In order to understand the characteristics of what I call the “age of ecology”, we must look not merely for structures and historical roots, but also for stories and opportunities, for vivid human actors and surprising historical moments. My recent book, The Age of Ecology, thus concludes,
‘Rightly understood, historical awareness means not only looking for the past in the present, but also discovering what is new in the world around us, experiencing more intensely and thinking through the transience of the here and now.
‘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.
‘The best ‘use of history for life’ is perhaps the sharpening of one’s eye for such historical moments in the present. Who knows, perhaps we shall soon be living at such a moment.’
Was this outlook too audacious? Well, two weeks after the release of the original German edition of this book, the nuclear disaster of Fukushima happened, Angela Merkel surprised the German public with a sudden abandonment of nuclear energy and the proclamation of an “energy turn”, and the final sentence of my book was repeatedly quoted and declared prophetic.
The period after Fukushima saw an outpouring of ideas, information, and predictions; for a time nearly every day brought something new. So when revising the text for the English edition, I took advantage of this flow of ideas, this buzz of conversation on a topic that had become suddenly relevant.
But let’s be clear: we are not at the end of history. New historical moments may follow that could lead in a different direction, and countries all over the world are in quite different situations. The Age of Ecology is a history with an open end; that is a central idea of my book.
But what are the consequences for the present? That is the big question! Right from the beginning I intended to tell the story of environmentalism: a story of real people, actions, and dramatic tensions.
But it became clear that it would be misleading to present one single master narrative. Such a narrative would not only ignore the variety of forms that global environmentalism has taken but could also threaten to lead activists astray. They might actually inhabit a quite different history than the one they imagine.
As I demonstrate in my book, after 1970 there is no single overarching story of environmentalism, but rather several stories, each of them with its own dramatic tension: between single-issue movements and attempts to tackle the interconnectedness of ecological problems; between the strategy of struggle and the strategy of consensus; between emblematic moments and processes of bureaucratization; between grassroots movements and global players.
In spite of global environmental communication, there is an “ecology of ecological thinking” – characteristic differences between nations and regions which may even increase as ecological awareness grows.
In my book I trace diverse roots of environmentalism, reaching deep into the past to Fumifugium (1661) and Sylva (1664) by John Evelyn and considering several peaks of “environmentalism before environmentalism”: Rousseau and Romanticism around 1800; urban hygiene and nature protection around 1900; and New Deal America, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia in the 1930s.
I also highlight a post-1945 global green movement that is today mostly forgotten. When Max Nicholson, in 1970, proclaimed an environmental revolution in his book The Environmental Revolution: A Guide for the New Masters of the World, he had good reasons for doing so. From California to central Europe and Japan, “environmental protection” was invented exactly at that time, not because of the shock of an environmental catastrophe but through an intellectual analysis of partly proven, partly theoretical risks.
On the whole, environmentalism is chameleon-like. It is a philosophy of life and a source of political legitimacy, a grassroots protest movement and a top-down strategy for change in which, in many cases, women are at the forefront.
Therefore, after a discussion of Rachel Carson, the “founding mother” of American environmentalism, The Age of Ecology presents 10 green “heroines” that most impressively embody the inner tensions of environmentalism (although this choice is somewhat arbitrary and open for discussion).
The Age of Ecology thus aims to correct a number of misconceptions by promoting the following theses:
Institutional consolidation does not have to mean the decline of environmentalism, as from the beginning there has been interplay between citizens’ initiatives and top-down interventions.
It is not realistic to create a dichotomy of true “post-materialist” environmentalism with a global scope and selfish “NIMBY” (Not in My Backyard) movements. On the contrary, it is precisely the local initiatives driven by local interests that are the true global element of environmentalism connecting the developed and developing worlds. Instead of “think globally – act locally” the slogan might read “Be global by acting locally.”
Contrary to what is often asserted, modern environmentalism did not grow out of apocalyptic fear and catastrophic experiences, but more out of peaceful and hopeful moments in world history.
The more environmentalism succeeds in acquiring political power, the more it is subject to some of the typical problems of the old Enlightenment analyzed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectics of Enlightenment.
Moreover, there are instances when the age of ecology merges into an age of eco-bluff. This book aims to present a history of environmentalism that is both sympathetic and critical. We cannot exclude the possibility that the prophets of doom will be right in the end. And such an environmental collapse may even follow a quite conventional Ma-Ma-Ma pattern of Marx, Malthus, and Machiavelli: a synergy of the insatiable growth of the capitalist economy, of population growth, and of power politics.
While acknowledging these potentially unpleasant prospects, I would like to say of myself what Jacob von Uexküll said in 1988 at the presentation of the Alternative Nobel Prize to the courageous Brazilian environmental activist José Lutzenberger: “He is not an optimist, he is not a pessimist; he is a possibilist.”
I believe that possibilism in this sense is the best foundation not only for writing about environmental history, but also for getting something moving.