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A new Home Front? Anthropogenic climate change and the limits of historical example

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Does the organization of the Home Front during the Second World War offer an example of how to anthropogenic climate change? The launch of the 'New Home Front' initiative by Green Party leader Caroline Lucas certainly suggests as much. But there are dangers, as well as opportunities, in attempts to apply the lessons of history to a present-day crisis. Perhaps the greatest of these is that we will fail to correctly identify why so little progress has been made in seriously addressing climate change.

The initiative's launch document, The New Home Front, written by the New Economics Foundation's Andrew Simms, makes a number of important claims about the achievements of the Home Front in rapidly reorienting social production during wartime. It points to examples such as the reduction of waste or automobile use. The pamphlet points to the wartime mobilization of ideas of fairness and civic responsibility. It signals the ways in which the Home Front saw significant improvements in health and social equality. The Home Front experience can provide a model, therefore, for the 'Great Transition' that is required in the present to address anthropogenic climate change and develop resilience.

There is much that I agree with in the objectives of social and environmental revolution that this document recommends. As a member of the Green Party I support the objectives that underpin the New Home Front idea. However, as a historian, particularly one who has worked on environmental history, I have concerns about this invocation of wartime experience.

Firstly, The New Home Front does not engage with some possible objections to its version of history. For example, it is questionable whether social and economic reorganization of wartime really offers an example of the sort of social reorganization necessary in the present. Wartime 'transitioning' involved the greatly expanded production of means of destruction. It did not challenge prevailing assumptions about the ultimate nature of social production or the relationship to nature, which is necessary now.

Secondly, while the home front may have produced greater equity, it did not abolish social distinctions. Furthermore we know that many of the most substantial social gains were made by the working class in the post-war period, and in the context of relatively strong social democratic and labour movements across Europe. This complicated historical relationship between different systems of social production, and their class relations, is not addressed in The New Home Front.

The report also recapitulates assumptions that are at best questionable. The idea that wartime presented a 'golden age' of recycling in Britain, for example. While recycling certainly received increased focus during wartime, that attention came largely at the expense of investment in the wider system of waste disposal. Both the First and Second World Wars were followed by crises in urban waste disposal. Landfill emerged in part as a cheap response to these crises. Salvage systems, based on the vagaries of secondary materials markets, proved unsustainable with the collapse of the scarcities imposed by wartime. The recent experience of gluts in secondary materials during the recession has again exemplified the limitations of market-based solutions to environmental problems.

In invoking the Home Front experience as a basis for transition, The New Home Front also neglects one of the key reasons it was possible to maintain a wartime social consensus for radical change: the fact that wartime measures were emergency measures. With the end of the wartime emergency a substantial section of the British public showed a strong desire to restore pre-war levels of consumption, and historians have demonstrated how important these factors were in post-war electoral politics. Whether a social consensus could be maintained during the kind of emergency-without-end that anthropogenic climate change threatens is a vexed question. What does this mean for political organization and democracy?

I do not mean to suggest by any of these comments that it is invalid for The New Home Front to seek to build radical social change around historical experience. To some extent this is always necessary. But there is also a danger in looking to the past for answers to present predicaments. The future is always unpredictable, and it is as important to know where to draw the line in looking to history for examples of what to do in the present. Addressing anthropogenic climate change will require a revolutionary transformation of our mode of production and a political challenge to the class interests vested in it. We are presented with the necessity of making a radical break with the past rather than attempting to repeat it.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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