Reply To: Joachim Radkau – The Era of Ecology

Author Replies # Posted on November 19, 2014 at 15:37

Reply to Anna’s reflection

Thank you Anna for your thoughtful reflection on these various points in Radkau’s seminar and lecture. The question of definitions in environmental history is haunting me as well since I have been trained in the social sciences, a group of disciplines who try to do “science” on objects which might be varying most in the world out there: human perspectives, values and behaviour. To make that academic endeavour possible we were forced to be as clear as possible about the concepts we use in our writing. In the humanities and history there seems to be much more freedom if it comes to that, something I am enjoying and struggling with at the same time.

So what about Radkau’s conclusion that environmentalism could be the first sign of a New Enlightenment? If it is the environmental movement which brings light in the darkness of our times, then the question is what has to be illuminated? It might be the ignorance of the relatedness of the world, its ecological character, at least in the Western world. Here I have my problems already because as one can read in Radkau’s book the environmental movement did not create this world view but found it in the readings of Eastern philosophies and others which had been forgotten for a long time. In this sense the environmental movement translated “old” knowledge into the modern times, creating new terms and theories, building up on these, and posing them against the dominant world view of the 20th century, and finally starting to change the material foundation of societies. The German “Energiewende” might be most recent and vivid example for how the interplay of ideas and actions can change whole structures.

But coming back to the initial question: is it legitimate to call this historical change a “New Enlightenment” or the rise of a new “Age of Ecology”? I think only if you share the assumption of a progressivist development of history: if one age follows on another, if one enlightenment illuminates the spaces the previous left in shades, then yes, we might have experienced something originally new with environmentalism. But if you don’t (and I feel that I do after more than one your studying this programme) you see something quite different: the ways how different kind of knowledge becomes dominant in societies, how it changes the modes of thinking and acting, not in a progressive but in a contingent manner. From that perspective environmentalism has changed something in all of our heads and hands but the question is what and to what extend?

The senators who voted against the Keystone XL pipeline yesterday might have been convinced by successful campaigning by persistent environmentalists – but they might vote in favor of fracking in another instance because they believe that cheep energy is needed to fuel the American industry and households. At the same time there might be thousands of people who change their energy provider to 100% renewables but still fly every year to visit friends and families on the continent. The point I want to make here is that environmentalism has not replaced the old set of thoughts and practices of people and thus the “old age”. It has reconfigured them – in unprecedented ways, not forever but for the present. In ten 10, 20 or 50 years doing something “environmentally-friendly” will mean something completely different, probably we won’t use that term anymore at some point. Thus I would conclude that calling environmentalism a “New Enlightenment” or a new “Age of ecology” has more to do with a certain image of history than what actually happened since we speak of environmentalism. If you call me a postmodernist now, you won’t do me any harm 🙂