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Modern Environmentalism J e n s I v o E n g e l s •Divisions into periods are meant to give history a structure and at the same time to fix a certain interpretation of this history. This is all the more true with respect to contemporary history and especially to very recent developments. The history of the past century has seemingly been structured by more important events and “turning points” than former centuries; the past decades seem to have had more significant outcomes than former decades, and so on. On the one hand, recent developments have indeed more direct impact on our time, so that we need a closer look to explain the present state of the world. On the other hand, the perceived acceleration of “eras” and “turning points” is risky. Growing distance in time will inevitably reassess current interpretations . What seems today a crucial historical redirection may be viewed as a secondary incident in ten or twenty years. I therefore take a critical look at one of the most popular turning points of twentieth-century environmental history: the ecological turn (around 1970). Often, the development of the modern environmental movement, environmental consciousness, and environmental politics on the national and international level is depicted as a fundamental redirection of humankind’s attitude to nature and the environment, putting to an end the hegemony of the modern exploiting homo faber, who had dominated Western attitudes since early modern times.1 This interpretation is not the least due to the fact that environmental historiography itself is a product of the ecological turn. The first generation of environmental historians was inspired by the politics of the environmental move8 8 Modern Environmentalism 119 Uekoetter TEXT••1-208.indd 119 9/9/10 1:48:18 PM 120 ment and its alarmist attitude concerning the state of the earth.2 Environmental historical research had to contribute to the growing realization of the environmental question and had to explain why modern (industrial) societies turned the “wrong” direction—supposing that better ways had to be followed in the future. Early environmental history was therefore by definition part of a fundamental “turning point.” So every reflection upon the ecological era is at the same time a reflection upon the history of environmental historiography. Historicizing the ecological era implies historicizing the environmental history project itself. Although the development of political ecology and environmental protection policy is an international phenomenon, I concentrate on the case of (West) Germany . It often has been cited as an example not only of advanced modernity, but above all as one of the strongholds of environmentalism. So it seems to me a good example to test the ecological turning point hypothesis: if the German case encourages skepticism about it, this is all the more true with respect to other countries. However, the ecological era is not only a category put forward by environmental historians. Fortunately, “general” history has taken some interest in the time around 1970 as a turning point, referring to a multitude of different factors. For some years now, German economic, social, and cultural historians have been advocating a new division into periods for the twentieth century. They refer to the so-called era of “classical modernity,” which includes the time between 1880 and 1970–1980. This idea has been inspired by a multitude of empirical studies that suggest that the famous caesurae of 1914–1918 and 1945 did not affect longterm developments of economic trends, social structures, and cultural norms. Looking for a valid conceptual framework, they have adopted the scheme of modernity and “reflexive” or “second” modernity, advocated by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck and his British colleague Anthony Giddens.3 Around 1970, they have argued, second modernity replaced the first one. Reflexive modernity is no longer dominated by the old conflicts about economical distribution and the modernization of the remains of the traditional world. Instead , it allegedly is characterized by the fading of class society and by “postmaterial ” value systems. Whereas social problems in classical modernity had been solved by the distribution of ever-growing wealth, economic growth has come to an end. Beck has coined the concept of the “risk society,” which is dominated by new kinds of universal risks, threatening all social strata without any difference. Instead of distributing wealth, the societies of second modernity have to protect themselves from risks, most of them created by the secondary effects of modern science, technics, and lifestyle—one of the most important being global environmental destruction. j...


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