Humans and the environment


By the start of the twentieth century, the United Kingdom had already moved from being an agrarian nation to being an industrial nation. Part of this change was a massive migration of people from rural villages to industrial towns, seeking work in factories. This process continued throughout the century, particularly as increased mechanisation meant that fewer agricultural workers were required for farming. To meet the need for housing, towns and cities expanded outwards, from urban into suburban areas, possible due to increased public transport links and then car ownership.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, when huge areas of housing stock had been destroyed, there was a need to house the former city dwellers. This was aligned with a feeling that it was more beneficial to live away from the pollution and grime of city centres. Completely new towns (e.g. Stevenage and Telford) were built in open countryside to accommodate the growing population. Meanwhile, urban slum clearance projects resulted in the building of high-rise blocks of flats, where large numbers could be accommodated in a relatively small amount of space.


In the first half of the twentieth century, heavy industry caused high levels of pollution. Industrialised and urban areas were renowned for the poor quality of their air and blackened buildings. It became clear that this damaged public health and laws were subsequently passed, such as the Clean Air Act of 1956. People were given financial incentives to switch from coal to less polluting sources of heat and power, such as natural gas.
During the twentieth century, there developed a widespread concern to protect the natural environment as well. Many British rivers were becoming heavily polluted until measures were taken to regulate the waterways. Campaigning pressure groups were formed, such as Green Peace and Friends of the Earth. Some environmentalists set up a political party, the Green Party. It won limited success in elections to local councils and to the Westminster and European Parliaments.

Conservation organisations

National Trust logoDuring the twentieth century, a number of organisations were established whose aim was to protect and enhance the natural environment. For example:
  • The National Trust was set up at the turn of the twentieth century to look after places of historical interest or natural beauty. Over the course of the twentieth century, it acquired many historic buildings, several dozen nature reserves and millions of acres of beautiful landscape, in order to protect it from unsympathetic development
  • The Forestry Commission was set up in 1919 to restore and expand the nation's forests after so many trees were felled during the First World War. Forestry Commission trees were intended to be sold for profit but grown sustainably. By 1939, the Commission was the largest landowner in the country.

The right to roam

Between the two world wars, there was a growing desire by residents of polluted industrial towns to explore the countryside. However, much land was out of bounds due to being privately owned. A significant moment in the opening up of the countryside to walkers occurred in 1931. In the Kinder Trespass, a crowd of walkers successfully defied police and gamekeepers to gain access to a Derbyshire moor. Their action gained much support in the newspapers.
Country walking continued to grow as a leisure pursuit throughout the century. In 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act gave people the conditional right to walk on downland, heathland, moorland and along the coast.

National Parks

The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed in 1949. National parks were designated as extensive tracts of land where the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area was conserved. By 2010 there were thirteen national parks in England and Wales and two in Scotland. 
Designed to be within an hour of major conurbations, National Parks enhanced many British people’s sense of belonging to the landscape from which economic developments of the previous 150 years had separated them.

Farming and food

In the century before 1900, farming had changed dramatically with the development of new technology. That process of change accelerated in the twentieth century, as farming adapted to the needs of a growing population, which, for the most part, wanted its food to be as cheap as possible:
  • Science was increasingly applied both to methods of crop production and to animal management, so as to increase output per acre
  • There was a trend towards larger farms, with larger fields, and agriculture increasingly became an industry (to the detriment of natural wildlife and habitats)
  • Chemicals were used to increase crop yields and animal productivity
  • The use of intensive methods of animal farming became common. Animals often lived in cramped conditions indoors.
Towards the end of the century it became clear that the natural environment of Britain was suffering due to the intensity of farming methods, and government subsidies were introduced to encourage greater bio-diversity, with the re-introduction of species and the habitats they required.

Climate change

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, there was much controversy about the world's climate. Many scientists argued that temperatures were rising, although others argued that the evidence was inconclusive.
There was also controversy about the causes of any temperature rise:
  • Some said that it was linked to carbon emissions due to human activity
  • Others said it was part of an ongoing natural cycle of climate change, which had little or nothing to do with human activity.
Successive British governments tended towards the first view, and a range of measures were introduced in response to climate change. These included the encouragement of cleaner forms of power, such as solar and wind power, and legal targets to limit chemical emissions from homes and businesses.
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