Friday, November 25, 2011

Can England Be Once More a Green and Pleasant Land?

The New Jerusalem

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear!O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my charriot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

William Blake (1804)

By CanSpeccy

When Blake wrote The New Jerusalem (1804), the industrial revolution in England was well advanced. Energy use per capita was twice that of mainland Europe. Coal was the chief source of energy and was carried by sea from Newcastle to Blake's native London.

With more than a million inhabitants, London was Europe's largest city and largest port, a place of docks and warehouses, of shipyards, foundries and factories, of tanneries and textile mills.

Back-to-back houses, without a yard. Source
In London and other industrial cities, workers lived in tiny houses, usually built back-to-back without yards, close to the factory or mill where they worked, which meant that the first great industrial cities, though hideous, were compact.

Workers' housing: Liverpool, England

Travel was limited. Blacktop had yet to be invented. The best roads were the ancient, deeply rutted Roman highways. Intercity travel by coach was slow, costly and dangerous. Working people lived close to their place of employment, commuting no more than a mile or two. They rarely traveled except by shanks pony. Many never in their lives traveled more than five or ten miles from their place of birth.

Thus, in Blake's day, despite the great "wen" of London and other teeming industrializing cities, the mines, the "dark satanic mills," much in England  was yet both green and pleasant.

With a total population of 8.6 million according to the census of 1801, the average population density was only 65 per square kilometer, or about 3.5 acres per person. But the rural population density was much less, and, as millions migrated to the industrial cities, the countryside became even more sparsely populated.

But first the railway and then the automobile, combined with rising incomes, changed all that.

British cities were, for the most part, so hideously ugly and dangerously unhealthy that as soon as they could afford it, almost everyone wanted a country castle, mansion, villa, or cottage, or at least a semi-detatched brick box on a 150 square meter plot on one of those meaningless crescents, winding avenues, or closes that have engulfed thousands of square miles of once beautiful countryside around once beautiful market towns and cathedral cities.

Image source

The flight to the suburbs and beyond has generated road congestion, traffic deaths, smog, noise, and an ever expanding zone of traffic-jammed motorways, bypasses, overpasses and underpasses that have transformed much once habitable urban space into an version of hell beyond the phantasmagoric imagination of Hieronymous Bosch.

Such development is autocatalytic. It creates its own demand. By defiling the place where people need to be, i.e., the city, it induces those who can to move to ever more remote and tedious greenfield suburbs, which are the last places on earth where any creature could hope for emotional fulfillment.

Suburban sprawl. Image source
So to what extent can the horrors of urbanization and suburbanization and of sprawling rural exurbification, with their attendant transportation infrastructure, noise, energy consumption and pollution, both visual and atmospheric, wrought by two hundred years of construction, destruction and dereliction, accompanied by a six-fold increase in population and a 100-fold increase in national energy use, be today contained or reversed?

Without substantially reducing the already falling standard of living, the extent to which a return to a green and pleasant land is possible depends on three things:

Doing as much or more with less energy.

Doing as much or more with less travel.

Living as well or better in more compact settlements.

Looked at in that way, the challenge does not seem insuperable.

Massive increases in energy-use efficiency are, in theory, a simple matter.

The light bulb, 3% efficient, the LED 20% efficient. There is still room for considerable improvement of LED lighting in spectral quality, in efficiency and in price, but all these improvements are a near certainty within a decade.

Anthropogenic climate warming. Image source

Home heating has an efficiency of essentially zero. Every unit of energy that is put into it eventually goes to heat the outdoors. The question then is not how to heat homes more efficiently but how to eliminate the need to heat them at all.

The challenge of building a house that is warmed by body heat and waste heat from domestic appliances is not great, but the replacement or transformation of the existing housing stock will occur on a generational time scale.

Energy consumed in travel and the transportation of materials can be greatly reduced, not only by increasing the overall efficiency of motor vehicles from around 15% for those powered by internal combustion engines to around 50 or 60% for electric vehicles, but by eliminating the need for most travel and movement of materials.

In England, the average worker commutes 8.5 miles each way, usually by car. Since most commuters travel from one point in a city to another point in the same city, work-related travel would be greatly reduced by increasing population density from around 3000 per square kilometer, which is typical for English cities, to 15 to 30 or 40 thousand per square kilometer, as is typical of Asian cities.

London and Birmingham aside, England has no cities with more than half a million inhabitants. The largest 175 cities after the first two average just over 100,000 inhabitants. So what would a city of 120, 000 with a moderately high population density of 15,000 per square kilometer be like?

Jaques Fresco: Circular city
At a population density of 15,000 rather than 3000 per square kilometer, the area of a city of 120,000 souls is reduced from 40 square kilometers to eight. Assuming a circular perimeter, the city radius would be reduced from 3.7 kilometers to 1.6, thus reducing the longest straight line commute by more than 50 % from 7.4 kilometers to 3.2 kilometers and the average straight line commute, assuming a random distribution of homes and work places, to only 1.6 kilometers, or a brisk 15 minute walk.

Allowing 33 square meters per person in living space plus an equal floor space for commercial and public buildings, a population density of 15,000 would mean a floor to ground space area ratio of almost one to one. With an average building height of six stories, 15% of the ground area would be covered by buildings leaving another 30% for landscaping around buildings, 15% for roads and the remaining 40% for parks, sports grounds, lakes and rivers.

Self-balancing monocycles: Source
With buildings averaging 12 stories in the core covering a third of the city, building heights in the remaining areas could range from six to only one or two stories.

In a city so densely populated, streets should be  free of the noise, pollution and hazard of motor traffic. Those with cars would need to garage them at the city boundary. In town, there would be lightweight electric buggies, scooters, computer controlled and speed-regulated, obtaining energy by induction from the road bed. These might be city owned and coin-operated. In addition, there would be one-wheelers, "wearable mobility," and perhaps a system of moving walkways, as first used at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

In the absence of cars within the city boundary, residential streets would be designed primarily for the pleasure and convenience of pedestrians. Driveways and garages will no longer take up space or shape the residential landscape. The city will be quieter, the air will be free of ozone, photochemical smog, rubber dust and particulates from diesel exhaust.

Service tunnel. Image source
But a new high density city should innovate in many things beside the transportation infrastructure. Every street should be built above a service tunnel:

Water -- two supplies, a highly purified and remineralized drinking water supply, plus a gray water supply for irrigation, flushing and industrial use.

Sewers -- Three systems, a storm-water sewer carrying rainwater runoff to the water purification plant, a sanitary sewer delivering waste water to a mineral nutrient extraction plant producing agricultural fertilizers, and an industrial sewer, for delivery of various types of waste water for safe disposal or recycling -- every sewer connection having chemical sensors to detect and identify the source of illegal discharges of toxic waste.

In addition, the tunnels would provide easy access to underground power lines, telephone and cable data lines, and would house an automated, door-to-door parcel delivery system, carrying goods between road and rail depots at the city's edge and every commercial and private address.

Street canopy. Image source

Many pedestrian thoroughfares and some parkland areas would have a glass canopy providing a temperate, controlled environment year round.

Would William Blake have considered this the New Jerusalem?  Probably not. He was speaking, surely, about spiritual and moral regeneration. But at least it might raise England's quality of life from the lowest in Europe to the point that most of the population would not want to leave. And a greener and pleasanter land might well be conducive to moral improvement.

London nursery school: The lowest quality of life in Europe
Seeking the New Jerusalem? (Source)


 See also: England's Ungreen and Unpleasant Land


  1. A good quote. Like myself Blake supported the promotion of democracy and the great tradition of Republicanism. Had the UK followed this path perhaps it would have grown into the green and pleasant land that Blake had hoped for. I also read somewhere that this great hymn was also used as the unofficial anthem of the suffragette movement

  2. Yes, it's stated here that:

    Charles Parry set Blake’s Preface to Milton to mu­sic for a ral­ly of the “Fight for the Right” move­ment in Queen’s Hall [in 1915]. It be­came more gen­er­al­ly known as “Je­ru­sa­lem” when Par­ry con­duct­ed it in 1918 at a con­cert to mark the fi­nal stage in the Votes for Wo­men Cam­paign, af­ter which it was adopt­ed by the Na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Wo­men’s In­sti­tutes (and is still sung at meet­ings of WI Groups all over Britain).

    Ed­ward El­gar added an or­ches­tral score to Parry’s rather som­ber tune in time for the Leeds Fes­ti­val of 1922, turn­ing it in­to a pop­ular na­tion­al hymn which tra­di­tion­al­ly ends the last night of the an­nu­al Sir Henry Wood prom­en­ade con­certs at the Roy­al Al­bert Hall. This work al­so made an ap­pear­ance in the Acad­e­my Award win­ning mo­vie Char­i­ots of Fire (1981).

    The aims of The Fight For The Right are said to have been to "to brace the spirit of the nation that the people of Great Britain, knowing that they are fighting for the best interests of humanity, may refuse any temptation, however insidious, to conclude a premature peace, and may accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices necessary to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion".

    Had he known the uses to which it would be put, Blake might have regretted writing his poem.

  3. Re: Republicanism

    Britain is to all intents and purposes a republic, with the monarch serving as a purely ceremonial head of state. So says Trikipedia, anyhow:

    The Royal Prerogative is a body of customary authority, privilege, and immunity, recognised in the United Kingdom as the sole prerogative of the Sovereign. Many of the executive powers of British government, vested in a monarch, have been bestowed under the mandate of the Royal Prerogative.

    "Prerogative powers were formerly exercised by the monarch acting alone. Since the 19th century, the advice of the prime minister or the cabinet—who are then accountable to Parliament for the decision—has been required in order for the prerogative to be exercised."

    It is true that:

    "The monarch is constitutionally empowered to exercise the Royal Prerogative against the advice of the prime minister or the cabinet, but does so only in emergencies or where existing precedent does not adequately apply to the circumstances in question."

    I would say the only emergency in which that residual power could be applied is in the event the government were to act in a way that the great majority of the population opposed, i.e., in contravention of the constitution.

    Therefore, it seems to me that the monarchy provides a rather weak safeguard of the British republic!

    However, that's largely irrelevant. There's nothing the monarchy could or will do about the plutocratic control of all three major parties (plus the BNP/EDL etc., which comprise the controlled populist opposition).

  4. Interesting comment on Blake. It was the first hymn I ever learnt and taught to me by my English grandmother, when I was a very wee boy, who along with my great aunts had been a suffragette. That she was also an English nationalist like yourself may have been another reason she was so determined that her Scots grandchild learnt the hymn. Nevertheless I remain very fond of the hymn today, and just wish that Britain had taken Blake’s advice.

    The Royals should not be looked at just as individuals, but as an institution with very great power which, though often used by people other that the Royals, is exercised in secret (by courtiers, politicians, civil servants, etc) and without proper democratic scrutiny. Let us take the Privy Council in Canada or the UK for example – Huge powers are wielded by that body, often without any democratic oversight. Indeed the only proper control/oversright over CSIS or MI5/6 lies in the undemocratic PCO and you know what my experience of that is

  5. Rod, you make an important point that few seem to understand.

    The role of the monarchy is purely ceremonial.

    The arbitrary power of the monarch, the so-called royal prerogative, is vested, under the British Parliamentary system, in the cabinet, which can, through orders in council, do almost anything it wants.

    For example, the British Government of Tony Blair gave after the fact legal authorization to the genocidal expulsion of the people of the Chagos Islands in the 1960's by means of an Order in Council, an action ruled unlawful by the High Court, and upheld as unlawful in the Court of Appeal. The ruling of the Court of Appeal was reversed, however, by the House of Lords, the membership of which was mainly appointed by Tony Blair.