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It was a battle to save a cherished piece of nature from the forces of economic growth. Preservationists and public figures united to speak up. Yet in the end, industry and commerce triumphed, changing the natural landscape.

Offshore oil drilling? Mountaintop coal mining? Actually, this was the 19th-century controversy over Thirlmere, a picturesque body of water in Britain’s beloved Lake District. In 1877, the city of Manchester, 100 miles away, announced plans to buy property around the lake and dam it, creating a reservoir for the city’s rapidly growing population. Because the dam would submerge surrounding land, the proposal generated intense debate, writes MIT history professor Harriet Ritvo. Her book The Dawn of Green explores this episode and its impact.

Thirlmere, Ritvo asserts, created a “template for subsequent environmental struggles.” The dam’s opposition united locals with outside activists and intellectuals such as John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, who believed that preserving the lake served a greater civic good. “Thirlmere was the beginning of a sense that the public could fight to preserve the resources it enjoyed,” says Ritvo. “It is striking how similar the positions held then are to the positions people espouse today.”

By 1879, following the debate in the British parliament, the government had approved the dam; it was completed in 1894. Then as now, pro-development forces had superior economic clout. Manchester’s victory represented “the forcible overpowering of the opposition, not the conquest of their hearts and minds,” Ritvo writes.

In defeat, however, the environmental movement blossomed. “Even though the preservationists lost, nobody would have expected they could rally so many people to their cause,” says Adam Rome, an environmental historian at Penn State University, who thinks Ritvo’s account will be “a revelation to environmentalists” today.

But Thirlmere also helped pro-development forces become politically sophisticated. In the 1910s, San Francisco officials studied the episode while planning to build the Hetch Hetchy dam and reservoir, near Yosemite National Park. After a public campaign emphasizing the proposed reservoir’s beauty, the project was approved, dealing a blow to its opponents.

Since then, environmentalists have scored such gains as the U.S. Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act in the 1970s and the 1987 Montreal Protocol that protected the ozone layer. “We have a sense of ecology, the interconnection of things in nature, which was barely considered back then,” Ritvo says.

Global changes may make Thirlmere resonate anew. Today, half the world’s population lives in cities, and the figure will rise to 60 percent by 2030, according to a 2008 report from Harvard University and the Nature Conservancy. This trend suggests that future water controversies will involve “more than just environmental preservation,” Ritvo says. “I think the form water politics is going to take during the next few years will have to do with scarcity of supply–perhaps for everyone.”

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