Reply To: Joachim Radkau – The Era of Ecology

Author Replies # Posted on November 18, 2014 at 14:08

Reflection on Radkau (2013): The Age of Ecology

I enjoyed Radkau’s seminar and lecture, although I have to admit that there was nothing which was radically new – but this could have been because I studied political science in Germany and was already aware of the environmental movement and politics there. Both constitute Radkau’s main interest and referential point in his “global history” of environmentalism, a geographical bias he can be criticized for. As could be his rather traditional historical approach which seems to rely on (punish me historians if I am wrong here!) the vast search, collection and documentation of facts from which in the end conclusions can be drawn. There is no strong theory or red threat visible through Radkau’s writing, compared to an Alf Hornborg for example. But while the latter could be criticized for assuming overarching socio-economic structures which determine almost everything, Radkau offers at least glimpses of contingeny. As he writes in the very end of his book: “We know from history that there are moments when the inertia of existing structures breaks down and much that has seemed impossible is suddenly regarded as possible” (Radkau 2013: 431). This gives at least a little bit of hope, something in which Hornborg is still struggling I guess.

I would like to reflect on the “think globally, act locally” slogan which seems to reflect the ethos of the later form of environmentalism. I think Radkau is right if he describes this stance as a “schizophrenic” one as no human is able to do this two things at the same time – at least now, who knows about a possible cyborg future. It seems to me that the crux of environmental problems in our modern times stem from the exact opposite, as we “act globally and think locally”. It has just been a little while since our ancestors where bound to their land or town, and to expect that we can suddenly encompass the whole planet in our thinking, appears to be, gently spoken, overambitious. The more I read, write and think about environmental history, the more I get more surprised how much belief and hope in the agency of modern institutions and humans there is among the actors but also the historians themselves. Or in other words: just because we know that we created “this mess” with our technology, capitalism and individual freedom (at least that’s how a lot of stories go) doesn’t mean that we know if or how we can steer these “modern achievements” in order to clean up that mess. What I am questioning here is the idea of ecological modernization which has become dominant among most politics and societies in the Western world I would I guess. This has been to a substantial part due the “success” of the environmental movement as Radkau pointed out in his lecture, not with a smile on his face and a reference to the “irony of history”.

What I was missing in Radkau’s book was that this irony might be result of a certain way most parts of the environmental movement might have take (I am just speculating here) as soon as they entered national parliaments and politics. Another path might have lied and still lies in drawing a different conclusion from the “act globally, think locally” predicament: “think locally, act locally”. This should not be mixed up with “going back” to the pre-modern times but something quite different. As Radkau himself writes at one point: “While historians have learned to be supercautious with predictions, there is some evidence that the way to a globally sustainable environment lies more through increase forest growth, cycling and birth control than through geo-engineering, underground CO2 sequestration or giant wind farms, not to speak of nuclear power plants.” (Radkau 2013: 418). And ten pages later: “Environmentalism may offer an alternative, in so far as it emancipates from them ‘American way of life’ and returns to its original aim of improving the quality of life; this would imply a new sense of self-esteem and a revaluation of traditional lifestyles suited to the ecological conditions of particular countries” (Radkau 2013: 428).

While I would be cautious mentioning birth-control here, I would argue that there is a form environmentalism which acts in the rather private sphere: by people who re-evaluate practices which might be called “traditional” in the sense that they have been cultivated before the emergence of the industrial society. This thought can be exemplified by something I experienced today (very mundane but it might help to stress my point here): on a morning run I stopped to grap some apples from a tree which was situated next to a field in the Haga valley. There were so many that I had to walk my way back and while I was doing that I reflected on how silly the usual way of acquiring high-quality, organic and local apples is: grown in some other place in Sweden or even Europe, certified through some complex system, transported in motorized vehicles, stored in a supermarket that has to be run by electricity and workforce, the mony I need to buy these apples, the time all these processes cost – just to create something like a sustainable product and give the feeling of a sustainable consumer decision. Both practices, the apple picking and the apple purchase, might be called “environmentalist” but the apple-picking entails a completely different material outcome: the Uppsala tree, planted by someone decades ago as a common good, produces the apples for zero crowns and with the least stress on the environment (fertilizer, energy, emissions) possible. And still it might be only 1% of Uppsala’s population who enters this way of acquiring apples. Of course, not everyone in Uppsala can satisfy his or her demand of apples in this way, as there is a limited amount of free-for-all trees. But still, think of all the complexity that is created in our modern society to meet the environmentalist concerns of most people when it comes to food.

What I want to emphasize here is not criticize people for buying organic fruits in the supermarket (I do it myself more than often) but to show that environmentalism can take a very different forms. Or maybe this is the wrong way of saying it: there might be a set of thoughts and practices out there which is “good”, “sustainable”, “resilient” (call it what you want) to the environment without reference to environmentalism at all. A slogan for that might be “think locally, act locally” or “as simple as possible”. And might entail not the spread of “greening” and “ecological modernization” of all parts of our society but a reflection on current and traditional ways of living and then choosing the most convenient, simple and harmless ones to combine them. Such a development path would be highly informed by history – and that’s where I see the crucial importance of our discipline!