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Policy-making of early nature conservation. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom compared, 1930-1960

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PmNC (Policy-making of early nature conservation. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom compared, 1930-1960)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-08-31

The project reviews the political aspects of early nature conservation in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, between 1930 and 1960. Contrary to the time after the emergence of a ‘modern environmental consciousness’ since the 1960s, nature conservation was not a prominent concern in public opinion or a relevant political issue.

The research project looked into the actions of six groups in two democratic states in Western Europe: the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. For each country, a civil society organisation, a state agency, and a scientific society were analysed. Furthermore, the project looked into a number of exemplary local and regional case studies. How did these organisations try to achieve their goals and exert influence bottom-up on the political level, when nature conservation was obviously not on people’s minds? The period 1930-1960 was after all an era of economic crisis, mass unemployment and reconstruction – besides, there was a war and (in the Netherlands) a foreign occupation going on. How did nature conservation organisations manage to reach some of their objectives against the odds, in these difficult circumstances? Which lessons could present-day environmentalist groups or climate activists draw from these historical experiences?

The research results point at a marked difference in processes of governance and policy-making between the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In the Netherlands, conservationist organisations opted for a strategy of working through informal deals, advisory committees, and negotiated agreements with government departments and state agencies, rather than pressing for official legislation. In the United Kingdom, civil society actors continued to urge for such legislation, but internal disagreement about the correct definitions and administrative arrangements for national parks and nature reserves complicated a successful implementation of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act after 1949.

The policy-making habits, strategies, and consultation structures in the different countries were decisive factors for the action repertoire of environmental groups after the 1970s.
The initial set-up of the research project consisted of creating a project website and a Data Management Plan, as necessary preparatory steps. The researcher, freshly re-starting his academic career, gathered a lot of experience in the daily technical management of the research action, in research data management, in re-establishing his academic network and organising a scientific workshop in the midst of a global health emergency situation. The researcher visited all necessary archives in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, consulted the necessary archive documents, journal and newspaper articles pertaining to the work of the societies and organisations under research.

The research results point towards a marked difference in processes of governance and policy-making between the Netherlands and the United Kingdom between 1930 and 1960. In the Netherlands, conservationist organisations opted for a strategy of working through informal deals, advisory committees, and negotiated agreements with government departments and state agencies, rather than pressing for official legislation. In the United Kingdom, civil society actors continued to urge for such legislation, but internal disagreement about the correct definitions, objectives, and administrative arrangements for national parks and nature reserves complicated a successful implementation of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act after 1949. The policy-making habits, strategies, and consultation structures with state actors were decisive factors for the action repertoire of the environmental groups in the different countries since the 1970s.

Other scientific, peer-reviewed articles identified a profound colonial bias in the discourse of early conservationists, a conspicuous misrepresentation of Catholics in the nature conservation movement in the Netherlands, and a number of serious misunderstandings between Dutch conservationists, their Belgian counterparts, and the agricultural sector. The researcher presented papers based on various aspects of this research at four scientific conferences.

Besides, the researcher produced four magazine articles, one public lecture, two blog posts and three smaller online articles for a larger audience. In terms of dissemination and communication, an interdisciplinary scientific workshop about ‘Nature and nature conservation in the Netherlands during the Second World War’, held in Nijmegen in November 2021 and attended by scientists, historians, cultural heritage specialists, and representatives of nature conservation societies, had the greatest impact. The workshop was the starting point of a new interdisciplinary network about nature and nature conservation in the Second World War and will be the first reference point for future research on this topic in the Netherlands.
The research result related to the conflict between the nature conservation movement and the agricultural sector in the Netherlands offers an important historical background to the present ‘nitrogen crisis’. More than merely a disagreement on details of environmental policies, emotional reactions point towards a long discursive history of miscommunication and distrust. In a more general sense, the project offers insights to successful mechanisms of lobbying, agenda-setting, and policy-making in the two political cultures and systems under research. Civil society organisations and other pressure groups used existing or emerging consultation structures, modern scientific disciplines and theories, and presented them according to dominant cultural and ideological discourses. It could be helpful for present-day organisations or pressure groups to understand how best to generate political interest in a new issue. For more established green political parties, think tanks, and environmentalist civil society organisations, the project encourages them to actively reconsider their pre-1960 history, the historical roots of ecological thinking, and the political history of nature conservation in this early period.
Dissemination measure: article in the university magazine about the project and the public lecture
Dissemination measure: blog post for a larger audience
Dissemination measure: public lecture