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Histories of transport, mobility and environment.

In 1844, William Wordsworth wrote passionately about a railway that was threatening to disturb the tranquility of the English Lake District. One hundred and seventy years later, his warning that 'no nook of English ground' would be 'secure from rash assault' is probably better known than the Kendal and Windermere Railway it protested in vain. (1) Across the Atlantic in the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau expressed gratitude that people could not yet fly 'and lay waste the sky as well as the earth'.

These two voices echo a common concern among contemporary observers: whenever new modes of transportation entered the competition with existing ones and when their nascence depended on new transportation routes (canals, bicycle lanes, rails, roads, airports), critics pointed out that existing ensembles of technology and the environment were altered for the benefit of a new mobility regime. (2) New landscapes emerged.

Once such a regime was in place, its operation or expansion often drew criticism based on environmental grounds. Two examples suffice. The organic waste dropped by horses used for urban deliveries in late nineteenth century North America drew the ire of public health officials fearing insalubrious environments. In many late twentieth century large cities around the world, noise pollution from the operation of airplanes led to protests that changed airport operating procedures and aircraft turbine design. (3)

Environmental concerns and dimensions, then, are woven into the history of transport and mobility. If environmental history is understood as analysing changes in the historical relationships between humans and their environment, transport modes, practices and ideas of mobility, and varying degrees of access to it are topics of environmental history. On the other hand, historians of transport and mobility can benefit greatly from approaching their topics through an environmental lens. Seven papers in this special issue of the Journal do just that. By using examples from different geographical and temporal regions, they point to the importance of putting environmental issues centre stage rather than treating them as mere backdrops or assigning them bit parts.

In addition, the papers speak to four main themes that illustrate the historical relationship between mobility and the environment: the roles of environmental constraints; issues of equality and inequality; the changing roles of time and space; and unintended historical outcomes.

In a sense, human relationships with the environments can be described as identifying, pushing against and occasionally overcoming environmental constraints. During the twentieth century, as the environmental historian J. R. McNeill notes, humans lifted restraints on food, health, population growth and energy use. In doing so, they provoked new environmental constraints 'in the form of the planet's capacity to absorb the wastes, byproducts, and impacts of our actions'. (4) This dialectic of both overcoming and creating constraints shines through in some of the papers in this special issue. Human-controlled aviation allowed pilots and passengers to leave their grounded existence behind, if only temporarily. A new way of seeing the earth emerged, as Thomas Robertson notes. At the same time, pollution of various kinds proliferated, literally speaking, at new levels. Canals, pipelines and wires brought rural production sites of coal, oil and electricity to mostly urban markets, as Christopher Jones points out, but they also created infrastructural corridors which constrained further developments. In Victor Seow's analysis, the emergence of an automobile industry in the People's Republic of China in the 1950s opened up a new dimension of mobility in this vast country and, at the same time, strengthened the ties between a centralizing state and its hinterlands.

One important aspect of such changes were new power relationships. In particular, Jones urges his readers to 'pay attention to the spatial inequalities' of the systems that he is studying: some historical actors and regions benefitted while some suffered. The maritime trade routes highlighted in the map 'British Empire Shipping, 1936' and analysed by Matthew Chew show the inequality manifest in the trade relations which London entertained with the rest of the world. Parkways and boulevards in late nineteenth-century US cities followed aesthetic principles, as Christopher Wells points out, and streetcars enabled the growth of suburbs whose 'advanced environmental-control technologies' set different classes of metropolitan dwellers further apart.

Time and space, categories so central to the history of transport and mobility, underwent environmental changes as well. Space did not simply shrink because of increased speed. In the case of the Pacific Northwest, argues Cory Parker, the complex shift from canoe travel to steamships served as a ' catalyst' for massive landscapes changes: rivers themselves were simplified through levees, dikes and dams and the travel experience, subsequently changed as well. Eike-Christian Heine takes up a similar matters in his study of the simultaneously connective and divisive creation of the Kiel Canal, and its effect on landscapes and waterscapes. With the advent of streetcar and commuter-rail suburbs in the United States, some urban residents were able to change their relationships with the environment 'along greener, healthier, and less crowded lines', according to Wells. Such spatial relationships took on different forms in the skies, where a new appreciation of landscapes took hold, as described by Robertson.

All the papers hint at or underline unintended consequences in the relationship between people in their environments as mobility patterns change. While probably very few government officials at Whitehall pondered the faunal or floral effects of imperialism, the ecologist Charles Elton at Oxford certainly did, and arrived at startling conclusions described by Matthew Chew. One devastating unintended consequence of motorization in the People's Republic of China was the ways in which the Great Chinese Famine was 'enabled and exacerbated by socialist automobility', as Victor Seow argues provocatively.

Ranging from transatlantic flying to global shipping and from cities to canals and rivers, the seven papers illustrate that environmental history and the history of transport and mobility are part of a common conversation which enriches both fields. It will certainly continue. 10.7227/TJTH.35.2.1

Thomas Zeller

Guest Editor


(1) James Winter, Secure from Rash Assault: Sustaining the Victorian Environment (Berkeley and London, University of California Press, 1999).

(2) One fruitful way to examine these changes is to analyse technology and the environment together: Martin Reuss and Stephen H. Cutcliffe (eds), The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History (Charlottesville/London, University of Virginia Press, 2010).

(3) Joel A. Tarr, 'The Horse-Polluter of the City', in Joel A. Tarr (ed.), The Search for the Ultimate Sink (Akron, Ohio, University of Akron Press, 1996); Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); Marc L. J. Dierikx, Clipping the Clouds: How Air Travel Changed the World (Westport, Conn., Praeger, 2008), pp. 109-45.

(4) J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History ofthe TwentiethCentury World (New York, Norton, 2000), p. 362.
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Author:Zeller, Thomas
Publication:The Journal of Transport History
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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