Legends of the Past teach the Lessons of Today - Part II.

Photo by flow14| flickr.com

Political professions, especially of the democratic kind, are full of the people who are concerned primarily with the present and immediate future. It is a profession that inculcates a worldview that is incredibly short-sighted because democratic institutions ensure that politicians don’t stay in power too long and so they only plan until the next election and “long-term” becomes a dream.

Unfortunately, environmental problems require long-term answers and that is why politicians are so complacent, hesitant and downright negligent about them. Understanding this tells us why we need men and women in the government who can and do think about long-term solutions. But one thing rulers of the past had that today’s politicians don’t, is supreme power that is unchecked by time limits. In my last post, we discussed Emperor Ashoka’s environmental policies, whilst today we shall discuss the policies of King Edward I.

Today, in England and other European countries, there are intense movements to ban coal burning power plants. It has been an issue that environmentalists have worried about for the past 700 years with a royal ally in Edward I. In 1306, King Edward banned coal burning in England.

Even before then, coal smoke had to begun to affect the quality of life in England. It had been used since the Romans who called it ‘’the best stone in Britain’’ and carved jewellery from the rock according to Barbara Freese, the author of Coal. Back then it was known as sea coal, probably because it was more available and easier to harvest on the shores. But by the 1200s it was actively being mined throughout the country and a shortage of wood sealed its place as the most sought after fuel in Britain.

This spike in coal usage especially hit England hard and it not only affected the common populace but even the royalty. The wafts of coal smoke that clouded the air drifted towards the royal palace and caused the Queen to get incredibly sick, so much so, that she had to be moved to Nottingham castle. If this finally pushed King Edward to initiate the ban is uncertain but it certainly might have helped.

Additionally, the air quality of England was growing noticeably poor as coal burning became more popular. Also, a large group of rich merchants and clergymen also petitioned the king to support the ban. The urgency of the issue can be understood by the punishment King Edward established for burning coal – death!

What’s amazing in this case is that capital punishment didn’t deter most people.  In fact, they went on burning coal and the punishment was even relaxed later on. The problem got really bad in Queen Elizabeth’s reign as well and she instituted the ban to witness similar results.

In fact, coal burning continued to grow at a stable rate until a massive coal smog wreaked havoc in London in 1952, helping in part to spark the modern anti-coal movement.

But this tells you something about environmental policy. The anti-coal movement has been around Britain since at least 1306, but it was largely ignored by the Edwardian populace when the royals wanted to implement it and is now being largely ignored by the British government as the modern populace wants to implement it. The British government has given the go ahead for building new coal power plants all across Britain and history’s cycles continue to spin and amaze us with their dark irony.

In the end the lessons to draw from this failure is that any environmental movement or other kind of popular movement needs to draw its strength from its intensity and integrity; not from its longevity. 

SustainabilityAbhijeet Manay