“Wealth is what nature has given us,” Morris wrote, “sunshine, fresh air, an unspoiled surface of the earth, food, clothing . . . everything that brings joy to man.”
Another pioneering scientist, Edwin Lankester, is best known for discovering that cholera is a waterborne disease.
He was also a friend of the socialist left, an advocate for women’s rights, and, beginning in the 1880s, he warned of the damage industrial fishing was doing to the marine environment. “Our fisheries are still brutal; we take the produce of the sea recklessly, regardless of the consequences of method, timing or degree of predation.”
In a 1905 speech entitled “Nature’s Rebellious Son,” Lankster warned of the growth of large-scale epidemics such as Nagana disease, which he blamed directly on the evils of imperialism: transport of species, urban congestion and industrial monoculture.
Arthur Tansley, one of Lankester’s pupils, was a student at Workers’ College, a botanist, founder of the British Ecological Society, and involved in organizations including the National Union of Scientists The United Scientists movement included. Older scientists accused Tansley of “vegetal Bolshevism.”
Of course, there was a division of responsibilities: the best of the early English socialists were no more than companions in the development of ecological awareness among professional biologists.
Likewise, few radical scientists contributed only occasionally to the great social movements of their day. But there is a degree of convergence between socialism and the green vanguard.
What about liberalism? Could the moderate left-wing parliamentarism of the 1880s and 1890s produce any similar sense of the unsustainability of human destruction of nature?
At one point you can almost trace some sort of alliance between some liberals and the futility of resource extraction to do with the expansion of the empire.
While liberals do not want to see the damage done to the environment or workers by British imperialism, they are concerned with the damage done by other countries’ empires.
Arguably, an important figure in this tradition was the anti-imperialist liberal George Morel. One day in 1897 or 1898, he had a disturbing thought. Morell began to study the cargo being loaded and unloaded on ships sailing between Belgium and the Congo.
He saw a great deal of rubber and ivory unloaded at Antwerp, but apart from officers and guns, no material was shipped out.
He suddenly realized that there was only one explanation. For all the wealth created in Africa, the people of that country must get nothing in return. The wealth of the land is being stolen by them.
Morel began to oppose Belgian imperialism. Over time, his warnings of the harm wrought by Belgian imperialism attracted widespread attention.
Writers including Anglo-Irish diplomat Roger Casement and novelist Arthur Conan Doyle warned that Belgium was killing Congolese people, stripping victims of their hands and starving hundreds of thousands in favor of rubber mining, destroying forests, trampling banana fields, and torturing the earth and human beings at the same time.
The problem with the liberal tradition is that, while it clearly witnesses ecological damage, it has shown no similar courage in examining domestic industrial habits or imperial British capital when other nations are at fault.
You can find many in the ranks of British Liberalism who devoted their lives to spreading the word about the British Empire while also preaching against the threat posed by socialism.
One of the Liberal Party’s gatekeepers was journalist Horatio Bottomley, who became MP for South Hackney after 1906. Bottomley, who describes himself as a follower of the Radicals (i.e. left-wing Liberals) and Charles Bradlaugh, faced recurring problems from workers on the local trade board who threatened to run against his candidate.
He threatened the Gas Workers and General Union and the Hackney Board of Trades with libel charges.When miners went on strike during World War I, Bottomley and john bull insisted that any workers who followed them must be “arrested, treated as deserters, and punished under martial law.”
Bottomley was not only an anti-socialist libertarian, but also a champion of the unrestricted right of capital to extract whatever it pleased from nature. In his case, it mostly took the form of propaganda on behalf of gold mining in the British Empire.
Bottomley’s uncle Horatio Holyoake immigrated from England in the 1840s and became a gold miner in the Australian Gold Belt. Bottomley has been a champion of mining since the 1880s, first as a journalist and later as a company boss, insisting that the British-owned colonies had limitless wealth waiting to be mined.
“We don’t own mines,” Bottomley said, “we don’t mine, and personally, I profess I don’t know much about mining.”
However, between 1894 and 1900, Bottomley, who had offices on Broad Street Avenue near Liverpool Street, founded 37 mining companies with a combined book value of over £15,000,000.
When environmentalists in the 1890s and 1900s looked around the world, they saw a parliament run by the rich. The parties are polarized, with a Liberal left and a Conservative right.
Those who see capitalism as the enemy and blame it for the degradation of nature and workers are against the system and the party that rules it.
They don’t have to be socialists. However, the birth of labor gave them hope. It shattered the stifling consensus of late Victorian society and opened the way for new theories, including red and green.
David Renton is a historian and barrister. His latest book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, tells the story of the socialist and anti-socialist movements in Britain from the 1820s to the 1920s. It will be published by Routledge in November.