Environmentalism from Below – A guest blog for the Rachel Carson Center

By Marianna Dudley

This August, I flew to Edmonton, Canada, to participate in a workshop organized by Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper at the University of Alberta. ‘Environmentalism from Below: appraising the efficacy of small-scale and subaltern environmentalist organizations’ brought twenty scholars from diverse scholarly backgrounds together to discuss each other’s work. Papers of 7,000 words had been pre-circulated, and we will continue to work on them for submission to an edited volume in the new year. The workshop was funded in part by the Rachel Carson Center, and I was invited to blog about it for them here: http://seeingthewoods.org/2014/08/26/environmentalism-from-below/

The workshop (and paper) was an excellent opportunity for me to think through the research I began with this project, looking at our use of water for recreation. Through my work I have identified a contestation of rivers by different recreational user groups, in particular anglers and paddlers/canoeists. My paper ‘Clear water, muddy rights: accessing British rivers for recreation’ suggests that historical notions of right use, insider/outsider identification, and contrasting philosophies of water as place and resource contribute to this ‘conflict’. To me, the campaign group Rivers Access for All (http://www.riveraccessforall.co.uk) can be seen as an environmentalist organization, though they identify themselves first and foremost as a recreational interest group. However, by working to assert a public right of navigation on Britain’s waterways and challenge current legal definitions of water-use, they are campaigning for a reconfiguration of how we use, protect and define water that recognizes those in and on the water, in addition to those who own or pay to use the riverbank. In effect, they are working towards a more holistic and all-encompassing definition of water than currently exists in British law, in which rights of property are privileged, and where the riparian owners also own the riverbed and water flowing over it. It is a complex issue, and I have been grateful for the help of my colleagues Chris Wilmore and Antonia Layard in the Law Department (University of Bristol) for helping me navigate the legal complexities of the subject.

The Rivers Access to All campaign, the contestation of water and the history of the dynamics between anglers, swimmers and canoeists have become a major focus of my research on the Power and Water project and I am very thankful to Jonathan and Liza for giving me the opportunity to present my research in an early stage. I will continue to work on these issues as the project evolves, so if you have any thoughts on recreational use of British rivers, legal definitions of water access and use, or any personal experiences of angling, swimming or paddling on rivers, do get in touch via the comments or twitter (@DudleyMarianna).