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Environmental History as a “Great Story” – Joachim Radkau Sums Up the “Era of Ecology”

Coverausschnitt des Buches „Die Ära der Ökologie“; © C. H. BeckCover of the book “Die Ära der Ökologie”; © C. H. BeckAfter his brilliant book on “Nature and Power” (Natur und Macht, 2000), the historian Joachim Radkau has now published his opus magnum: in 636 pages of text, with lo and behold 2,289 sources and notes, and a wide-ranging register of key figures, it presents a comprehensive picture of the global environmental movement(s). It is a story with many changes of scene, full of drama and suspense. Whoever takes the time to read it will be richly rewarded.

Radkau divides the “era of ecology” into time frames, periods, in which environmental awareness was generally heightened: the turn of the nineteenth century with its nature conservation and life reform movements, the years of the “ecological revolution”, the environmental boom from Chernobyl to Rio de Janeiro, and environmental policy between globalisation and glocalisation. He tells of decisive events and lessons learned, of real experiences and media visualisations, of spiritual quest and outstanding moments, of the institutionalisation and bureaucratisation of environmental politics. He portrays prominent ecological initiatives, charismatic mentors and impressive pioneers. He writes from his own inner solidarity and concern, and at the same time maintains a critical distance. He places his confidence in the integrative potential of ecological thinking, while keeping a cool head.

The age of true Enlightenment

Joachim Radkau; © Gruppe 5 Filmproduktion GmbHRadkau’s message: the environmental movement is the new, the true Enlightenment of our time. The diversity and networking of its motives distinguishes it from the previous great movements in history. It true significance lies not in spectacular summit conferences, but in multifarious local activities. Only the recognition of the conflicts of interest and the contradictions in conduct lead to the core of its dynamics. A global history of the environmental movement cannot be written as a smooth and harmonious story; on the contrary, thanks to the international and inter-temporal comparisons the reader can see the variety of situations in which the diverse environmental initiatives find themselves – and also how little they still often know of each other, in spite of internet and digital communication.

All those aware of the global scope of ecology may want to demur here: “Think globally – act locally” was the motto that made them active, that generated international and inter-generational solidarity, which was a key to local strategies. But slowly, slowly! Radkau is a master of provocation, but also a master of pacification. He calls it the “dialectic of the Green Enlightenment”. The era of ecology, he argues, is not only a history of awareness, but also a history of forgetting. Once significant events and important figures have been forgotten, and many enlightening works have landed on the remainder table. Great moments of insight and spontaneous inspiration were followed by rigid and incomprehensible environmental regulations. The call for experts and state intervention was followed by the increased importance of lay people and civil society. The influence of scientists on the decision-making process was followed by invitations for the cooperation of humanities and cultural scholars.

Demystifying of a myth

The environmental movement, notes the author, has demystified the myth of technological progress for good. At the same time, however, a nature conservation movement that has now gone on the offensive harbours a design for the re-enchantment of the world. And this occurs mainly through what takes place locally. The practical use of environmental history, the retrospective of past decades, consists in seeing how, behind the jumble of environmental regulations, the simple concerns and basic motives, such as the need for and the right to clean water, clean air, peace and quiet and healthy nourishment, were again recognised and pursued at the local level.

There is no reason, concludes Radkau, to imagine that our present environmental awareness represents the best possible and definitive level of ecological enlightenment. History teaches us that there have always been decisive “historical moments” when the inertia of the status quo is broken through and much becomes possible that was previously considered impossible. And precisely because there has already been many changes of subject in this discussion, it is important to monitor environmental discourse throughout the world over extended periods of time: thus the characteristic and intelligible plea of an historian who wants to tell environmental history as a great story, and who succeeds in doing just that in this magnificent work.

Joachim Radkau: Die Ära der Ökologie. Eine Weltgeschichte, München, C.H. Beck 2011, 782 pages, € 29,95, ISBN: 978-3-406-61372-2.

Udo E. Simonis
is professor emeritus in the field of environmental politics research at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (Social Science Research Centre Berlin) and since 1991 he has co-published the “Jahrbuch Ökologie” (Ecology Yearbook). His main research focuses on international environmental politics.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
April 2011

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