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'Fighting for Thirlmere'

A 19th century struggle over a narrow English lake still frames arguments for and against conservation of rural areas, according to MIT historian Harriet Ritvo.

In addition, a wider view of environmental rights--that the citizenry as a whole has a vested interest in preserving certain rural landscapes--took hold during this struggle and persists today, Ritvo writes in a new article, "Fighting for Thirlmere--The Victorian Roots of Environmentalism," published in Science magazine on June 6, 2003.

In the Science article, Ritvo portrays the Victorian-era conflict over Thirlmere, a lake located in England's famed Lake District.

In 1876, everyone had a vision for Thirlmere, a lake about the size of one of New York's smaller Finger Lakes and renowned for its natural beauty. Those who lived near Thirlmere wanted it to remain untouched; those who lived in Manchester, an industrial city 100 miles away, wanted to dam the lake, raise its level by 50 feet, and pipe its water to the city's cisterns to support its growing demand for water.

Also, people with no formal ownership or connection to Thirlmere at all felt they, too, should weigh in on its future. Their "spectatorial rights," common today as people in one region express opinions about environmental issues elsewhere, were a "novel idea 125 years ago," Ritvo said.

The Thirlmere Scheme, as the development plan was known, won out, and in 1894, a dam was completed. The effect of the controversy was greater than water gushing to Manchester, Ritvo writes.

"What made the Thirlmere Scheme predictive ... was the prominence of interests unconnected with property in the narrowest sense. [It] was broached at a time when the notion of public ownership of landscape was being expanded and consolidated. In tandem with organized attempts to protect physical access to private property, there came assertions of a new kind of spectatorial right or lien on land," Ritvo writes.

In her article, Ritvo states that grand-scale river dam projects, such as the Aswan on the Nile and the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze, have been debated using arguments arising from the Thirlmere controversy, but with far greater--and growing--environmental, demographic and political impact.

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