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The Torrey Canyon Disaster, Everyday Life, and the Greening of Britain

The Torrey Canyon Disaster, Everyday Life, and the Greening of Britain

Tim Cooper, Humanities, University of Exeter, Cornwall.

Key findings

  • The impacts of ‘mega-events’ on environmental consciousness may have been exaggerated
  • Oral histories of the Torey Canyon disaster off the Isles of Scilly show a much more complicated relationship with environmental movements than simply that the effects on wildlife trigger conservationism.
  • Although people were deeply concerned about the suffering of the wildlife, people did not necessarily associate this with ‘green’ ideas or environmentalism.


The piece explores the Torrey Canyon oil spill of 1967, an event that brought Cornwall and the environment to global attention and that some have said was one of the turning points in popular awareness of environmental issues. This essay questions this view. Using oral histories it points out that the disaster was understood by contemporaries then and since very much in the context of everyday economic and cultural concerns, and that evidence of a greening of attitudes among those who experienced the disaster are rather slim. We argue that attitudes towards the spill and its effects on nature were often contradictory.

On the one hand there was a powerful association with the suffering of wildlife affected by the spill. Yet simultaneously many of those interviewed rejected explicit environmental activism, or drew only weak lines of connection between green ideas and their own experience of environmental disaster. We suggest that everyday environmental discourse should be seen as more geographically specific, ambiguous, and self-aware than that which is traditionally associated with the conservation movement. As such it questions how deep popular environmental concerns really ran in the twentieth century and whether the impact of spectacular ‘mega-events’ on ecological consciousness has been exaggerated.

»Read full paper on Open Research Exeter (ORE)