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Environment and History

The Politics of the Golden River: Ruskin on Environment and the Stationary State

Graham A. MacDonald

Environment and History 18 (2012): 125-150. doi: 10.3197/096734012X13225062753705

In 1938 Lewis Mumford stated that ‘Ruskin was the first economist to express the realities of energy income and living standards in relation to production’. Ruskin's ideas on wise economic distribution and consumption were developed from within an older and broader view of technology, hostile to mass machine production. Mumford was not the first to draw attention to the relevance of Ruskin for developing environmental and urban planning theories. Despite Ruskin's frequent castigation of John Stuart Mill’s ideas on political economy, and others of the eighteenth century ‘classical school’ of political economy, he shared a good deal with them. With Mill he displayed a preference for governments empowered to exercise legislative control in the imposition of limits to growth and in safeguarding worker interests. Notions of the ‘stationary state’ can be found in the mature writings of Malthus, Mill and Ruskin. In Ruskin’s case, however, his views were shaped by his reliance upon older ideas of political economy linked to a pre-Hobbesian tradition of Natural Law influenced by Biblical literature, by the Elizabethan, Richard Hooker, by various medieval writers and by the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, particularly the works of Plato and Xenophon. Intimations of his organic social views may be found in his early children’s tale, The King of the Golden River (1841), which found mature expression in the 1878 Constitution he wrote for The Guild of St. George, his late social experiment. After 1854, his ideas on political economy were steadily informed by works and commentaries dealing with practical environmental issues concerning architecture and common lands conservation, public health, transportation, science policy and pollution.

KEYWORDS: Ruskin, pollution, land use, consumption, stationary state


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