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|November 17, 2014 at 16:27 #15474|
Write reflections and later replies to Joachim Radkau’s book and seminar
|November 17, 2014 at 16:28 #15475|
Nik Petek, Reflection 17.11.2014
The Era of Ecology
The work done by Prof Radkau has been really impressive (and its scope too), and it was enjoyable to read his work the Era of Ecology. First thing that I notice reflecting back on the reading is that the book is not only about tracing where the start of the environmental movement comes from (and/or the ideas for it), but it is also about ‘perceptions’. As a historian, he obviously has to deal with this on a daily academic basis and he is probably more aware of this than any of us. A great thing about the book is that he was able to put the perceptions (the way people perceived certain things at a point in time) into context and how he opposed the different perceptions of a certain period.
But the incentive I have to write about ‘perceptions’ in this reflection is because the seminar quickly turned into a discussion about perceptions: on how Germany is perceived in the world, how nuclear energy is perceived, how Germans perceived the outside world (in this case Sweden and Scandinavia), and Prof Radkau was himself eager to know our perceptions on things and if we knew of any publications or articles on renewable energy, sustainable development in Sweden and about Sweden.
The work ‘The Era of Ecology’ is (slightly generalised) a work which follows ideas about environmental degradation, starting with forests, the contested views on these ideas and the events surrounding the ideas and which events affected how people thought about the environment. This was also clear when we were discussing nuclear power today in the seminar. While nuclear energy is one of the cleanest and greenest sources of energy, countries nowadays avoid building new ones and people are reluctant to have them in their backyards. This is for several reasons: they consider them unsafe, they are scared of them because of radiation, they create a massive waste disposal problem/issue, etc. However, as Radkau explained a certain German official (whose name I forgot) was a great supporter of nuclear power plants until the Chernobyl accident. Since that accident created a furore and panic around Europe, and installed fear and mistrust of nuclear power plants in the general public. The discussion on the pros and cons of nuclear power has been going on decades before as Radkau has shown, but an event like this is definitely one that distinctly shaped and still shapes the perception of nuclear energy. The fears and mistrust was revived with the damage done to the Fukushima reactor. A whole set of developments around energy production, such as cheaper and cheaper photovoltaic energy and windfarms, etc., also formed the discussion around nuclear energy and how it was perceived, since the alternative to nuclear energy in the shape of renewable energy is seen as un-harmful. However, even solar panels are taking their toll on the environment:
The other thing that Radkau’s book reminded me of is that revolutions and original thoughts do not just happen. Everything has its history and every movement such as that of the 1960s needs time to build up momentum. It surprised me to know that the discussion on the rights of homosexuals or at least their discrimination dates back a few centuries, as shown in this talk very briefly:
I guess, I (and we all?) need to keep in mind that everything has its history and it needs to be taken into account when doing our research, so we can better understand what we are dealing with and the undercurrents of any meme, idea, and movement.
|November 17, 2014 at 17:30 #15476|
Today Joachim Radkau shared some pretty interesting insights from his book “The Age of Ecology”. I thought it was quite interesting that he had the thesis that environmentalism is best understood as a new enlightenment. I was very intrigued by what exactly he meant by that. My understanding of the age of enlightenment, or the age of reason is that it was a celebration of scientific methods, a more opinionated and educated public, and calls for social reform towards a more egalitarian and utopian society that did not sacrifice individualism. These are all causes taken up by factions of those aligned with the environmental movement. Environmentalism is also less like a social movement as it is not tied to fixed ideas, instead inherent tensions are essential for environmentalism, a condition for the movement to remain in motion. I think Radkau used the phrase “a green chameleon like character adapting to the jungle of environmental problems”.
|November 17, 2014 at 18:00 #15477|
Morag Ramsey- Radkau Reflection
Meeting with Radkau was a nice way to tie up this last year of Global Environmental History. We were introduced to Radkau’s Power and Nature last September in the course Modern Natures, and since then we have immersed ourselves in diverse and exciting aspects of this discipline, so it was interesting to come back to Radkau after a year of discovery. This response is a bit scattered, but I guess one can imagine it in three sections: 1) anthropocene, 2) time, 3) Maria’s question. (Everyone knows you can solve how scattered a paper is by just dividing the scattered thoughts into numerical groups.)
1) It was interesting to see how Radkau expressed his dissatisfaction with the term Anthropocene, as it tied in to how he cautions against simplifying relationships between humans and nature. In particular, Radkau seemed dissatisfied with how the Anthropocene suggests a dominating human agency over nature. He writes “an impartial environmental history does not recount how humanity has violated pure nature; rather, it recounts the processes of organization, self-organization, and decay in hybrid human-nature combinations.” (Radkau 2008, p.4) In general I quite like getting to hear different academics’ take on the Anthropocene. Libby Robin for example uses the idea to advance environmental work, while acknowledging the problems inherent in the concept when it comes to responsibility. In any event, I find the different emphasis scholars place on the Anthropocene a revealing peak into their philosophies.
2) Something that has been on my mind of late is time. (How we use it in writing, how we use it as a scale, how we access history chronologically, etc.) Last week there was a Historical Ecology conference where Paul Sinclair advocated for a paradigm shift when it comes to time. He referenced Einstein’s concept of time and how the past, present, and future are all of the same weight and significance. To me it is an intriguing and yet rather inaccessible idea. I cannot find a way to reimagine time. Today Radkau brought up time in reference to climate change. I believe he was commenting on the future, and how we are negotiating that outcome. He also wrote in his conclusion about Hegel, how “man is essentially here and now.” (429) I wonder if we were able to reimagine time if it would have a profound impact on our present actions or not. Part of the perceived issue when it comes to the environment is human’s short sightedness. I am not entirely sure how paradigm shifts of any kind are implemented, or how one can forecast the outcome. But it is intriguing nonetheless.
3) I enjoyed thinking over Maria’s questions, they were thought provoking and tied to current events. In particular Maria’s question on ‘act locally, think globally’ logged itself into my head. Perhaps as I have become preoccupied with time as a concept, and this seems like a re-imagination of space.
|November 18, 2014 at 12:51 #15484|
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 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.
|November 18, 2014 at 14:08 #15485|
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!
|November 18, 2014 at 16:59 #15489|
Nik Petek – Reply to Kristina Berglund 18.11.2014
I agree that Radkau’s book was a very detailed description and it is easy to criticize him for putting too much emphasis on German environmental history and environmental movements. However, anybody who leverages such a criticism should be aware where the author comes from and what languages he understands. Not everything is available in every language, and to be fair, Radkau was asking us about any Swedish sources , so he is trying to extend his scope.
I also heard about the argument on ecological farming, but I have unfortunately not read anything on that topic. I agree with you that ecological farming probably does have benefits for many species, not just us. I would like to hear more on the topic of why ecological farming would lead to starvation and what their science behind it is, if it is not just to peak the interests of an audience. I would expect researchers from the SLU to be able to substantiate their claims. I have been hearing for years now that we are throwing so much food away each year, and the food the supermarkets are also disposing off, which is still perfectly good to eat. Apparently the world population grows enough food for each and every one of us to be fed. But neither have I heard of any science behind this claim.
Studies that show no correlation between starvation and food production are well known and (I thought) well accepted in academia now. Of course, not all farming needs to be ecological, and in a very large part of the world ecological farming and ecological food are not for the poor woman/man. But of course, as more farmers would join in the cheaper the food would become. As it stands however, ecological food and farming is out of reach for many of us.
|November 18, 2014 at 17:15 #15490|
On the Radkau seminar and lecture 2014-11-17
|November 18, 2014 at 19:58 #15491|
Reply to Ellen by Kristina Berglund
I agree Ellen that sometimes it was hard to fully follow Radkau’s arguments, and to know what to make of it all. I guess that partly has to do with the complexity and scale of the issue of climate change and the vast task of historicizing the environmental movement – it’s so broad and sometimes so hard to boil down and define. I found him to be very humble though in the sense that he also presented criticism of his work and seemed to be quite open for disapproval, objections and perceptions of others. That I think is a strength.
|November 18, 2014 at 20:16 #15492|
Sorry Ellen, of course you were at the open lecture since you talked about Paul Sinclair’s comment…. Hjärnsläpp
|November 18, 2014 at 20:41 #15494|
Reflections on the seminar and lecture with Joachim Radkau on his books “Nature and Power” and “The age of ecology”. The base for the discussion was the movements of environmentalism, or what he also calls the Green Revolution, alternatively “The new Enlightment”. Why did they emerged when they did, and what have they achieved? Radkau talks about three sectors that influence how we think about environmentalism; A new social movement among other factors because of new social networks created by Internet and Facebook, ideas of ideological/religious roots, and a rising source of anxiety.
|November 18, 2014 at 21:08 #15496|
Response to Anna by Morag
I was intrigued by your response as it corresponded rather well with some of my own musings. And you provide quite a few difficult questions to ponder. ☺ Just today I was going over my assumptions when it comes to nature conservation issues and whether they predefine the way I see an issue. While not entirely the same problem, you wrote about “people being mislead and acting on misinformation because of an unquestioned allegiance to the movement.” While writing about environmental and environmental history topics does not require allegiance to a movement, it still provides us with certain ways of thinking which shape our academic contributions.
Apparently we will never escape the endless spiral of problematic definitions. Interdisciplinary efforts do not seem to ease this up, and I have thought about the confusion of social sciences and humanities focusing on topics such as ecology before as well.
Oh! I missed the lecture, but apparently Radkau did indeed cover issue to do with time. Although just knowing he puts forward a uni-dimensional scale does not say much to me on its own. Worth looking into though.
|November 19, 2014 at 15:23 #15505|
Reply to Nik from Maria. I find Nik’s reflections very well thought-out. I agree with him that Radkau focuses somewhat too much on German organizations and people of importance for the development of movements there. Although European movements might be quite connected, there are still differences between countries regarding topics and organization and that could also have been illustrated in local projects. The debate about nuclear power is very interesting, both considering new options of how to continue using it, if that is an alternative, as well as how the nuclear energy is discussed in media and among grass roots and the civic society. I would say that most people do not know what they are talking about, although nevertheless anxiety for nuclear power plant breakdown is understandable. The world today is so much more scientific because of all techniques that are developed, tested and used, that it is very difficult to even try to understand negative and positive outcomes. Nevertheless I think that it is our responsibility to learn about facts when we engage in discussions, not only letting a sense of fear because of ignorance direct our choice. Solar and wind energy is very popular now, but for me they are just short term inefficient alternatives. How can environmentally aware individuals accept those sources as ecological and environmentally friendly? Just imagine what you need to do to transport the extremely heavy parts for the wind mills through sensitive nature, to maintain roads, etc. Problems with certain birds might be soluble, but there are other animals, like bats (important for pollination) we do not know much about. How does the sound with its low frequency affect animal, including us, in the long term use? Minerals for solar power screens are often “conflict minerals”. The effect of the BrightSource solar plant from the link was new to me. This is just an example of new unexpected consequences of well-meaning projects. But, at the same time as Radkau and many with him blame scientists and technicians for ill-conceived long term solutions and inventions, they are helping us to solve problems, invent alternatives etc. Being able to study nature’s behavior is essential when it comes to biomimetic. Learning from the way nature adapt to the environment, as for example knowing the concept of air-conditioning in termite mounds is important for how to understand how to construct environmentally friendly new buildings. Again, my experience of what good science is capable of achieving (just read about Philae and its 10 year long journey to and landing on the comet) can be crucial for saving the environment for further destruction, but it will not be easy. What will environmental historians, history of science and ideas historians write about in 25 years, just one generation from now? My hope for energy production is hydrogen gas with water as its only waste, which even might be used in dry regions.
|November 19, 2014 at 15:37 #15506|
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 🙂
|November 19, 2014 at 16:46 #15509|
By Ellen Lindblom Reply to Nik
Thank you for your reflection Nik.
I also enjoyed the tracing back method Radkau uses. He traces back relevant threads in the past; The question of deforestation for instance. Instead of mention Plato and his thought on deforestation (a classical example) Radaku goes back to the debate about forests in the 1900-century, which might have an actual connection to the present. Sometimes environmental historians go way back in the past and then skips a thousand years or so and make a connection to an event or thought of ideas with no evident connections to it (we have had those examples on this course).
When I was lost in details in the seminar you were thinking of perceptions of the world and of course the seminar was about that also! Good work. I don´t agree with you on nuclear power as clean energy, thinking of the radioactive nuclear waste it is leaving for hundreds of thousand years ahead, a risky business. Never the less I agree with you on how things that happens shapes peoples worldviews or at least enhance it. I also guess the climate debate is shaping people’s perception of nuclear power. You mention researcher’s relation to the past and the origin of a studied subject and how we as researchers need to think of some kind of contextualization into the past. I addition I think researchers also have to reflection on the presents perception of a subject, this will also color the research.
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