Reflections on “The whole world a Black Country” by Matt Stallard

This is an article published in the Spring 2023 edition of the Blackcountryman, reflecting on an article by Matt Stallard in the previous edition

In the last issue of the Blackcountryman, Matt Stallard described the rather bizarre way in which the Victorians saw the Black Country as a horrific paradigm of environmental devastation that was uncomfortably close to home, whilst at the same time extolling those places elsewhere in the Empire which had taken the same path of industrial exploitation and were described as local Black Countries. Reflecting on our own Black Country he writes

In world-historic terms the Black Country has a rightful and still-underappreciated place as foundational when it comes to the engineering and scientific breakthroughs and forms of knowledge that were later transported in the minds and bodies of people … throughout the world; Dud Dudley, Thomas Newcomen, Abraham Darby, John Wilkinson and all the others, names and unnamed….

A proud legacy indeed, and one that resulted in major benefits for humanity, in terms of health and quality of life, but one that needs to be balanced against how this knowledge was used to cause significant environmental damage in this country and around the world. After a thorough survey of the developments of the various Black Countries around the world, driven by the process of colonialism tinged with classism, eugenics and racism, he concludes with the following more optimistic words.

For our region, placing our proud and truly world changing history at the centre of the most critical debates of our time has the potential to put us on the map in a positive, constructive way – where we dismantle those tangled, toxic legacies and write our own twenty-first century narrative, and map out new futures for our, and the many other Black Countries they imagined across the planet.

As I reflected on this article, another thought struck me. If the role of the Black Country was indeed foundational in the engineering and science developments that enabled the extraction of large quantities of coal which in turn fueled the Industrial revolution, with its legacies both positive and negative, then it has to be admitted that the current climate crisis, caused by climate warming fuel due to the greenhouse gases that result from the use of fossil fuel, also has at least some of its roots in the Black Country. This is not in any way to apportion blame or to lay the responsibility for the current crisis on those who live there now – the effects of fossil fuel burning on the climate have only become apparent in the last fifty years, and many of the current inhabitants of the area are descended from those who were as thoroughly exploited by the rich and powerful landowners and financiers as those held in slavery in the colonies. But nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that our region was instrumental in the causes of the present crisis.

Now, it is clear that unless urgent action is taken, then the effects of climate change will be felt in a major way around the world, even within the Black Country. Whilst we will not be affected by the inevitable sea level rise, which is already underway and will continue for many decades whether or not action is taken to reduce carbon emissions, many low-lying areas around the world are facing inundation by rising water levels. Some parts of this country are most definitely at risk – I would very strongly advice about buying houses in the Fenland for example with or without flood insurance! But the Black Country will suffer in two ways – by consistent higher temperatures in summer, exacerbated by the urban nature of the Black Country leading to an “urban heat island” effect, where temperatures will be several degrees higher than the surrounding areas; and by the greater weather instabilities that can be expected, with higher winds and rainfall, which will be magnified by the significant elevation of the Black Country above sea level. No one will be immune.

Nut to return to Matt Stallard’s final observation, in the light of this legacy, what is the new narrative that we could write, the new future that we can map out? It has to be admitted that here I write in hope rather than expectation, but there is a potentially positive future in view, where the Black Country becomes a paradigm for adopting measures to mitigate the future effects of climate change internationally. The region still has a major engineering and construction skills base, that could be utilized in the production and installation of green energy products such as wind turbines and solar panels. In the nineteenth century, the Black Country was exploited for its underground wealth – could it now be exploited, for its much more environmentally friendly surface and aerial wealth. As I noted above, the Black Country sits on the Midlands plateau, 150m above sea level – an ideal location for onshore wind turbines. Although such turbines are currently something of a political hot potato, they do offer the prospect of significant amount of green energy. Similarly, there seems to me no reason why the huge stock of low-rise housing across the region should not be fitted with solar panels, and thus become a large-scale solar farm. Wind and solar energy are of course not continuous, and some sort of balancing energy source is required. The most efficient, and indeed most environmentally friendly, is the use of pumped storage – pumping from a low-level reservoir when energy is available and releasing the water to a lower level through turbines to produce energy at times of peak demand. Again, the topography of the Black Country is ideal for small scale pump storage schemes, with rapid drops to lower levels at the edge of the plateau – the long flights of locks on the Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and Dudley canals testify to this fact.

In addition to becoming a paradigm for green energy production, the Black Country need to do something about its direct production of greenhouse gasses – through insulation of the building stock to decrease energy use, and through a move away from carbon fuel-based transport to transport powered by renewable means (usually through electricity) of through active travel – cycling and walking. Indeed, across the UK the transport sector is a major issue in terms of carbon emissions, being the one sector where carbon production is still increasing. This presents a major challenge to the Black Country, which is very much the centre of a car dependent culture. The development of the Midland Metro and light rail schemes, and the roll out of electric buses and electrically assisted cycles and proper cycle infrastructure, are hugely important in this regard. A move away from car-based transport would also have a major effect on more local environmental and medical issues such as poor air quality due to transport emissions (which is estimated to kill between 28000 and 36000 people each year nationally) and obesity due to the lack of exercise.

So, I would suggest it is possible to map out a future for the Black Country that acknowledges that at least to some extent, the issues over climate can be traced back directly to engineering and scientific developments in the region but positions itself as a region where its skills can be used to develop new methods for solving the issue. A fanciful, optimistic vision? Maybe, but perhaps one that is worth holding on to.

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