Radkau's right on Environmentalism, wrong on J.S. Mill

Joachim Radkau, Thomas Dunlap tr.
Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment, 2002, 2008 tr.

There are too few global environmental history books in English that function well as textbooks. This is one of the better ones. Joachim Radkau says he was painfully aware of the pitfalls faced by authors of big histories when he chose to write a global history of the environment. But he believed several themes including European exceptionalism, the dialog between the ideals of wilderness and sustainability, the effects of state, local, and individual control on environmental engagement, regulation of sexuality and xenophobia deserved greater attention. His decision to have
Nature and Power translated into English was motivated by these issues, and also by a belief that “Old World” experience was key to 21st century environmentalism. American textbooks have already forgotten Chernobyl, Radkau says, and “continental Europeans have rarely lived with the illusion of unlimited resources” (xv, xvi). Both good points. The result is a book that surveys several fascinating ways people have interacted with their environments, acknowledges the particularity and contingency inherent in these accounts, and tries to draw some tentative conclusions and lessons for the future from them.

In his 2002 Preface to the German edition, Radkau wonders what the “ecological and economic disaster of the communist bloc mean for that kind of environmental history whose basic assumptions would have led one to assume that a socialist state-run economy would be able to undo the environmental damage caused by the private profit motive?” (xi) Radkau examines several ancient and modern societies, including Maoist China and Nazi Germany, and ultimately concludes that “effective environmental protection requires” neither strict laissez faire capitalism nor top-down, totalitarian central planning, but rather “a spirited civil society, the courage of one’s convictions, citizen initiatives, and a critical public” (308). Environmentalists looking to the past for a definitive answer on how to move forward may be frustrated, he says, but history seems to suggest that environmental failure or success has little direct connection to the particular political and economic forms a society chooses. While “in the end, the apparatus of the state remains the only - at least potential - counterweight to the omnipotence of private capital interests,” Radkau adds that even though its environmental policy was slightly less totalitarian than its social theory, national socialism “wrecked” any chance for idealistic Hegelians to believe “that the state by its very nature embodies the common good and higher reason above all human selfishness” (300, 306).

That this should be a surprise may illustrate the most challenging element of
Nature and Power. Radkau dips one foot into the ecological experience of several ancient cultures, including some like Egypt whose history extends to the present. But he keeps the other foot firmly in the present, both in his analysis of ancient social/environmental interactions as they may relate to present problems, and in his narrative of the history of modern environmentalism (and the somewhat parallel historiography of environmental history, especially in Europe). Of course, major environmental changes are happening in the present, and environmental awareness has changed dramatically in the immediate past. Radkau himself is politically active in a region of the world that actually has a viable green party, and is known in Europe as both a biographer of Max Weber and an anti-nuclear power activist.

“Sometimes the problems become worse if one strives for a grand solution,” Radkau frequently warns (93). His analysis of ancient China, Egypt, and the Inca empire improves on K. A. Wittfogel’s theory of the “hydraulic society” (most familiar to Americans through Donald Worster’s
Rivers of Empire). Ancient public forest and water projects were not motivated solely to consolidate the elite’s power, Radkau says, but even so, “ecological necessities often go hand in hand with opportunities for the exercise of power” (86). This is a general human tendency, Radkau reminds us: even German environmentalism tends to devolve “from a movement into a bureaucracy” (307). In the end, Radkau agrees with Max Weber that “many historical experiences suggest that powerful historical movements require both a solid foundation of material interests and a vision that transcends daily life, that inspires and arouses passionate emotions. The strongest impulses,” he concludes, “are often generated by a fusion of selfishness and selflessness” (329). The same might be said about powerful historical explanations.

The population problem, and the “Epochal...development of effective contraceptives,” is a recurring theme (258). “The potato and coitus interruptus are key innovations of the eighteenth century that are environmentally relevant,” Radkau says, in a memorable line that suggests a useful widening of the traditional definition of environment (6). When the “Bhutanese ecotopia” is shown to be sustainable only through the expulsion of 100,000 Nepalese refugees along the Indian border, population control in democratic societies becomes a visible issue (285-6). Not only is “Bhutan ecology...intertwined with the preservation of the political system,” but so is the country’s culture and existence, as shown by “the fate of neighboring Sikkim, which lost its independence when Nepalese immigrants had grown into the majority of the population.” If environmental disasters force large-scale migrations in the future, what does Radkau’s skepticism of “Bhutanese exceptionalism” suggest about the tension between local identity and global governance?

“After the collapse of socialism,” Radkau says, “environmentalism is left as the only ideological alternative to the absolute hegemony of the quest for private profit and consumption” (299). This is an interesting idea, and one that might provide a common ground for far left and far right opponents of the status quo. But even if we agree that environmentalism’s role is to take on Neo-liberal economics, Radkau seems to assume a unity of outlook and purpose on the part of the “bad guys” that is not demonstrated by his historical examples. This is the point where
Nature and Power’s tension between Radkau the historian and Radkau the environmentalist reaches its peak (and I congratulate him for pushing it that far). Although Radkau argues that “Not in every situation are the nature protectors the ‘good guys’ and their adversaries the ‘bad guys’,” (especially in the third world where colonialism and tourism motivates approaches that may exclude locals from the environment altogether); the real issue is that in history, unlike environmental politics, there aren’t always clear good guys or bad guys. Often there’s just a bunch of guys (borrowed from the movie The Zero Effect 308). This is especially true because throughout the history Radkau covers, the people making environmental policy were almost never ecologists. They were national leaders or village elders or farmers, making political or social or agricultural decisions. Their awareness, their motivations, and their goals may have had a vaguely, more-or-less environmental element. But their attention was almost always dominated by other considerations.

Nature and Power, Radkau provides valuable glimpses into distant cultures, from the unfamiliar angle of their relationship to their environments. These perspectives improve the reader’s understanding of these cultures, and widen the scope of many environmental issues we may have believed were recent developments. In some cases, his interpretation may be undermined by inadequate context. Radkau mentions, for example, John Stuart Mill’s “belief that the discomfort every sensitive person felt about a world in which every scrap of land was cultivated” suggests an instinctive realization by Englishmen that “it was dangerous to live without reserves” (324). The actual context of Mill’s statement (which, based on the secondary source he cites, Radkau may have been unaware of), however, was a political argument over compulsory cultivation of thousands of acres of “waste” land held by aristocrats as game reserves. Mill was (as usual) a middle-of-the-road land reformer, facing pressure from a much more radical “Land and Labour League” led by working people and their champions. Radkau may be right on the interpretation, if we privilege the subset of Englishmen represented by Mill. But he’d probably prefer the complete context of Mill’s statement, which underlines a class element of environmentalism Radkau would appreciate. On the whole, Radkau avoids easy, monocausal explanations like Jared Diamond’s Collapse thesis, on the basis of data as well as interpretation. According to pollen evidence, Radkau says, Easter Island was “nearly treeless” for a millennium before the Dutch discovered “a flourishing agriculture with a rich variety of fruit” in 1722. Far from eco-suicide, the culture’s destruction was “completed in 1862 when the majority of the population was dragged off by Peruvian slave traders and the island was transformed into a large sheep ranch” (166). So much for blaming the natives.