Reply To: Joachim Radkau – The Era of Ecology

Author Replies # Posted on November 18, 2014 at 12:51

Kristina Berglund – Reflection Joachim Radkau 17/11 “The Age of Ecology”

Today’s session was interesting, I liked that Radkau was keen on asking us questions as well as his easy-approachable manner.
I find Radkau’s ‘Age of Ecology’ to be a very thorough description over the rise of modern environmentalism, containing many intriguing examples of actors, event and debates. However it must be very hard to write this kind of a comprehensive overview of the modern environmental movement due to its complexity and large-scale scoop. It is easy to fall into the trap of putting too much emphasis on things that happened in the part of the world where you are from, which Radkau also has been criticized for.

I was intrigued by the way he proposed that the environmental movement can be seen as a ‘new enlightenment’ but how that book title was turned down by his publishers. Enlightenment is quite a strong word, with positive connotations of being aware and educated. But in one sense that contradicts his argument that the age of ecology also is a way of forgetting what has been happening in the past and how there is no reason to believe that our present environmental awareness is the highest level of ecological understanding. On the contrary Radkau argues that people in earlier times might have been more advanced in certain aspects than we are today, e.g. with soil preserving methods (430).

Our seminar discussion revolved a lot around energy politics and pros and cons with different methods of producing energy. It is interesting how perceptions on these different alternatives vary so much and how they are framed by proponents and opponents. This made me think about the debate in Sweden about conventional farming versus ecological farming that has been going on for many years now but that was revitalized again on Sunday when a few professors from the Swedish Agricultural University launched their book ‘The ecological dream’ and a debate article in leading Swedish newspapers. Their argument is essentially that ecological farming will lead to starvation and that the current idea that ecological farming is climate friendly and produces healthier food is false. The authors argue that the increase of ecological farming would be a catastrophe in terms of food supply and would put higher pressure on the environment to a very high cost. Instead of subsidizing ecological farming resources should be put into improving conventional farming practices. They also wrote that ecological farming stems from homeopathy and that the debate has been too much focused on emotions and not ‘real’ natural science.
I do agree that we really need to improve farming methods and try to find ways to reduce the highly toxic pesticides and fertilizers, and indeed there are problems also with ecological farming. But I think that their arguments are highly simplified. I do believe that consumers get healthier foods when eating products that have not been grown with chemicals in them and that this in many ways are better for the environment, I cannot see how they can argue the opposite. And saying that ecological farming is the same as homeopathy is really arrogant. I find it similar to when Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was criticized for not being ‘real science’ and how she was called a ‘hysterical woman’ – the same kind of techniques that can be seen in the current debate when the authors argue that ecological farming proponents just ‘talk about feelings’ in contrast to the ‘real science’ that the authors are involved in. It is just sad that the debate has become so polarized.
Of course there are real problems with questions of land, and where and how this land should be used. But what is missing in their argument is that today around 50% of all crops we grow is used for animal fodder, which implies we need to lower our meat consumption. Issues of distribution, policy and food waste are not touched upon either, all important dimensions when talking about food production. The connection between the production of food and starvation is not really solid, as many studies have indicated. And I don’t think it is the way forward to make it sound like the only options we have is either 0 or 100% ecological farming.
Anyway, the debate will go on, as with the questions of energy politics, and I think what Radkau (and our MA program) have taught us is that a historical depth on current environmental issues is crucial and may take the debates in new directions.