Environment and Culture in Britain, 1688–1851 took place in the first half of January 2022. The forum was made up of a series of nine dialogues between distinguished researchers from contrasting disciplinary backgrounds, each followed by discussion with a live daily audience averaging well over a hundred people.
Across a fortnight of spirited conversation we explored the common ground between historians of environment and energy, literature and science, agriculture and medicine, art, landscape, and more. We asked: what were the social, intellectual and imaginative forces that shaped changing ecosystems in Great Britain and its worlds of trade and empire?
From the Whig coup of 1688–89 to the festival of liberal imperialism at the Great Exhibition, the era was in many respects one of radical environmental modernisation. It saw enclosure, improvement, and emparkment; population growth, ‘urban renaissance,’ and industrial agglomeration; turnpikes, canals, and railways; the epochal rise of coal; and the worldwide propagation of colonial ecological regimes.
The consequences of those transformations are still with us today. Nonetheless, the modernising tide had its eddies, retreats, and cross-currents. The forum scrutinised those diverse and contested experiences of environmental change from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.
Environment and Culture in Britain, 1688–1851 was free, international, and open to all, both university-based academics and independent researchers. Born of the time of Covid, it was also an experiment in how academia might make the most of the freedoms of digital conferencing. Traditional academic conferences can be enormously carbon intensive. The pandemic has helped to normalise alternative options, with much lower carbon footprints, for international academic collaboration. Seeking to minimise Zoom fatigue and maximise intellectual reward, the forum abandoned formal lectures in favour of discursive, conversable exchange.
In that spirit of open-ended discussion of work in progress, there is no recording of the forum. However, ‘discussion notes’ by each speaker introducing their work remain available on this website. There is also a bibliography of texts referred to during the discussions, and a blogpost in which Steve Mentz gives an inside view.
The event was made possible by funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. It was organised by Dr Jeremy Davies and Dr Francesca Mackenney at the University of Leeds, as part of the AHRC-funded project Experiments in Land and Society, 1793-1833.
Images on these pages are public domain works courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.