Environmental Governance. Experience, Knowledge, Expectations since 1945

Environmental Governance. Experience, Knowledge, Expectations since 1945

Laura Kaiser / Thomas Lettang / Rüdiger Graf, Zentrum für zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam; Nils Güttler, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich
Vom - Bis
16.09.2021 - 17.09.2021
Gloria Samosir, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm; Charlotte Kalenberg, Department of Constitutional, Social and Economic History, University of Bonn

The environment, developing as a new field of knowledge after the Second World War, required policy intervention and regulations, ideally based on scientific solutions. The workshop aimed to explore these interactions between environmental expertise and policy-making within the political challenges and transformations of the time.

The first session “Ecological Knowledge” focused on the emergence and use of scientific expertise. Two talks gave insights into historical practices to assess environmental conditions and thereby gave two examples of applied ecology. CHRISTIAN REIß (Regensburg) gave the first talk and introduced the early beginnings of ecology as an administrative subject. He used limnology (the study of inland waters like natural lakes but also dams and water reservoirs) as an example and showed how the subject of ecology emerged from administrative structures and practices. Reiß presented August Thienemann (1882–1960) as an important actor who examined freshwater for its quality by biological methods and created a classification of lakes, among other things. He became director of the fishery union (Deutscher Fischereiverein) and of the “Hydrobiologische Anstalt der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft“. As part of the first generation of ecologists, August Thienemann played a major role in the institutionalization of ecology. His student Wolfgang Tischler was the first professor of Ecology in Germany and presents a further step towards Ecology as an independent subject.

NILS GÜTTLER (Zürich) contributed to the field of ecological knowledge by explaining the use of bioindicators. He showed a map of lichens (Flechtengewächse) in the Main-Rhine area, a plant that was mostly unknown to the audience of the workshop but had a large impact on politics in the 1970s. Lichens indicate the quality of their environment since they disappear with bad air. The map visualized that there are no lichens in the city center of Frankfurt but more and more in its surroundings. The knowledge about the bad air quality in Frankfurt led to frequent use of the map since the late 1970s as an argument against the construction of highways or new airfields at the Frankfurt airport. Users of the map were often “counter knowledge experts”, scientists recruited by citizens’ initiatives against construction projects. Lichens developed into a bioindicator of importance for the environmental movement but also found their ways into textbooks and fostered the scientification of politics.

After learning about the rise of ecological knowledge, the second session “Economic Instruments” gave examples for measures to regulate environmental issues. MELINA ANTONIA BUNS (Oslo) focused in her talk on Scandinavian Economists and their economic instruments. She introduced Erik Dahmén (1916–2005), economist and writer of the book “Put a price on the environment”. Dahmén criticized GDP as a measurement of development because it does not account for environmental pollution. With other economists, he fostered the reframing of the “Growth Paradigm”: The price of products must internalize the environmental costs and reflect the scarcity of natural resources. This would lead to the development of environmental governance that improves the environment and enables progress. Buns connected these ideas to the “Nordic model”, the Scandinavian welfare state.

JULIAN SCHELLONG (Darmstadt) presented his research on one specific economic instrument, CO2 trading. He evoked the Kyoto Protocol from 1997 that contains the trade of emissions as one mechanism against global warming. Emissions are artificially capped by European Emissions Allowances (EUA) that can be traded in auctions. Schellong elaborated on the techniques and practices of CO2 trading, so how emissions are translated into prices and how greenhouse gas is accounted for. The audience learned how the atmosphere developed into a common good that can be priced due to property rights.

The last session for the day “The Politics of Energy Transition” gave insights into private energy consumption on a national and urban level as well as into specific dimensions of forecasting energy consumption. THOMAS LETTANG (Potsdam) presented his research about private household energy consumption and the regulatory interventions in this regard. He considers the instrumental dimension after the first oil crisis in 1973 until 1989 in West Germany. The central slogan of the state initiatives was “Saving without sacrificing comfort”. Lettang categorized the measures and distinguished public relations campaigns, based on communication, but also financial incentives like a mineral oil tax or coal subsidies. Also, self-commitment agreements and regulation laws like the Energy Saving Act played a role. Lettang put the different initiatives into context and connected state, market, and consumers with each other. Contemporary sources like information brochures illustrated the talk.

With THOMAS TURNBULL (Berlin), the perspective switched to the United States. He investigated the RAND Corporation in the 1970s from an environmental perspective. The RAND Corporation was initially founded after the Second World War to advise on how to invest money in research and development, connected with military planning. Turnbull called it a “cold war think tank”. Later, it became an independent think tank, famous for the whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg who published the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war. Turnbull claimed that RAND became an environmental institution. He presented several members of RAND and described how they started to investigate environmental consequences of bombing and reactions in the atmosphere and eventually also forecasted energy consumption.

The last talk of the day came from CLARENCE HATTON-PROULX (Montréal) who argues that municipal actors matter in energy transitions since most energy consumption is urban. Therefore, he does not take a global or national perspective but considers the city of Montreal from 1946 until 1960. He builds a database of building application permits and thus quantifies the energy transition on a local level. He finds that most permits are for lumber yards. Also, information about petitions against buildings like lumber yards, fuel stations, and coal yards are available in the sources. Hatton-Proulx categorized the reasons of people to oppose the construction and presented the numbers of urbanistic, environmental, and economic reasons. One of his conclusions that he drew from the petitions, was a general resistance against the motor age.

The second day of the conference started with the session “Waste Management and Air Pollution Control”, which illustrated how systems of waste management and pollution control unfolded differently in three distinct national and political contexts. KAROLINA PARTYGA (New York) examined the significance of secondary resources in the Polish People’s Republic and their relation to environmental governance. Byproducts such as textile clippings, spare pieces of metals, and paper pulp, were regarded not as waste, but as potentially vital resources to Poland’s economic wellbeing. The rise of systematic waste management was tied to a socialist vision of economic governance as constituting material rather than monetary management. The experiences of handling waste generated significant institutional, cultural, and economic transformations in the history of state socialism, and until the end of the 1970s, reinforced the notion that the national economy is a bounded system of material circulation.

ROMAN KÖSTER (Freiburg) described the complex development of waste legislation in West Germany during the 1970s and 1980s, focusing on the enactment of a particular waste removal law in 1972. Köster employed the perspective of legal history to analyze the development of the environmental movement and environmental semantics, and to consider the path dependencies that are created when a new law is made. The strong regulatory character of the law gave the state extensive power to intervene into the domain of waste management, but also reduced the scope of democratic legitimacy around technical planning, as implementing the frameworks produced by the law became the task of experts.

EVA OBERLOSKAMP (Munich) reflected on practices of industrial air pollution control in the United Kingdom during the 1970s. In the British case, air pollution control fell under the purview of the Alkali Inspectorate, a small and specialized agency that recommended a “best practicable means” approach. The Alkali Inspectorate’s air pollution regime can be characterized as based on voluntary cooperation backed by a flexible system of controls that could be adjusted to suit local requirements and national economic circumstances. The ineffectiveness of criticism levied against the British approach to state environmental protection was attributed to a number of structural reasons, including the relative lack of coherence among critical groups compared to industry actors and a distinct conception of statehood as a site where diverging interests were balanced, rather than an entity that citizens could expect to act in the public interest.

The fifth and final session of the conference, “Scientific Expertise and Regulation”, underscored the close entanglement between politics and the production of scientific knowledge in the administration of environmental governance. LENA JOOS (Bern) examined how environmental knowledge was constructed during the preparatory process of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which took place in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. Joos contended that the conference preparatory process entailed a rich yet relatively understudied phase of knowledge elicitation, coinciding with many UN members’ first efforts to systematically grapple with environmental issues. Drawing on 59 country reports, her study illustrates that environmental governance was a global phenomenon. The environment emerged as an object of knowledge not only in Western capitalist societies, but also in socialist and non-industrial societies. Environmental problems, in these country reports, were construed not only as ecological problems, but also included economic and social considerations.

FELIX LIEB (Munich) explored the policy instruments that were significant to the environmental and energy policy of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the 1980s and 1990s. The concept of market social democracy exemplifies the tensions between regulation and individual responsibility, which can be seen to play out in the field of environmental policy. In the 1980s, the SPD created a political project called the ecological modernization of the national economy. Ecological modernization envisioned that production structures should be transformed so as to prevent environmental pollution on the outset, through ecologically friendly means of energy reduction. Under this view, saving the environment was considered a matter of state responsibility, rather than individual. The introduction of the ecological tax reform toward the end of the 1980s, however, represented a shift in perspective, as emphasis became placed on economic interests that might incentivize an individual to consume less energy.

Capping off the conference, LAURA KAISER (Potsdam) looked at the role of the German Advisory Council in debates around environmental policy in the 1970s, focusing on the implementation of the Wastewater Charges Act in 1976 as the first instrument encompassing the polluter pays principle. Although the polluter pays principle was touted for allowing the internalizing of the social costs of environmental pollution into the costs of production, its implementation by means of charging a fee on wastewater proved politically contentious. The German Advisory Council, other government bodies, and industry understood the purpose of the economic incentive entailed by the policy in different ways, reflecting different ideas on how the money was to be used and different visions about the function of the state. Throughout this dispute, the Advisory Council appeared to shift from initially taking a technocratic approach to policy advising to invoking public opinion as an instrument for influencing political debate.

The conference captured the complexity of the postwar emergence of environmental governance. It explored the relationship between scientific knowledge production and regulatory structures, the entanglements between economic and environmental aims, and the roles that different institutions played in the administration of environmental governance. While the nation state and national policy instruments featured as prevalent frameworks for the study of environmental governance, the conference also highlighted other relevant players, including academic experts, local citizens, and the UN system. Future scholarly discussions about environmental governance can be enriched by further expanding the scope of geographic regions and actors under consideration; for example, case studies from the Global South or additional studies on the role of non-state actors (e.g. civil society organizations and businesses) may bring fresh insights to our understanding of the formation of environmental governance regimes.

Conference overview:

Laura Kaiser (Potsdam) / Thomas Lettang (Potsdam): Welcome & Opening Remarks

Session 1: Ecological Knowledge

Christian Reiß (Regensburg): Ecology as a Verwaltungswissenschaft. Counting animals and plants in the BRD after 1945

Nils Güttler (Zürich): Bioindicators: Applied Ecology and Environmental Surveillance

Session 2: Economic Instruments

Melina Antonia Buns (Oslo): Reinvesting in the Environment: Scandinavian Economists’ Instruments for Environmental Governance and their Reframing of the ‘Growth Paradigm’

Julian Schellong (Darmstadt): Organizing Atmospheric Scarcity: Techniques and Practices of CO2 Trading

Session 3: The Politics of Energy Transitions

Thomas Lettang (Potsdam): “Saving energy without sacrificing comfort!” Market economy and administrative interventions into household energy consumptions in West Germany, 1973-1989

Thomas Turnbull (Berlin): The RAND Corporation as an Environmental Think Tank: Systematising Energy Demand in the 1970s

Clarence Hatton-Proulx (Montréal): The Urban Governance of Energy Transitions: Lumber Yards and Gas Stations in Montréal, 1946-1960

Session 4: Waste Management and Air Pollution Control

Karolina Partyga (New York): Socialist Alchemy: Waste Recovery as a Solution to Economic and Environmental Problems in the Polish People’s Republic, 1947-1989

Roman Köster (Freiburg): How to govern something you don’t know? The Development of Waste Legislation in West Germany during the 1970s and 1980s

Eva Oberloskamp (München): Conflicts on Air Pollution Control in the United Kingdom during the 1970s

Session 5: Scientific Expertise and Regulation

Lena Joos (Bern): Environmental Knowledge and Governance in the Framework of the UN Conference on the Human Environment 1972

Felix Lieb (München): The Limits of "Marktsozialdemokratie": Ecological Concepts of the German SPD between Governmental Regulation and Individual Responsibility

Laura Kaiser (Potsdam): How to Make the Polluter Pay?: The Role of the German Advisory Council of the Environment in the Implementation of a Foundational Policy Principle, 1970s

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