CfP Labor – Movement – Nature. Historical Perspectives on an Ambivalent Relationship

Leonie Karwath Announcement
Subject Fields
Environmental History / Studies, Labor History / Studies, Social History / Studies

Labor can alter, shape or destroy the environment. The relationship of humans with their external and internal nature is mediated by labor. In a historical perspective, the development of the present societal relationship to nature cannot be separated from the development of capitalism. The emergence of a class of dependent wage laborers during industrialization went hand in hand with the enclosure of rural areas, forced displacement, resettlement, forced sedentarization of local populations and with urbanization. Interventions in the biosphere and atmosphere, such as the pollution and poisoning of air and water, the leaching of soils, the clearing of forests or the reduction of biodiversity, did not take place in an abstract or imagined nature. These processes directly affected living and working conditions, bringing about conflicts and resistance. The proliferation of toxic, noisy, accident-prone or sickening working conditions can equally be seen as an expression of a disturbed „metabolism with nature“ (Marx). The concept of the Capitalocene addresses this epochal shift that comprehensively changed the supposed dichotomy of society and nature at the same time.

This depletion of humans and of the environment, by exploiting labor and appropriating natural resources, was politicized in workers‘ as well as environmental movements as their own kind of “politics of exhaustion” (Hürtgen), but without necessarily recognizing what they have in common. Political practices related to the body, such as occupational safety, health, hygiene, and nutrition, intersected with environmental policy issues. Nonetheless, the interests of workers and environmentalism have often been discussed as being antagonistic. Today, environmental movements in Europe appear as a phenomenon of an urban middle class that differs from „the“ workers in terms of lifestyle and political goals. What seems to be forgotten are disputes in trade unions and factory groups about working conditions harmful to health and the environment, e.g.  in the discussions about a „humanization of work“ in the 1970s, or the participation of workers in struggles on environmental politics. In the Global South, peasant movements and feminists, among others, point to connections between environmental destruction and questions of labor conditions and livelihoods. Against the backdrop of current discussions about a „socio-ecological transformation“ that builds a bridge between the challenges of climate change and social justice, it is therefore worthwhile inquiring connections and conflicts, ruptures and continuities in the relationship between labor, nature and the movements concerned with them.

The focus of the issue ties in with current historiographical and political discussions. Approaches in the English-speaking context to historicize environmental activism from the perspective of the working class have made reference to notions such as „A People’s History of Environmentalism“ (Montrie), „working-class environmentalism“ (Barca) or „environmentalism of the poor“ (Guha/Martínez-Alier), whereas such approaches are largely underrepresented in the German context. Important impulses on how such histories can be written and concepts such as ecology, nature and the social can be rethought derive from other disciplines, such as cultural studies, anthropology, human geography. We are especially looking forward to contributions displaying issues of movement history and their links as well as theoretical, historical and interdisciplinary questions about relations of labor, the labor movement and nature.

Potential topics: 

Alliances and conflicts

  • To what extent has environment/nature been identified and labelled as a political field by the classical actors of the workers‘ movement (parties, unions, associations, etc.)? Which methods/practices have been applied?
  • Which interests/conflicts have prevented such a debate (e.g. the belief in progress and productivism, environmentalism as a class issue)?
  • Social struggles over nature and labor relations during industrialization
  • Environment and labor under state socialism, e.g. the oppositional role of environmental movements
  • Deindustrialization and environmental politics: renaturation, redefinition of living and working environments
  • Workers and climate/energy politics: new perspectives on the ‘jobs vs. environment’ debate
  • Body politics: intersections between health and environmental politics

Nature: a place of longing and threat 

  • Nature as a worker’s place for leisure and a counter-place to the city: e.g. youth movements, anarchism, communes; experience and appropriation of nature as a distinct form of consumption (vacation, recreational trips, etc.), nature conservation as a project of the workers‘ movement
  • Natural and industrial disasters: droughts, floods, epidemics, industrial accidents and their effects on the working class
  • Labor in the countryside as a relation to nature: struggles for land and resources
  • Global South: environment and labor under colonialism, indigenous resistance and non-European approaches/concepts of relations to nature, externalization of labor relations hazardous to the environment and health, and „imperial lifestyles“
  • Exchange relations between animals, plants and other organisms with labor and workers (e.g. the use of animals in mining and agriculture, animal husbandry and cultivation of crops for self-sufficiency, access to commons like forests and fields)
  • Intersectionality: the naturalization of class, race, and gender, and the resulting differential impact of environmental hazards at places of residence and work – „nature“ as a site for the production of difference? (e.g., „environmental racism“)

Labor and „nature“ in the theoretical and the historical debate

  • How are the debates about the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, etc. (with their macro-historical and, longue durée-perspectives) reflected in (social) history?
  • What role do labor and workers play in political ecology and ecofeminism and how can their insights be made fruitful for a history of labor?
  • What was the importance of environment and nature in the workers’ movements thinking, such as Marxist/socialist/communist/anarchist theory?
  • Growth critique, sufficiency, self-sufficiency, autonomy etc. – Alternative visions

Formats and Deadlines

We ask for the submission of compelling synopses of up to 2,500 characters indicating the topic, method, and source base of the proposed article by 15/4/2023. Based on the synopses, we will request articles. The deadline for submission of finished articles is 15/11/2023. All articles will undergo an internal review process involving multiple stages before publication. The approval to publication will only be granted after submission and review of the final version.  Publication is limited to original contributions (exceptions for articles not originally published in German). English-language articles will be translated into German for the printed journal, but may be published digitally in English. Contributions to „Arbeit – Bewegung – Geschichte“ will not be compensated for. Please send manuscripts by e-mail, preferably as docx-files. The articles should not exceed 50,000 characters (40,000 characters in English) including spaces. Please note our instructions for authors.


Deadline for synopses: 22/5/2023

Deadline for finished articles: 30/11/2023

Prospective date of publication: May 2024

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Arbeit - Bewegung - Geschichte. Zeitschrift für historische Studien

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