‘The environmental movement has had less historical awareness of itself than any of the other major movements of our times.’ Despite the enormous literature on us environmentalism, and the still vaster one on the ecosphere itself, it would be hard to dispute Joachim Radkau’s judgement for the world as a whole. To date, the only single-authored account has been Ramachandra Guha’s Environmentalism: A Global History (2000). Though elegantly structured, Guha’s slim volume—foregrounding Gandhi as the greatest twentieth-century environmentalist: his name, complete with saintly honorific, occurs on 24 of the book’s 145 pages—hardly exhausts the subject. And while multi-author essay collections abound, of their nature these don’t grapple with the problems of conceptualization, topology and narrative that confront a historian of the whole. Nor are they obliged to test their propositions against such a range of terrains or socio-economic conditions. With The Age of Ecology, Radkau aims to situate global environmentalism in world-historical terms, and thereby to characterize it, too. footnote1 Importantly, Age of Ecology turns out to be a critical history, which is just what radical movements need if they are to gain from a better understanding of their own cursus. The historiography of feminism, for example—not to mention that of the labour movement—has been blighted by celebratory boosterism.
The problems are not negligible. Is ‘movement’ even the right term for something so vast and shapeless as global environmentalism, often more of a conviction than a practice, which encompasses not only widely divergent goals—wildlife conservation, cycle lanes, solar panels—but seemingly incompatible agents: on the one hand, myriad local confrontations over toxic dumps or logging rights, and on the other, inter-governmental conferences, ngo lobbyists, carbon traders? Radkau confesses that in gathering the material for his book, ‘seldom had the feeling that “I know that I know nothing” been so overpowering’, nor so devoid of Socratic self-assurance. Nevertheless, his record as an environmental historian suggests he should be better equipped than most to undertake it. His Nature and Power, published in German in 2002 and in English in 2008, had already provided a millennia-spanning, loosely Weberian account of the relationship between humans and their environment, ranging from pre-historical subsistence to the present. Born in 1943 in a small Westphalian town near Bielefeld, on the North German plain, Radkau trained as a historian at Hamburg under Fritz Fischer, author of one of the most extravagantly self-blaming German histories of the First World War. Radkau’s dissertation, completed in 1971, examined the emigration to the us after 1933. It was followed in the 1970s by a study of industry and politics since the age of Bismarck and a work on twentieth-century imperialism.
On his own account, though he enjoyed the carnival aspects of 1968, the student militancy of the period left Radkau cold; but he felt an immediate affinity with the nascent Green subculture of the 1970s, which gave political articulation to his own ‘deep discontent’. The shift was evident in the subject of his habilitation, completed in 1980, which investigated the formation of post-war German nuclear policy, revealing a vipers’ nest of bureaucratic squabbles. His next book, Holz (1987), was a full-scale environmental history of wood, challenging the thesis that forest-fuel shortages had helped spur the shift towards coal-powered industrialization; for Radkau, this was largely a panic whipped up by land owners and state officials, keen to maintain their control over the forests. He then moved into cultural, medical and intellectual history with a 1998 study of the belle-époque Age of Nervousness and, in 2005, a psycho-sexual biography of Max Weber (reviewed in nlr 41). Between the two there came Nature and Power, which provides the broad historical backdrop to Age of Ecology.
Radkau’s approach in Nature and Power eschewed chronological causality to offer an encyclopaedic patchwork of local experiences, within a periodization defined by quasi-Weberian modalities of power: the territorial reach of environmental problems and of the social authorities legitimated to deal with them. This yielded a five-part division—subsistence economies, large-scale state administration, colonialism, the industrial age, globalization—with each category extending trans-historically across many parts of the globe. Thus subsistence ecologies—slash-and-burn, hunting, horticulture—in which religious rituals, pagan or otherwise, provide the main environmental authority, persist as a substratum deep into later periods. Large-scale state management characterizes a vast array of civilizations—irrigated agriculture from the Fertile Crescent to China, Egypt to Peru; terraced planting from Java to medieval Spain—while examples of colonialism’s attitudes to conquered terrain were taken from the Roman Empire, the British Raj and the American present. Industrialization compounded the evils of bureaucratic interventionism, the law by which the unintended consequences of administrative, big-bang solutions inevitably create more intractable problems, both environmental and political, since they also expand the state’s reach. The Industrial Revolution also ushered in new ways of thinking and feeling about nature. But it is the age of globalization, from the 1970s on, that constitutes ‘the deepest rupture’. Today, in a world-historical reversal, glut has replaced scarcity as the main danger facing humanity. The insatiable exploitation of fossil-fuel and groundwater reserves, over-fertilization of the soil, irreversible loss of land beneath asphalt and concrete, plastics clogging the oceans, mass tourism and air travel despoiling the shores and the skies—all this, in Radkau’s view, stems from a doomed attempt to generalize the expansionist American model, notoriously wasteful of space and resources, making it a disaster as a world economic palimpsest.
Appearing in German nine years after Nature and Power, Radkau’s Age of Ecology explores and evaluates the multiple responses of environmental politics to this dynamic and increasingly destructive history. The backdrop to this fresh thinking in Europe was the advance of agrarian capitalism from around 1750, the privatization of the commons and the end of the old subsistence regime, coupled with visions of the newly opened colonial landscapes in the Indies and Americas as unspoilt paradises—the ‘enthusiasm of a Rousseau’ would have been unthinkable without this experience. For Radkau, ‘the whole modern age has had a profoundly dialectical relationship with nature: the more systematic the attempts to exploit it, the more accurately people have learned to know it and to understand its laws.’ The story begins with the new conceptions of the natural world developed by eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers—when, as Montesquieu put it, Nature became ‘a lady whom everyone prided himself on knowing’. While Guha’s first-wave environmental thinkers are predominantly Anglophone—Wordsworth, Clare, Ruskin, Morris, Muir, Gandhi—Radkau rightly foregrounds Rousseau and the early German Romantics.