Conference Report: Experts and the Global Environment in the 20th Century

H. Schouwenburg's picture
January 19, 2016
Subject Fields: 
Environmental History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology

Experts and the Global Environment in the 20th Century: A History of Coproduction and Negotiation

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016, Maastricht University, the Netherlands

The conference aimed to study the changing function of environmental expertise in the 20th century with an eye for specific historical contexts – marked, amongst others, by colonialism, the Cold War and globalization.  The conference, which was organized as part of the Project ‘Nature’s Diplomats’, sponsored by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, was opened by project leader RAF DE BONT (Maastricht).

Session 1 was chaired by ANNA-KATHARINA WOEBSE (University of Kassel). WILLIAM ADAMS (Cambridge University) kicked off with a paper on the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire and its early conservation efforts in Africa. He showed that the often taken for granted idea that conservation is – and always has been – based on science is actually a relatively recent construction. As a rule, early conservationists in Africa were hunters and colonial administrators. Some were keen naturalists but collaborations with professional scientists were virtually non-existent.

RAF DE BONT (Maastricht University) also focused on colonial Africa with a paper on the making of the Albert National Park in Belgian Congo. He too nuanced the idea that conservation has always been a truly scientific and international endeavour by showing that this was how a transnational network of conservationists consciously framed the Albert National Park from the 1920s onward. This discursive move, which is still used by present-day conservationists, was part of a double strategy: it had to make the park into a model for other colonies, while also legitimizing its existence at home.

Session 2 was chaired by HENNY VAN DER WINDT (University of Groningen). The first paper by MARK BARROW (Virginia Tech) discussed first attempts to set up a global endangered species list by the American Committee for International Wild Life Protection in the 1930s. This task turned out to be much more difficult than originally anticipated, and over the next two decades the effort to complete the catalogue consumed much of the committee’s time and energy. Nonetheless, the resulting publications, which began appearing in 1943, rank as one of the American Committee’s most enduring legacies, Barrow showed. They served as a model for later, more durable endangered species lists that still guide conservation activity today.

Afterwards, ZOE NYSSA (Harvard) provided a historical overview on conservation biology as a scientific discipline in the 20th century. For this, she charted how new organizations and subfields were generated within the Ecological Society of America (ESA). While conservation-oriented environmental science developed an increasing methodological, conceptual and political sophistication over the course of the 20th century, she showed that the vision of the field and the language used to articulate this vision remained strikingly similar over its history. According to Nyssa, this long history is characterized by discursive tensions between local conservation realities and a globalizing rhetoric.

Session 3, which was chaired by ERNST HOMBURG (Maastricht University), looked at the 1970s when new ideas about sustainable development and genetic resources emerged that still inform current conservation efforts. STEPHEN MACEKURA (Virginia University) showed how sustainable development emerged when the newly established UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) forged new connections between conservationists and intellectuals from the Global South. Rather than a smooth process, however, the discourse of sustainable development was the result of complex political negotiations, expert controversies, and trial and error.

SIMONE SCHLEPER (Maastricht University) continued with a paper on the World Conservation Strategy, the publication usually celebrated for introducing the concept of sustainable development into the environmental policy discourse. In contrast, however, Schleper highlighted what the Strategy can tell us about developments in the history of scientific approaches to environmental problem solving and its methodological legacy. The document went through various stages in which scientists at IUCN and UNEP defended their organizations’ scientific mandates by proposing two different approaches to sustainable development based on biodiversity and environmental impact assessment. Both approaches, ingrained in the World Conservation Strategy, Schleper argued, still inform present-day conservation science in both organizations.

In the final paper of the session, HELEN-ANNE CURRY (Cambridge University) traced the history of the creation of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR). Two earlier developments made the foundation of IBPGR possible: the Rockefeller Foundation’s efforts to create a world collection of seeds, and the construction of genetic diversity as an international conservation concern by FAO and the International Biological Programme. Like sustainable development, the discourse of genetic diversity was the result of a process of political contention and debate. In this, Curry showed, not only the scope and aim of the conservation was under discussion, but also the question who actually had the technological know-how to make this conservation possible.

Session 4 was chaired by MARIANNE SCHLESSER (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences). HANS SCHOUWENBURG (Maastricht) opened the session with a paper on the function of behind-the-scenes work in the creation of conservation expert roles. In particular, Schouwenburg discussed discursive strategies of conservationists within IUCN who tried to promote national parks as conservationists’ contributions to sustainable development efforts of the 1980s. Schouwenburg closed by arguing on the basis of this case that narrow definitions of the concept of sustainable development have had little success in winning over diverse audiences.

The concept of sustainable development returned in the paper by IRIS BOROWY (Shanghai University) on the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) in the 1980s. The paper looked at the preconditions, the dynamics and the results of the commission that gave prominence to the concept of sustainable development. Borowy provided a balanced account on the commission’s final report as both a success and a failure. In particular, she looked at the diverse national, disciplinary, and ideological backgrounds of the commission members and on how these differences impacted discrepancies, but also agreements on the reduction of global poverty, which came to dominate the report.

The academic part of the conference ended with a general discussion chaired by PIET WIT (IUCN). In this, participants and members of the audience addressed the wish to find new ways of interaction between historians of conservation and conservation experts in the field. Discussions stressed the limitations of drawing direct lessons from history, yet several participants emphasized the potential perils of expert-centred decision processes, far removed from concerned publics. In this context, several participants pointed at the importance of inter- and intra-organizational diversity of standpoints when it comes to defending environmental priorities and solution strategies. International conferences were discussed as important interdisciplinary meeting places, but also criticised as often regionally exclusive and culturally mostly focused on the global North

The academic conference was followed by a public lecture by CHRISTIAN SCHWÄGERL on ‘The Antropocene Challenge’, co-organized by Maastricht University and Studium Generale Maastricht. Schwägerl, author of the book "The Anthropocene - the human era and how it shapes our planet" (2014) and co-founder of two major cultural projects on the topic at Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin and Deutsches Museum Munich, offered an introduction to this new paradigm and his personal interpretation of it.

Contact Info: 

Hans Schouwenburg, Maastricht University