Sunday, November 30, 2014

Pontin on environmental law-making in Victorian Britain

We recently had the pleasure of hosting Ben Pontin at the Law and Environment Workshop at TAU. Ben presented some of his fascinating, ongoing research on what he terms "the first green industrial revolution", the wave of environmental law-making (both judicial and legislative) that swept Victorian Britain.

Ben's presentation on his book project on the influence on environmental law of Britain's landowning class and its struggle with capitalist industrialists was fascinating. Hopefully we'll hear more about this work, complementing recent work on middle- and working-class environmentalism, soon.

A recent article of Ben's, "Environmental Law-Making Public Opinion in Victorian Britain: The Cross-Currents of Bentham’s and Coleridge’s Ideas", published in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, sets out some of the intellectual and cultural background, as explained in the abstract:
James Northcote, Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1804)
It is increasingly clear that law and its enforcement in Victorian Britain were quite effective in tackling formative industrial problems concerning pollution and broader threats to nature. What is unclear is the political philosophy, if any, underlying this historic achievement. A prevalent view is that early ‘environmental’ law lacked any philosophical underpinning (being instead a piecemeal reaction to the various problems of industrialization as and when these presented themselves). The article revisits this issue with reference to Dicey’s analysis of 19th century ‘law-making public opinion’. Dicey identified three broad streams of seminal opinion that, he argued, shaped laws as the century unfolded. The early part of the century was dominated by ‘Old Toryism’, including the romantic conservatism associated with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This then gave ground to ‘Benthamism’ (or ‘individualism’) which in turn ceded dominance to ‘collectivism’ (also influenced by Bentham’s ideas). Whilst Dicey ignored laws relating to the environment, I argue that this is not because these presented a particular difficulty for his thesis. Indeed, all three seams of ‘law-making opinion’ converged around the legal protection of nature to offer a rich and diverse philosophical foundation for environmental law.

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