February 27, 2017

The Torrey Canyon Disaster, Everyday Life, and the “Greening” of Britain


This article challenges the predominant narrative of the rise of modern environmentalism that supports much of the historiography on environmental ideas and movements. Through a study of the effects of the Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967, we show that everyday life is a vital mediator of environmental catastrophes and has played a crucial role in rendering ambiguous popular attitudes toward the impact of disasters on the natural world. Using oral interview evidence, neglected by much environmental history, we trace the connections between the experience of the disaster and the contradictory ways in which this experience was or, more commonly, was not translated into environmentalist sensibility. We study the ways in which everyday concerns about economic insecurity created antagonistic understandings of the disaster that both magnified its unfortunate impact and complicated its subsequent meaning. We argue that attitudes toward the spill and its effects on nature were often contradictory. On the one hand, there was a powerful association with the suffering of wildlife affected by the spill. Yet, simultaneously, many of those interviewed rejected explicit environmental activism or drew only weak lines of connection between green ideas and their own experience of environmental disaster. We suggest that everyday environmental discourse should be seen as more geographically specific, ambiguous, and self-aware than that which is traditionally associated with the conservation movement, and that oral history can be a vital tool in developing a more sophisticated understanding of the complex social nature of modern environmentalism.

by Timothy Cooper and Anna Green

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