The Environment

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Richard H. Grove

The Renaissance marks a major watershed in the environmental history of Europe. It was itself at least in part a development inextricably intertwined with a new view of the world engendered by the maritime travels of Europeans far beyond the Pillars of Hercules. The literature about the Renaissance voyages permitted the evolution of a new self-consciousness among Europeans about themselves and the countries, landscapes, and societies they came from. In truth, we cannot really disentangle the history of landscape, environmental perceptions, and social history that go to make up the environmental history of the European landscape. All were transformed by the rapidly emerging new relationship between Europe and the rest of the world, philosophically, socially, and economically. Biologically, too, the encounter with the rest of the world after about 1300 was reflected in enormous transitions in Europe itself. From the Renaissance onward Europeans constructed themselves and their landscapes in terms of their new relationship with the non-European world. As Europe came increasingly to dominate a world economic system, the landscape of Europe was itself increasingly affected by the transformations that new economic forces and the concentration of capital brought about. These changes can be read, to varying degrees, in the evolving landscapes of Europe in the last half of the second millennium, five hundred years that saw much of the continent experience agricultural and industrial revolutions and a degree of urbanization that largely transformed the modes by which people used and shaped the landscape.

We should not, however, exaggerate the changes that took place in those five centuries. Arguably, and especially in Britain and France, much of the modern-day cleared agrarian landscape is in essence the landscape created during the Roman Empire. By 1300 a very high proportion of the original woodland cover of Europe had been cleared and, locally, resource shortages had stimulated the emergence of elaborate systems of management and common-property resource allocation. Some of these shortages may have helped to provoke the kinds of new fuel use that accompanied the beginnings of industrialization and protoindustrialization, especially in England. For this reason a careful examination of the historical geography and environmental history of England is especially relevant to understanding the changes that went on in the rest of Europe later on, as the effects of industrialization and urbanization made themselves felt. So too, the often hostile social responses to industrialization in England and France were pioneering and vital to the revolution in environmental perceptions that took place elsewhere in Europe after the mid-eighteenth century. These reactions, some of which took the form of a growing environmental concern and environmental consciousness, were strongly associated with physiocratic and romantic responses to capitalism and industrialization and are especially relevant in understanding the way in which environmentalism in the modern period has responded to contemporary European and global notions of environmental crisis.

Major environmental transformations took place in Europe between 1400 and 2000 in connection with six major phenomena: the clearance of woodlands and the draining of wetlands for agriculture, urbanization, and industry; changes in agriculture, field systems, crops, and the form of the landscape; urbanization and industrialization and pollution, especially during the nineteenth century; the impact of epidemic diseases and climate change; landscape design coupled with the growth of urban-stimulated environmentalism and pollution control; and roadbuilding and the industrialization of agriculture. In this period a demographic transition associated with agricultural and industrial revolutions and urbanization led to an intensification of resource use (especially fossil-fuel use) and agricultural production that was historically unprecedented, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The period was also coterminous with the Little Ice Age, a distinct climatic period that lasted from 1250 to 1900, approximately, and which was characterized by an unusual frequency of extreme climatic events involving prolonged periods of cold or high temperatures, drought, and heavy precipitation events. The severest of these events, especially those which articulated with global El Niño and La Niña events, gave rise to periods of economic and social crisis in Europe that lasted several decades in some instances. The most dramatic environmental changes, however, involved the continued transformation or disappearance of the post–Ice-Age natural vegetational cover of the continent, as clearance for agriculture took place, and as a consequence of growing demand for wood for industrial and urban fuel.


The Little Ice Age was a period several centuries long during which glaciers enlarged. The term refers to the behavior of glaciers, not so much to the climatic circumstances causing them to expand. The Little Ice Age was not a period of prolonged, unbroken cold; in Europe certain periods within it, such as the years 1530–1560, were almost as benign as the twentieth century. European mean temperatures varied by less than two degrees centigrade, although particularly cold years or clusters of years occurred from time to time. Very cold decades in the 1590s and 1690s, for instance, saw prolonged snow cover, frozen rivers, and extensive sea ice around Iceland. The characteristics, meteorological causes, and physical and human consequences of this period, which was global in its impact, can be traced in most detail in Europe. Recently, the availability of historical data and concentrated field investigations have permitted reconstruction of many glacier chronologies. Documentary information ranging from ice cover around Iceland, sea surface temperatures, and the state of the fisheries in the North Atlantic to the timing of the rye harvest in Finland and the incidence of drought in Crete is unusually substantial.

The Little Ice Age has commonly been seen as occurring during the last three hundred years, during which glaciers from Iceland and Scandinavia to the Pyrenees advanced, in some cases across pastures or near high settlements. However, evidence is now accumulating that these advances, culminating in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, were preceded by others of comparable magnitude, culminating in the fourteenth century. The intervening period was not sufficiently long, or the effect of loss of ice volume great enough, to cause withdrawal to positions held in the tenth to early thirteenth centuries. It is therefore logical to see the whole period from about the mid-thirteenth century to the start of the recession in the late nineteenth century as one Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age was in turn simply the most recent of several century-scale fluctuations to have affected Europe since the beginning of the Holocene ten thousand years ago.

The extent to which century-scale climatic events such as the Little Ice Age are manifestations of periodic adjustments in the interaction between oceanic and atmospheric circulation or responses of the global climatic system to external forcing caused by factors such as variation in geomagnetism or decreased solar input remain to be clarified. A full explanation must involve the combined influence of several factors, including the part played by volcanic eruptions, whose effects we know have been considerable, although generally short-lived, in European history. The end of the Little Ice Age cannot be attributed simply to anthropogenic warming following the industrial revolution, in view of evidence of comparable warming in the Medieval Warm Period. Just as the Little Ice Age consisted of decadal and seasonal departures from longer-term means, it was itself but one of several fluctuations within the Holocene, each lasting several centuries.

The physical consequences of Little Ice Age climatic conditions affected both highlands and lowlands, as well as coastal areas. Snow cover extended, and semipermanent snow appeared on midlatitude uplands, as in Scotland, and on high mountains in the Mediterranean, including the White Mountains of Crete. Snow lines fell, avalanches and mass movements increased greatly, as did floods, some caused by damming of main valleys by ice from tributary valleys. Periods of glacial advance were generally associated with increased flooding and sediment transport. Regime changes of streams and rivers flowing from glaciers led in the short term to both degradation and aggradation, according to the balance between melt-water load and stream competence.

In the longer term increased flooding and glacial erosion led to enhanced sedimentation rates and deposition of valley fills and deltas. Greater storminess caused flooding of low-lying coasts and the formation of belts of sand dunes, as at Morfa Harlech in northwest Wales. Little Ice Age climatic fluctuations were sufficient to have biological consequences, ranging from shifts in tree line altitude to changes in fish distribution in response to displacement of water masses. The disappearance of cod from the Norwegian Sea area in the late seventeenth century, associated with the expansion of polar water, is attributable to the inability of cod kidneys to function in water below 2 degrees centigrade. The northward extension of the range of European birds during the twentieth-century warming, such as the establishment of starlings in Iceland after 1941, implies that more substantial changes in the distribution of birds and insects must have occurred during the most marked phases of the Little Ice Age.

The consequences of the Little Ice Age for European populations ranged from ice advance onto farms and farmland, such as the obliteration in 1743 of Tungen Farm in Oldendalen, west Norway, and the overwhelming of sixteen farms and extensive farmland by the Culbin Sands in Scotland in 1694, to the fourteenth-century loss to the sea by Christchurch, Canterbury, in England, of over a thousand acres of farmland, together with many oxen, cattle, and sheep. The human consequences of the Little Ice Age climate were particularly marked in highland regions and areas near the limits of cultivation. When summer temperatures declined and growing seasons shortened, both grass and cereal crops suffered, and upper limits of cultivation descended. The viability of upland farming decreased as the probability of harvest failure increased. If harvests failed in successive years, leading to consumption of seed grain, the results were disastrous. Failure of the grass crop limited the number of cattle overwintered, thus decreasing the quantity of manure, then essential for successful arable farming. Farm desertion was especially common in Iceland and Scandinavia, though it was not confined to such northern regions. In Iceland migration out of the worst-affected north, in the seventeenth century, caused increased economic impoverishment in the south. Gradual decline in resource bases could increase sensitivity to other factors, including disease and unrelated economic problems, making the impact of a sequence of particularly hard years, such as occurred in the 1690s, much more serious. Crop failure was most dire in its effects if several staples were affected simultaneously, or if alternative supplies were unobtainable.

The human consequences of the Little Ice Age climate were generally coincident with other social and economic factors from which they have to be disentangled if they are to be assessed. In the early fourteenth century the impact was enhanced, even in lowland areas of southern England, by the population growth that had been encouraged by the rarity of harvest failures in the preceding Medieval Warm Period. Sequences of adverse weather in Europe between 1314 and 1322, coinciding with the rapid advance of Swiss glaciers, had major economic and social effects, including famine, their severity varying from place to place and class to class. More resilient societies or those in prosperous regions, such as the Netherlands, were less affected. Even so, throughout the Little Ice Age much of Europe was indeed affected by a variety of extreme climatic episodes, some of which lasted for several years, even up to a decade.


Most of the severest of these episodes were, in fact, global climate events that also impinged on Europe. These global events took place when a weak phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation (bringing cold high-pressure weather to Europe and central Asia) coincided with and reinforced a strong El Niño event. Such articulation created climatic episodes (Mega-Niños) that in Europe typically produced a very cold winter followed by a long cold spring and a summer of alternating extreme wet and dry periods. In southern Europe El Niño episodes often produced very severe drought, sometimes leading to famine, especially in Spain, Greece, the Mediterranean islands, and Turkey. El Niño events were also linked to disease epidemics across Europe, which exacerbated or prolonged existing crises. So, for example, between 1396 and 1408 Europe experienced a series of very cold winters, with sea ice persisting in the North Atlantic and preventing trade with Iceland and Greenland. These coincided with major drought events in Egypt and India. In 1630 global El Niño-induced droughts affected southern Europe, while Italy experienced serious plague mortality.


While further archival research is needed to characterize more fully the 1789–1793 event, the evidence of a strong global impact already indicates that it was one of the most severe El Niños recorded. In more temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, highly abnormal weather patterns were making themselves felt as early as 1788 in western Europe. There are some indications that an early precursor of the 1788–1793 event may have been an unusually cold winter in western Europe in 1787–1788, followed by a late and wet spring and then a summer drought, resulting in the severe crop failures that critically helped to stimulate the explosive social pressures that culminated in the French Revolution.

In France the hard winter and late, wet spring of 1787–1788 came at a time when free trade in grain had been allowed by an edict of the previous year, leading to empty granaries and a sharp increase in grain prices. Grain prices rose by about 50 percent—that is, the general price index rose from about 95 in late 1787 to 130 in the summer of 1789. The only peasants who profited from high prices were the big landowners and tenant farmers. The rest of the peasant population suffered severely from the rising price of bread. The small peasant who had to sell in order to pay his taxes and dues was short of grain by the end of the summer. The sharecropper, too, was hard-hit, and so was the day laborer who had to buy grain in order to feed his family. The dwindling of their resources also brought about a crisis in the vineyards of Champagne, Beaujolais, and the Bordelais: sales of wine were reduced because people gave up buying it in order to buy bread, and winegrowers were thus reduced to poverty. In fact, in many parts of France a previous drought, probably associated with an El Niño event of 1785, had already seriously damaged the vital winegrowing industry, especially in Normandy and Picardy. The drought of the summer of 1785 had resulted in heavy losses of livestock and a slump in the supply of wool. After 1785 the loss in disposable income led to a continuous slump in the sales of wine in parts of the country where much of the population had to buy its bread.

Warm, dry spring-summers are favorable to grain in northern France and northwestern Europe. But even inthe northern areas of the Paris basin warmth and dryness can in certain cases be disastrous. A spell of dry heat at a critical moment during the growth period, when the grain is still soft and moist and not yet hardened, can wither all hope of harvests in a few days. This is what happened in 1788, which had a good summer, early wine harvests, and bad grain harvests. The wheat shriveled, thus paving the way for the food crisis, the "great fear," and the unrest of the hungry, when the time of the soudure, or bridging of the gap between harvests, came in the spring of 1789. No one expressed this fear better than the poor woman with whom Arthur Young walked up a hill in Champagne on a July day in 1789:

Her husband had a morsel of land, one cowe, and a poor litte horse, yet they had 42 ibs. of wheat and three chickens to pay as a quit-rent to one seigneur, and 168 ibs of oats, one chicken and one sou, to pay another, besides very heavy tailles and other taxes. She had 7 children, and the cow's milk helped to make the soup. It was said at present that something was to be done by some great folks for such poor ones, but she did not know who or how, but God send us better, car les tailles et les droits nous ecrasent. (Young, 1950, p. 173)

These kinds of conditions led in late summer 1788 to what we can now see as the first serious rural unrest prior to the revolutionary movements of 1789. Serious unrest and small-scale rural revolts took place in the areas worst affected by the summer droughts, in Provence, Hainault, Cambresis, Picardy, the area to the south of Paris, eastward in Franch-Comte, around Lyons and Languedoc, and westward in Poitou and Brittany. So the extreme summer droughts and hailstorms of 1788 were decisive in their short-term effects. The conditions are well described in the journal of a peasant winegrower from near Meaux:

In the year 1788, there was no winter, the spring was not favorable to crops, it was cold in the spring, the rye was not good, the wheat was quite good but the too great heat shrivelled the kernels so that the grain harvest was so small, hardly a sheaf or a peck, so that it was put off, but the wine harvest was very good and very good wines, gathered at the end of September, the wine was worth 25 livres after the harvest and the wheat 24 livres after the harvest, on July 13 there was a cloud of hail which began the other side of Paris and crossed all of France as far as Picardy, it did great damage, the hail weighed 8 livres, it cut down wheat and trees in its path, its course was two leagues wide by fifty long, some horses were killed. (Le Roy Ladurie, 1972, p. 75)

This hailstorm burst over a great part of central France from Rouen in Normandy as far as Toulouse in the south. Thomas Blaikie, who witnessed it, wrote of stones so monstrous that they killed hares and partridge and ripped branches from elm trees. The hailstorm wiped out budding vines in Alsace, Burgundy, and the Loire and laid waste to wheat fields in much of central France. Ripening fruit was damaged on the trees in the Midi and the Calvados regions. In the western province of the Beauce, the cereal crops had already survived one hailstorm on 29 May but succumbed to the second blow in July. Farmers south of Paris reported that, after July, the countryside had been reduced to an arid desert.

In much of France and Spain a prolonged drought with very high temperatures then took place. This was the followed by the severest winter since 1709, which had also been a severe El Niño year, when the red Bordeaux was said to have frozen in Louis XIV's goblet. Rivers froze throughout the country and wolves were said to descend from the Alps down into Languedoc. In the Tarn and the Ardeche men were reduced to boiling tree bark to make gruel. Birds froze on the perches or fell from the sky. Watermills froze in their rivers and thus prevented the grinding of wheat for desperately needed flour. Snow lay on the ground as far south as Toulouse until late April. In January Mirabeau visited Provence and wrote "Every scourge has been unloosed. Everywhere I have found men dead of cold and hunger, and that in the midst of wheat for lack of flour, all the mills being frozen." Occasional thaws made the situation worse, and the Loire in particular burst its banks and flooded onto the streets of Blois and Tours.

All these winter disasters came on top of food shortages brought on by the droughts of the 1787 summer and the appalling harvests of summer 1788. As a result the price of bread doubled between summer 1787 and October 1788. By midwinter 1788, clergy estimated that a fifth of the population of Paris had become dependent on charitable relief of some sort. In the countryside landless laborers were especially affected. Exploitation of the dearth by grain traders and hoarders made the situation steadily worse. It was in this context that the French king requested communities throughout France to draw up cahiers of complaints and grievances to be presented in Paris. From February to April 1789 over twenty-five thousand cahiers were drawn up. From these we can not only assess the accumulation of long-term grievances but also get some idea of the intense dislocation of normal economic life that the extreme weather conditions of the 1780s and especially 1788–1789 had brought about. Decreasing access to common resources, timber shortages, excessive taxes, and gross income dis-parities were all compounded by bad weather, and together created the new political demands and anger that spilled over into active rebellion during 1789.

The excessive cold and food shortages of early 1789 soon overthrew any hesitation to break antipoaching laws or customs. Rabbits, deer, and other game were all slaughtered irrespective of ownership or regulation in many parts of France. Any gamekeepers or other symbols of authoritarian structures who opposed such actions were soon killed. Many sectors of the populace became accustomed to these kinds of resistance, which would soon develop into broader reaction and violent protest. Attacks on grain transports both on road and river followed the same pattern. Bakeries and granaries were also assaulted. Anger at the price of grain and bread in Paris soon found suitable targets for rioting and violence, particularly where the large population of rivermen and quayside laborers remained workless due to the Seine's still being frozen by April. The riots at the Reveillon factory, in which many hundreds of fatalities took place, were an example of this, and set the stage for a growing cycle of revolutionary violence in Paris. A number of pamphlets printed at this time made the very specific point that the supply of bread should be the first object of the planned Estates General and that the very first duty of all true citizens was to "tear from the jaws of death your co-citizens who groan at the very doors of your assemblies."

These connections between an accumulation of unusual and extreme weather events and popular rebellion were by no means confined to France. In Spain, the cold winter of 1788–1789 was, if anything, even more unusual than in France. Here too, persistent summer droughts were followed by a winter of intense cold and heavy snowfall. One observer wrote:

Autumn this year was colder than normal . . . and noone alive has ever experienced the weather so cold in El Prat. It was extraordinary, both what was observed and the effects it caused. . . . On the 30th and 31st December the wash of the waves on the beach froze which has also never been seen or heard of before. Likewise it was observed that the water froze in the washbasins in the cells where the nuns slept at the Religious Order of Compassion. . . . The rivers channels froze and the carriages passed over the ice without breaking it.

Between August 1788 and February 1789, cereal prices in Barcelona rose by 50 percent, in spite of the city's being accessible by sea. Between February and March 1789 there was a revolt in the city, known as Rebomboris de Pa. Part of the population set fire to the municipal stores and ovens. The authorities attempted to pacify the population by handing out provisions and taking special measures so that supplies could be sold at reasonable prices. The privileged classes, it is said, also provided money and contributions in kind to pacify the underprivileged. The military and police authorities adopted a passive attitude, letting events run their course. The authorities then took refuge in the two fortresses that controlled the city, and powerful defenses were put up in case events got out of control. Despite these measures chaotic rioting took place, and in the aftermath six people were executed. Similar riots took place on other parts of Catalonia when the poor outlook for the 1789 harvest became clear and profiteers and hoarders made their appearance. Revolts and emergency actions by municipal authorities took place both on the coast and inland, with documentary reports being made in cities such as Vic, Mataro, and Tortosa. The fact that these social responses to cold and crop failure did not lead to the same degree of social turmoil and rebellion as in France should not disguise the fact that they were highly unusual.

In the summer of 1789 much of France rose in revolt, and crowds rioted in cities. How far the resulting course of revolution had its roots in the anomalous climatic situation of the period is open to debate, but the part played by extreme weather events in bringing about social disturbance during the French Revolution simply cannot be neglected. It may be, as Alexis de Tocqueville put it, that had these responses to anomalous climatic events not occurred, "the old social edifice would have none the less fallen everywhere, at one place sooner, at another later; only it would have fallen piece by piece, instead of collapsing in a single crash" (Tocqueville, 1952, p. 96). One of the advantages in trying to understand the French Revolution in terms of the succession of prior climatic stresses is that it contextualizes it, rather than isolating it as a historical phenomenon. To quote Tocqueville again, "The French Revolution will only be the darkness of night to those who see it in isolation; only the times which preceded it will give the light to illuminate it" (Tocqueville, 1952, p. 249). Today one can merely speculate. But the fact is that the whole social edifice of ancien régime France did collapse at a single blow, in the midst of one of the worst El Niño episodes of the millennium.

These global El Niño-related climate crises were especially frequent and severe between 1570 and 1740 and again between 1780 and 1900. They appear to have led to the kinds of economic crises that have long been collectively referred to as the "seventeenth-century crises" in European and Asian economic history. Examples of other El Niño-related global climatic crises that affected Europe took place in 1578–1579, 1694–1695, 1709, 1769–1771, 1782–1783, 1812, 1877–1879, and 1941. All of these involved severe winters followed by late springs, unusual summer conditions, and harvest failures. Sometimes, as in the severe conditions associated with military retreats from Moscow in 1812 and 1941, the political consequences were incalculable. In 1878–79 El Niño conditions led to a series of crop failures in Europe that have sometimes been referred to as the "great agricultural depression." However, possibly the most extended and serious El Niño event to affect Europe in the last six hundred years was the "Great El Nino" of 1788–1795. Reconstruction of the effects of this climatic episode is instructive in understanding how other major El Niño events might have affected Europe in earlier periods.


The deforestation of the European plain after 1100 was, wrote Karl Gottfried Lamprecht, the great deed of the German people in the Middle Ages. In all its complexity it has attracted an enormous literature. But over most of central and western Europe agrarian effort had passed its maximum by 1300, and the great age of expanding arable land was succeeded in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by one of stagnation and contraction. Much of this decline may have been due to increasingly severe weather conditions after the onset of the Little Ice Age and to the associated incidence of famine (especially in 1315–1317) and episodes of disease, including the Black Death. During the hundred years between 1350 and 1450 this decline was still more marked. The causes of this recession are obscure and involved, and among the agencies invoked to explain it are the destruction caused by war, great pestilences, falling prices, and a basic decline in population. Abandoned holdings and depopulated or deserted villages were to be found not only in the "old lands" of the south and west but also in Mecklenberg, Pomerania, Brandenburg and Prussia. In the south and west of Germany the acreage of these abandoned lands, or Wustungen, has been placed as high as one-half of the area once cultivated; the statistical reduction for Germany as a whole has been placed at 25 percent. These figures probably overemphasize the contraction because some abandoned holdings may represent no more than temporary withdrawals or changes in use of land; but, when all reservations are made, the decline is still striking.

To what extent the woods advanced upon the untilled fields we cannot say, but there is no doubt that they did in many places, and traces of former cultivation are to be found in wooded areas even today. The abandonment took place at various dates, but in the main it is a medieval phenomenon. Comparatively recently it has been shown how many large forests in Germany have come into being since the Middle Ages. From such evidence as this we must not assume that the area under cultivation was at one time greater than it is today, because the phenomenon may in part be due to the more complete separation of forest and farmland. But more investigation is necessary before we can be clear about these matters. The ravages of war and pillage bore particularly hard upon some localities. The cultivated land that had been brought into being in Bohemia was very adversely affected by the Hussite wars (1419–1436), and it has been estimated that one-sixth of the population either perished or left the country. In the west Thomas Basin, the bishop of Lisieux, writing about 1440, described that vast extent of uncultivated land between the Somme and the Loire as all "overgrown with brambles and bushes." Population fell in places to one-half, even to one-third, of its former level. Some of the accounts may have been exaggerated, but there is no doubt about the widespread desolation and about the growth of wood on the untilled fields. In southwest France, in Saintonge, between the Charente and the Dordogne, for a long time people said that "the forests came back to France with the English."

The clearing that had taken place in the Middle Ages, epic though it was, still left western and central Europe with abundant tracts of wood. But soon, in the sixteenth century, in many places there were complaints about a shortage of timber, and the shortage developed into a problem that occupied the attention of statesmen and publicists for many centuries. It was not only that the woods were becoming smaller but that the demand for timber was growing greater. There had been signs toward the end of the fifteenth century that the recession in the economic life of the late Middle Ages was merging into a recovery and a new prosperity that brought with it an ever increasing appetite for wood. The pace of industrial life was quickening. Glassworks and soapworks needed more and more wood ash. The production of tin, lead, copper, iron, and coal depended upon timber for pit props and charcoal for fuel; the salt industry in the Tirol and elsewhere also needed wood for evaporating the brine. It was the iron industry that made the greatest demand, and, particularly in the wooded valleys of the upland blocks of France and central Europe, an endless series of small metal establishments were to be found, often run by men who divided their labors between forge and field. As the clearing progressed, the huts of the charcoal burners moved from one locality to another, and there appeared new mounds of small logs, covered with clay to prevent too rapid a combustion.

Early fears of timber shortage in England were expressed in a commission appointed in 1548 to inquire into the destruction of the wood in the iron-making area of the Weald. But this commission and a number of parliamentary acts passed during the sixteenth century failed to slow the rate of destruction. The resulting shortages encouraged the search for a substitute, so that during the seventeenth century ironworkers were encouraged to turn to coal instead of charcoal, following the lead of domestic urban consumption, especially in London. In 1709 Abraham Darby started to smelt ore with coke at Ironbridge in Shropshire, and by 1750 the use of coal for smelting had become common. These kinds of transitions took longer to take place on the Continent, where the supply of wood was much greater and industry less developed. But shortages were being felt. In France, Jean-Baptiste Colbert introduced strictures on forest-cutting in 1669, and in 1715 attempts were made to limit the number of forges.

The increase in French and English trade and shipbuilding in the context of overseas expansion started to impose a new scale of demand for timber during the seventeenth century. The Dutch Wars of the seventeenth century, the maritime wars of the eighteenth, and then the Napoleonic Wars were a heavy pressure on timber resources. By the time of the English diarist Samuel Pepys in the second half of the seventeenth century, the crisis in supply had already developed and a worldwide search for new sources began in the Baltic and Scandinavia, India, North America, and South Africa. After the English Restoration the Royal Society commissioned John Evelyn to study the problem, and in October 1662 he presented his recommendations in Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees, starting a series of attempts at replacement tree planting and encouraging attempts to slow down deforestation in Europe.

Throughout the period from about 1500 to 1900 agricultural production intensified, leading to several new phases of deforestation and wetland drainage. Some of this expansion led to soil erosion in upland regions, especially in central France and the Alps. However, in Germany the population losses resulting from the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) may have prevented the level of deforestation that took place in much of the rest of Europe. By contrast, during the eighteenth century large clearances took place on the Polish plain, the Slovakian uplands, and the Carpathians. Despite this, the development of forest conservation systems in a number of countries meant that as late as 1900 substantial forested areas remained in Europe. In 1900 about 18 percent of Belgium was wooded, 19 percent of France, 27 percent of Germany, 23 percent of Poland, 37 percent of Austria, 33 percent of Czechoslovakia, 29 percent each for Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, and 28 percent for Romania. On the Hungarian plains the level was only 11 percent. However, the forest present in 1900 was very different in character from the dense natural woodland of a millenium before. It had been repeatedly cut over, managed, and replanted, much of it with conifer rather than deciduous species, and had become plantation rather natural woodland. Large areas of previously unforested sandy soils were reclaimed by artificial planting in the Kempenland of Belgium, the Landes region in France, Breckland in Britain, and on sand dune regions of the German Baltic coast.

In eastern and northern Europe, and in Russia, the transitional forest steppe was extensively deforested by colonists moving southward during the seventeenth century. After 1478 the expansion of the trading interests of Novgorod had ensured extensive deforestation. Even so, eighteenth-century Muscovy was still essentially one large forest, with infrequent clearings for villages and towns. Metallurgical industries founded under Peter the Great increased the rate of clearance. Further north, rotational burning and cultivation were practiced in Finland and parts of Sweden until World War I. After 1918 many of these northern forests were turned over to industrial wood production.

Since World War I the decline in forested area has largely been halted due to increasingly stringent forest reservation, the increased use of fossil fuels, and the decline in rural population and peasant agriculture. Since about 1960 some parts of Europe have actually experienced an increase in noncultivated marginal land and woodland as small-scale agriculture became less economic and state subsidies for upland and peasant agriculture fell away.


Much of the initial impetus for forest clearance after 1500 resulted from a demographic transition enabled to a large extent by an intensification of agricultural production fostered by new agricultural methods and the introduction of non-European crops, especially from the Americas. The most important of these were maize and the potato. Maize spread quickly after the Columbian voyages; in 1498 Columbus noted that "there is now a lot of it in Castile." By 1530 it was grown throughout Iberia, North Africa, and the Middle East, spread by Muslim refugees fleeing persecution. Population pressure in southern Europe may have encouraged the spread of maize in the sixteenth century, but it spread rapidly in France and elsewhere only during the climatic and economic crises of the seventeenth century. In Burgundy and southern France maize entered the food cycle in the same era, and by 1700 it was growing in every district south of a line from Bordeaux to Alsace and was the chief food of the poor peasant. In Italy the cultivation of maize rose after the plague and famine of the 1630s. Major rises in population in the eighteenth century in Spain (from 7.5 million in 1650 to 11.5 million in 1800), France, and Italy were accompanied by formidable rises in the areas of maize under cultivation. During the century maize production spread to eastern Europe in the Danube basin and into Russia. The population of Iberia, Italy, and the Balkans doubled to 70 million from 1800 to 1900, much of it sustained by a maize staple. These extraordinary expansions in maize plantings and population brought about widespread environmental damage and soil depletion throughout southern Europe.

The rise of the potato was even more dramatic than that of maize, especially in northern Europe. In the wetter maritime north, wheat and rye were at the northern end of their range and prey to molds and fungi, frequently producing ergotism and other diseases. Enormous population rises in such countries as Ireland and Norway were enabled by the potato. However, this kind of crop innovation, as well as encouraging a dangerous dependence on a single crop (a dependence that culminated in the Irish famines of the 1840s and 1850s), also produced severe soil degradation. As early as 1674 gullying and soil erosion were being reported from the Moravian states, leading to claims for tax remissions. Some of these instances may have been related to excessive heavy rains and snowmelt in and after severe Little Ice Age winters. But new crops such as maize and potatoes provided very little protection for soils and made them vulnerable to extreme rainfall events. A number of systematic surveys of soil conditions took place in France during the eighteenth century. Typically hundreds of cahiers de doleances written in the 1790s deal with soil erosion as a major hazard even in areas of relatively slight topography such as Champagne and Lorraine. Consciousness of erosion hazards also led to popular rural protests against private forest cutting. As consolidation of landholdings took place in many parts of France, Germany, and Britain during the late eighteenth century and large fallow fields were planted with new crops, the incidence of serious soil erosion quickly increased.


The environmental changes brought about in Europe by deforestation, agricultural intensification, industrialization, and urbanism after 1400 were unprecedented in world history. But the structured social reactions and narratives that those changes engendered were also remarkable. Regulations and legislation attempting to address smoke pollution problems in cities date back to the fourteenth century in a number of parts of Europe. In the seventeenth century John Evelyn was a vociferous critic of coal smoke pollution in London. Rapid urban growth was an initial reason for stress on the wider resources of the European countrysides, especially in the growing demands of cities for fuelwood in the period between 1500 and 1750, when fossil fuels started to become more important. Throughout Europe a variety of local regulatory systems governed the use of some woodland areas by local communities. In countries such as the Netherlands and England, where the proportion of wooded land had been small since late Roman times, these regulations were often elaborate and involved heavy penalties.

Statewide attempts at forest conservation were stimulated less by domestic demand and more by shortages of strategically important ship timber or by the needs of mines and metal, glass, or other mineral-working industries, especially in the context of what Joan Thirsk has called the protoindustrial revolution. Some early attempts at large-scale forest protection to ensure timber supply rather than for traditional hunting reserves were made in south Germany, especially in Nürnberg, as early as 1309 under the Nürnberg Ordinance. But it is was in the territories of the Venetian Republic that attempts at state forest conservation were first begun in Europe, especially after the Venetian defeat in the sea battle of Euboea in 1470. Shipbuilding and glassworking in Venice consumed huge amounts of wood. Venetians also recognized that deforestation and soil erosion were silting up the lagoon of Venice. However, attempts to restrict local timber cutting in the vital ship-timber forests of Montello brought the state into direct and long-term conflict with the local population. The failure of Venetian conservation measures contributed to the decline of Venice and its displacement by maritime powers that had easier access to relatively unworked forests. The kind of crisis that Venice experienced was delayed in Britain, for example, as it started to draw on the Irish forests for industrial and naval sustenance, while the Netherlands, another precocious maritime power, drew on the Norwegian forests.

By the mid-seventeenth century even England, France, and the Netherlands were compelled to adopt much more stringent forest regulations for strategic reasons. In France Colbert was compelled to declare a temporary moratorium on timber getting in 1661 as a prelude to his famous Forest Ordinance of 1669. This ordinance set in place a governance for French forests that subsisted well into the nineteenth century and was widely imitated in Europe. By the mid-seventeenth century, too, the combined effects of population pressure, timber demands, and agricultural intensification were leading to serious social contests over lands and forests in many parts of Europe. In Cambridgeshire, England, riots broke out in the 1660s when attempts were made to fell local woodlands. Large-scale capital projects to drain the East Anglian Fenland were also vigorously opposed by those who saw their grazing and common-property rights threatened. These contests became sharper as states became more involved in attempts to conserve forests, enclose commons, and drain wetlands and marshes. In France, for example, the twenty-two thousand hectare Forêt de Chaux was the scene of increasingly savage battles after the 1750s between fifty-four villages that held customary forest rights and forest guards employed by the state to safeguard supplies for a growing number of rural industries. These contests, before and after the French Revolution, became increasingly violent, lasting until the 1870s and sometimes involving assassination attempts on forest guards.

The chaotic conditions of the French Revolution had themselves produced significant ecological changes. Believing themselves released from feudal and state regulation, rural people, especially in southeast France, embarked on an orgy of deforestation, much of it on steep mountain slopes. The disastrous torrents, floods, and landslides that this felling brought about led in turn to a body of conservationist and engineering literature and opinion that formed much of the foundation of the sophisticated French forest conservation movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reinforced by a German forest conservation ideology that was already well developed by the late nineteenth century in the works of men such as Jean Fabre (1797) and Michel Blanqui (1846). Similar moves toward both forest conservation and higher intensity of land use developed in most European countries during the period between 1670 and 1870, especially in the latter part of the period.

Landscapes were also increasingly transformed or modified for reasons of prestige and ornament, especially in England, France, and Italy. Some of them echoed the landscapes of tropical colonies and oceanic islands or romanticized wildernesses. In England and Italy artificially drained landscapes became the subject of elaborate planning projects and of early exercises in agricultural economic theory.

Interest in the aesthetics of the rural landscape in metropolitan France and Britain was already well developed by the end of the eighteenth century, as the writings of John Clare, Robert Southey, Thomas Gilpin, and others demonstrate. Poets such as Clare were deeply sensitive to the social and landscape traumas wrought by enclosure, while William Blake wrote of the "dark satanic mills" and William Wordsworth and the Lake Poets and their imitators fed notions of the romantic sublime to be found in wild landscapes to an increasingly receptive urban public. Much of the inspiration for these powerful sensibilities originated in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Bernardin de St. Pierre, many of which were deeply hostile to the Enlightenment project and its implications and, in the case of the latter writer, were rooted in the circumstances of the colonial experience, specifically on the island of Mauritius. The rise of what the British literary critic Raymond Williams called the "green language" corresponded to the emotional commitment that had developed in relation to the threat perceived to the old landscape pattern in the context of the industrialization of agriculture, a phenomenon explored especially well in the novels of Thomas Hardy. As early as the 1840s what had been a minority interest at the time of John Clare had flowered into a major literary cult. Sir Robert Peel, for example, collected wild landscape paintings and frequently commented on the solace they offered him. In spite of this, when individuals did campaign against landscape despoliation by the forces of capital and the spread of railways, mines, and urban housing, they were largely unsuccessful, as the campaigns of William Wordsworth testify. Concerns about species extinctions in Europe developed much later than the preoccupation with rural landscape. The efforts made by Charles Waterton to turn his private estate into a nature reserve were an interesting precedent and an indication of the level of awareness of human destructive potential that had developed, in Britain at least, by the 1840s.

Embryonic worries about the destruction of rural landscapes and about species extinctions remained the concern of a largely ineffective minority until the 1860s, however. Only the cause of animal protection, strongly advocated by the Quakers, had resulted in serious legislation. This was a cause closely associated with antislavery campaigning and was strongly identified with an emerging urban public health and housing movement in several European countries. In 1842 the publication of Sir Edwin Chadwick's "Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of Great Britain" highlighted the need to radically reform the environments of the new overcrowded, disease-ridden, and polluted cities. This and similar initiatives in France, Germany, and Italy helped to stimulate the growth of wider environmental reform movements, many of which took a long time to come to fruition. In the 1840s serious efforts also began to reduce the industrial pollution that was making many European rivers lifeless.

After the mid-nineteenth century the sheer scale of the transformation and modernization of the landscape invigorated an already nascent conservation movement that had many of its roots among French and English painters and artists as well as in statist moves toward forest and water conservation. The publication of two books, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) and George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature (1864), highlighted the role played by extinctions in the affairs of men and appear to have stimulated early environmentalism in a very profound way.

In England the first environmental lobby group, the Commons Preservation Society, founded in 1865, originated in a movement to protect the London Commons, threatened by enclosure, railway building, gravel extraction, and urban expansion. This group, headed by Quakers, biologists, urban liberals, lawyers, and feminists (among others), encouraged in turn the formation of the National Trust in 1891, an organization dedicated to the conservation of historic buildings and landscapes. The National Trust became a global model for future environmental organizations and provided much of the impetus for conservation in twentieth-century Britain. As far as species protection was concerned, the British Birds Protection Act of 1868 was a pioneer in Europe, and the brainchild of Alfred Newton, a close associate of Charles Darwin. Newton had made a careful study of the natural history of the great auk, a flightless seabird that had become extinct in the late 1840s. He had also been particularly influenced by the researches of his brother Edward Newton on the paleontology of the dodo, on Mauritius.

The nineteenth century saw important innovations in European environmental history, in two senses. First, new forms of environmental degradation occurred as a result of urban growth—with its attendant sewage and other issues—and industrial development, which created new levels of air and water pollution. These problems were particularly acute in areas around industrial cities, and urban waterways, especially, became increasingly foul. In the face of these developments, however, and due to independent cultural factors, a more explicit environmental concern arose as well. In the nineteenth century itself environmental reform was mainly associated with beautification movements such as those which promoted the establishment of urban parks. Though limited in scope and objectives, these reform movements provided a basis for the development of the more sweeping environmental regulations characteristic of the twentieth century, which managed to undo some of the worst consequences of industrialization in western Europe.


Although many of the environmental impacts of industrialization and agricultural intensification continued to develop in a more extensive way in the twentieth century, many aspects of artificially induced environmental change after 1900 were almost entirely new. So, necessarily, was the strength of the environmentalist reaction to the systemic changes that now appeared; small-scale environmental lobby groups became mass movements and eventually even political parties. Nevertheless, the twin sources of environmental change, especially destructive change, were the same as they had been in the previous two centuries. For the first half of the century, European human populations continued to expand. Second, human economic activity continued to accelerate and to substitute inanimate for animate energy. Since 1850 the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas has released some 270 billion tons of carbon into the air in the form of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. At least half of this amount derived from combustion that took place in Europe, although the relative European contribution since about 1980 has been somewhat reduced. Between 1900 and 2000 carbon dioxide outputs from Europe increased by approximately thirteenfold, and energy use expanded by about sixteen times. The atmospheric changes generated by the new scale of outputs of "greenhouse" gases are now thought to have substantially increased rates of global warming since about 1870. The end of the Little Ice Age in about 1900 has itself brought about a considerable natural cyclical warming, although the relative extents of these dynamics remain unknown. The twentieth century was also marked by the rapid industrialization of Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe through ambititious, often forced programs of industrial development. Lacking in capital but eager, for economic and military reasons, to bring their countries to Western levels of industrialization, communist regimes proved impatient with environmental concerns. The consequences for Eastern Europe included rampant pollution, chemical and otherwise.

Unlike most of the rest of the world, however, the noncultivated, especially scrub and forest, area of Europe has started to increase instead of declining. The switchover in this process took place just prior to World War II. From 1860 to 1919, 27 million hectares of land were converted to arable use, of which at least half was woodland and the other half grassland and wetland. But from 1920 to 1978, only 14 million hectares were converted to arable use, while 12 million hectares moved out of arable use, much of it back into forest, with a certain amount to industrial-urban use. Some of the most rapid parts of this reversal took place in marginal land in upland regions and in the economically marginal parts of southern Europe and the Mediterranean islands, as a rural-urban drift of peasantries took place to cities in Europe and outside it. The advent of the European Common Market and (later) Union may have temporarily slowed this move away from arable land use. Despite the slowdown in conversion to arable land, many old-growth forests were still clear-cut in Europe in the second half of the century, especially in England.

The two most destructive and significant kinds of environmental change have been the rise in industrial, chemical, and nuclear pollution of air and waters, and the deaths and pollution caused by the massive growth in vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. Indeed, it is the use of oil fuel that has created the most significant changes in environmental quality and quality of life in the twentieth century. The largest site of air and water pollution in Europe was the Ruhr basin in Germany, the biggest industrial region of Europe. Between 1870 and 1910 the region grew rapidly, both industrially and as a pollution source for both human and industrial waste. By 1906 the Emscher River had become an open sewage canal seventy miles in length. Industrial pollution, the worst in the world by 1914, was checked only by the impact of postwar reparations in 1923. It was then that the pioneering Siedlingsverband-Ruhrkohlenbezirk (Ruhr coal district settlement association) stepped in to try to save the remaining woods and trees from pollution damage and to attempt to control further growth of the region. In 1928 the damage caused by acid rain was first announced and propagandized, as the beginning of a long fight against acid rain and other industrial pollution in Germany that has lasted to the present day, but which was only revivified in the period since World War II by Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1969.

The spread of the automobile in western Europe in the 1920s and 1930s led to the development of arterial road systems and low-density urban sprawl that quickly reached into the countryside, along coasts, and beside seaside resorts. The growth was most rapid in Britain, where road-served suburbs spread rapidly west and south of London and along once beautiful parts of the Sussex coast. Similar developments took place on the outskirts of large cities such as Berlin, Paris, and Rotterdam. In England these unsightly and uncontrolled developments, driven jointly by car ownership and land speculation, soon led to an outcry in favor of planning control and "green belt" legislation, led by such organizations as the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and propagandized in books such as Britain and the Beast, edited by John Maynard Keynes in 1937. World War II temporarily ended these interwar conservation campaigns against the effects of the automobile. However, the impact of wartime planning psychology, especially in Britain, quickly led in the postwar period to the innovative and extensive growth of a government conservation and planning bureaucracy in the form of the Nature Conservancy and the Town and Country Planning Act, both legislated in 1949 to systematize a nationwide form of conservation and planning control.

Increasing anxieties over pesticide use and industrial pollution surfaced strongly in the late 1950s all over Europe, influenced to some extent by a parallel campaign against nuclear weapons, epitomized in England by the Aldermaston marches. Government and nongovernment organizations now started to collaborate to some extent in framing new legislation to control long-standing pollution risks. In England public anger at government failure to control London "smogs" peaked in the mid-1950s after a run of winters in which over four thousand people, mainly elderly, had died directly from the effects of air pollutants made from a cocktail of coal-fired power station emissions and petro- and diesel-chemical exhausts. The wholesale closure of the London tramway system in 1951 and the introduction of thousands of new diesel buses had seriously exacerbated the problem. Strict controls on coal burning and the Clean Air Acts of the late 1950s partially solved the problem; the episode also alerted European governments to a rising tide of public environmental awareness. In Germany a growing concern developed during the 1970s about the effects of acid rain. This kind of pollution had cross-border impacts throughout central Europe and crystallized many of the concerns of a powerful new green movement now headed, significantly, by a woman, Petra Kelly.

Europewide student and labor protests in 1968, associated partly with the anti–Vietnam War movement and partly with structural and political problems especially endemic to France, had already given a major boost to the environmental movement. In the years after 1968 such movements as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth articulated European and North American environmentalist themes and reflected the growth of a mass movement that had already been developing in the 1960s. The risks from nuclear energy became a particular focus of attention for the emerging environmental movement. However, a very internationalist interest in saving endangered animal species, especially the whale, and in protecting tropical rainforests started to characterize European environmentalism. During the 1970s these preoccupations were transmuted into overtly political interests and specifically into the Green political parties, which by 1990 were present in every European country.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine in 1986 was a watershed in this respect. Green movements had been one of the few modes through which any form of political protest could take place behind the Iron Curtain. The failure of the state that the Chernobyl incident symbolized was a vital constituent of the decline in credibility of the communist governments in Eastern Europe and Russia during the 1980s. But the accumulation of evidence of the wholesale failure of the communist states to regulate pollution exerted an aftereffect that was not confined to the East. It also helped to destroy the last shreds of the popular European confidence in science that had flourished in the immediate postwar period in the West, and contributed to popular mistrust in the ability of conventional political parties and governments to protect the European environment, the climate, and the quality of life of European citizens. An initial result of this new level of distrust was the emergence of a far more confrontational style of radical environmental politics. Groups such as Earth First! (which had originated in the United States) and the loose coalitions that made up European antiroads movements began in the 1990s to fight through low-level, prolonged, and largely nonviolent direct actions against road-building and airport projects. These coalitions modeled themselves on activist animal protection groups and, more importantly, on resistance groups such as the Greenham Common Women, who had fought so apparently successfully against the installation of cruise nuclear missiles in eastern England. It remains to be seen whether these kinds of activist environmental groupings will be successful in encouraging European governments to move closer to the agendas of radical environmentalism. The failure of most European governments to move away from the established models of growth economies and continued erosion of habitats and biodiversity do not augur well in this respect.

See alsoThe Annales Paradigm (volume 1);Protoindustrialization (in this volume);The Industrial Revolutions (in this volume);Urbanization (in this volume);Agriculture (in this volume);New Social Movements (volume 3); and other articles in this section.


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