, while agricultural improver John Sinclair mapped acres of untamed land for future cultivation.


Herman Moll, “The north part of Great Britain called Scotland,” 1732. The National Library of Scotland: http://maps.nls.uk/view/74417584

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment drive for Highland prosperity narrated by Jonsson had come to a close. Hopes of unlimited growth and prosperity had run into real-world obstacles. It had been thought that agriculture and land management would alter the harsh climate of the Highlands and that fixed townships would be established. In reality, the end of the Napoleonic Wars proved the bane of many Enlightenment schemes. The market for Scottish kelp and wood collapsed alongside the profitability of projects such as the Caledonian Canal. As failure followed failure, pessimism crept into natural history circles. Surveyor John Williams warned of limits to the Scottish coal supply, while Malthus’s essay on population, which cited disease, war and famine as natural checks on population circulated.


Sir Frank Fraser Darling (right), at the BBC Reith Lecture, 1969: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-13647943

Enlightenment’s Frontier closes with musing on modern population and environmental fears, from the Club of Rome’s 1972 The Limits to Growth to anthropogenic climate change. Yet an alternative vision of the Highlands was established some years before by ecologist Frank Fraser Darling in his West Highland Survey (1955). Darling claimed that excessive exploitation of the Highlands had inflicted severe ecological damage. Eighteenth-century iron smelters and nineteenth-century sheep pastures had caused unprecedented forest loss in the region. The loss of the traditional clan system and annexation of the Highlands in 1745 had, Darling suggested, upset an environmental equilibrium that Gaelic culture had achieved over centuries. His solution to the Highland “problem” of poverty and depopulation was conservation and ecological study, based upon Gaelic society and culture.

In many ways, Darling’s vision was as flawed as that of Jonsson’s actors. On the island of Tanera Mòr, where Darling was based during the 1940s, he had correlated the ecological value of woodland with long-term economic success, without actually working out the finances involved. For eighteenth-century improvers, the harsh and unyielding conditions of the Highlands doomed many of their Enlightenment-themed projects. For Darling, it was these very attempts at “improvement” which had devastated the Highlands.


Book Review: Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990

In Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990, Sabine Höhler, associate professor of science and technology studies at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, considers the emergence of ideas of Earth as a self-sustaining spacecraft. A powerful realisation, combining technological complexity, globalisation and environmentalist discourse, “Spaceship Earth” offered a blueprint for a planet in equilibrium, with the biosphere acting as its life-support system. Höhler draws upon traditional materials for cultural historians, ranging from architecture to cartoons in her analysis of the phenomenon from the 1960s.


Left: “Blue Marble,” 1972. http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=55418. Right, the Unisphere, built for New York’s World Fair features on the cover of Life magazine, May 1964. https://ensisheim.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/it-had-to-be-of-the-space-age/.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the great era of human expansion closed in the face of natural and political limits. This age was replaced by a kind of global stability, which developed at the height of the Cold War – a strategic equilibrium enforced by threat of nuclear annihilation. Space exploration offered one way to break the deadlock, but instead offered a new perspective on an isolated and fragile Earth, famously photographed as the “Blue Marble” by the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. The conception of “Spaceship Earth” emerged out of a dual revelation, namely that earth was both ecologically frail and isolated in the cosmos.


Shot from Silent Running (Douglas Turmbull, 1972). The Earth’s surviving flora and fauna orbit the polluted planet in the American Airlines space freighter Valley Forge.  https://cinemarave1945.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/silent-running-douglas-trumbull-1972/

“Spaceship Earth” is a complex term, encompassing numerous metaphors, scientific fields and political movements. Höhler works through an array of thinkers, from designer Richard Buckminster Fuller to Jay Forrester (whose planetary model appeared in his 1971 work World Dynamics). Each contributed their own expertise to “Spaceship Earth,” whether through cybernetics, feedback mechanisms or Malthusian population fears. On the cultural level, activist groups such as ZPG (Zero Population Growth), campaigned for birth restrictions  in the late 1960s, while films such as Silent Running (1972) and Logan’s Run (1976) explored themes of environmental destruction, dystopian futures and flight from an overpopulated society or dying planet.

Countless actors, cultural phenomenon and scientific disciplines were incorporated under the banner of “Spaceship Earth.” Höhler provides her reader with a whistle-stop tour of Cold War fears and technological optimism. “Spaceship Earth” lost its appeal during the 1990s, as biosphere projects failed and populations of industrialised nations began their decline. What is sometimes lacking from Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age is a clear direction in a vast plethora of interconnected ideas. Yet for an overview of ecological thought and space-orientated science and technology, Höhler’s book provides a well-researched series of compelling examples.

Sabine Höhler, Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2015). www.pickeringchatto.com/spaceship




How Agricultural Science Struggled to Defuse the Population Bomb

Another talk! So many talks recently… But this time I was back with the welcoming home crowd at the University of Leeds, finally presenting on my PhD thesis! I began this seminar by recounting an extraordinary speech at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s (NIAB’s) 1972 Seed Analyst Conference. Presented by the then vice-president of the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) D.H Darbishire, the keynote address was littered with poignant phrases. The “undernourished of all mankind” were suffering as the “Doom debate” raged in industrialised nations, which were in turn a facilitator of the dichotomy between the “affluent minority and disinherited majority” of the global population.


Edward S. Deevey, Jr. “The Human Population,” in Paul R. Ehrlich, John P. Holdren & Richard D. Holm, Man and the Ecosphere (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1971), p. 49. Original printing in Scientific American, 1960.

Why was Darbishire using a Seed Analysts Conference organised by a Cambridge-based agricultural institute to espouse these views with such urgency? Well, in the same year that Darbishire spoke out, the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth published a computer simulation of human society and the environment, declaring that the growing world population was living beyond its means. This was only the latest in a series of “neo-Malthusian” themed texts, all of which declared that the globe was fast approaching its human carrying capacity.

Such a claim was by no means new in the post-war era. In 1948 ecologist William Vogt’s Road to Survival predicted that world population would crash under the weight of its own numbers, subsequently wiping out three-quarters of humanity. This claim was given new urgency by the 1968 publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Here, the claim was made that in agricultural terms, “the stork had passed the plough.” In 1966 world population had increased by seventy million, with no compensatory increase in food production.


Ecology teaching slides from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, Robert McCabe Papers, 1971.

Agricultural science could clearly respond to this (perceived) crisis by endeavoring to increase global crop yields. Steps had been made in the right direction with the “Green Revolution,” high-yielding hybrid crops being passed onto developing nations – albeit with the associated package of chemicals, intensive irrigation and management. However, tracts like The Limits to Growth predicted these gains would soon be overrun by an exponentially growing human population. Higher yielding varieties had to become better, while regulatory institutions like NIAB had to test and promote them faster.

However, intensive monocultures of high-yielding crop varieties had vulnerabilities. Ehrlich had classed these setups as prone to ecological collapse, an opinion shared by many ecologists. Industrialised agriculture was certainly susceptible to common plant diseases like rusts and mildew. Darbishire blamed the practices of plant breeders, who sought to overcome pathogens by focusing on single, major genes. Instead, it might be better to concentrate on “a number of more humble genes.” A genetics arms race with disease strains would bring few benefits.

Clearly, the world faced problems in agriculture, genetics and the environment. How could one institution like NIAB go about responding to these problems? The Institute’s journal certainly carried multiple articles applauding increases in domestic food production across the 1970s. But actions speak louder than words. While NIAB was able to recommend crop varieties with high yields or disease resistance, its work was hindered by the increasing need for disease testing and changing regulatory standards via Britain’s 1973 entry into the European Economic Community (EEC).

At NIAB, cereal yields were portrayed as falling from their peak in the 1950s, due to a mysterious “soil microbiological interaction.” presumably the 1970s equivalent of vital forces or phlogiston theory. Later in the decade, yields were considered to be rising, but at a slow pace. On the disease front, more progress was made, with genetic solutions stepping in for pesticide use (which had taken a battering since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring). Genetic diversity was urged in fields by NIAB officers in a 1979 newsletter, the same year seeing the publication of geneticist Norman Simmond’s textbook Principles of Crop Improvement, which also called for genetic diversity and conservation.


NIAB at work today! The 2014 Cereals Event, Cambridgeshire. Shoddy photography courtesy of the blogger.

In the event, an imminent Malthusian catastrophe turned out to be a false alarm. Although, such concerns continue to crop up (pardon the pun) in modern fears over food security – after all, the global community is still no stranger to famine. From the perspective of an environmentalist, the trend towards crop diversity and genetic conservation as the 1980s approached certainly sounds promising. However, against the background of all this, recombinant DNA  technology was making great strides. On June 16th 1980, in the case of Diamond vs. Chakrabarty, the US Supreme Court ruled five to four that manmade microorganisms were patentable inventions. Later that year, the prototype biotech company Genentech went public, experiencing a huge demand for its stock on Wall Street. A new chapter on food and environmental controversy was just opening…

Further Reading:

Ainsworth, G.C., Introduction to the History of Plant Pathology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Ehrlich, Paul R., The Population Bomb (New York: Buccaneer Books, 1968).

Meadows, Donella H. Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (London, Pan Books Ltd, 1972).

Schoijet, Mauricio, “Limits to Growth and the Rise of Catastrophism,” Environmental History 4 (1999): 515-530.

Silvey, Valerie and P.S. Wellington, Crop and Seed Improvement: A History of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany 1919 to 1996 (Cambridge: National Institute of Agricultural Botany, 1997).

Simmonds, Norman W. Principles of Crop Improvement (New York: Longman, 1979).