Ecology and the Economy in Modern Industrial Societies: On the History of a Relationship.

Ecology and the Economy in Modern Industrial Societies: On the History of a Relationship.

Martin Bemmann / Ella Müller / Simone Müller-Pohl, Historisches Seminar, Albert-Ludwigs Universität Freiburg
From - Until
30.07.2015 -
Müller-Pohl, Simone

In June 2013, during a speech at Georgetown University U.S. President Barack Obama presented his new strategy on climate change. Given high unemployment rates and an on-going economic crisis, he called special attention to the tense relationship between climate change and economic growth. He placed this ostensibly complex issue concisely in its wider context, saying “The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time, but in America, we’ve always used new technologies – we’ve used science; we’ve used research and development and discovery to make the old rules obsolete.” There was, however, a clear underlying message about the relationship between the economy and ecology: “It’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and.”

With this interpretation, Obama joined in a current debate, which is nonetheless historical, about the relationship between two central structures of modern industrial societies: ecology and economy. In this debate, Ecological modernization, sustainable development, Green Capitalism, Free Market Environmentalism, along with sufficiency and Wise Use are some examples of the plethora of buzzwords that scientists, politicians, lobbyists, entrepreneurs, and activists are using to discuss the relationship between environmental protection and economic growth since the 1970s. However, as this workshop plans to show, such discourses about the proper use of finite resources, the intrinsic value of nature, and the design of our environment are significantly older than the 1970s – and often establish quite different conclusions on the matter.

In recent years, historians have increasingly dedicated their research to the relationship between the economy and the environment. Both aspects are no longer conceptualized as mutually exclusive, but rather as part and parcel of the same story. Indeed, the aspects of ecology and economy are intricately linked. The ‘natural environment’ serves ‘the economy’ in three distinct ways: It provides resources, it receives the emissions of economic activities and it helps to preserve human life, both in a physical and psychological sense. We posit that these three functions have forever been in a challenging relationship, if not direct confrontation.
Associated with industrialization and its accompanying economic, political, cultural, and social developments, the "natural environment" changed from this point on into a concept with a qualitative and quantitative extent that was previously unknown. Controversies over how much protection of nature is advisable or affordable and how much destruction is necessary are reoccurring; the debate on the relationship between ecology and economy is only one of its recent manifestations.

With our workshop we hope to build on previous research with the aim to historicize these disputes, thus bridging the gap between environmental and economic history. We are interested in those actors participating in these debates in both industrialized and industrializing countries. We ask how they have articulated those real and imagined ‘contradictions’ between environment and economy: Which issues and ‘objects’ ignited these debates in the past 200 years? What are the arguments with which participants have defended or criticized the observed differences? How does space and location figure into these debates and what were the consequences for economy and environment? Of course we must also ask: were there actors who did not see any contradiction at all?
Our question framework will help to structure the workshop thematically, as well as historically locating the debate, in order to both visualize and clarify the actual or alleged problematic relationship between ecology and the economy in the history of industrialized and industrializing 19th and 20th century societies.

1. Booms and Breaks.
How long have debates about a ‘problematic’ relationship between environment and the economy existed? What continuities and discontinuities can we identify in the development of those disputes? Are there key moments during which debates changed fundamentally?

2. Causalities and Motives.
Who are the actors that move debates and determine their form and content? What is the role of civil society, general public, experts or entrepreneurs? How do changing concepts of economic activity, business cycles, or different economic systems of political majorities influence debates?

3. The Nature Factor
The question “What role can nature play?” has already been asked many times. In this context, we instead pose the question: to what extent does “nature”, or more specifically, “the state of the natural environment” serve as a factor within this debate. What role did natural materiality play in these debates? Were debates influenced either by the geography and location of specific debates or the state of nature as such?

We invite paper proposals dealing with a wide variety of perspectives on the relationship between the economy and the environment. We are interested in promoting exchange and networking between junior and senior scholars and therefore explicitly invite junior faculty to apply. In order to achieve a thorough contextualization of the phenomenon, we encourage scholars from the fields of history, political science, economics, and environmental sciences to apply. The conference is international and interdisciplinary. Conference languages are German and English.
Pending funding, we anticipate the ability to cover accommodation costs and offer a travel grant for participants.

Submissions will be accepted until October 31. Please send an abstract of 500 – 750 words, as well as a short bio to:


Contact (announcement)

Simone Müller-Pohl
Akademische Rätin für Nordamerikanische Geschichte
Albert-Ludwigs Universität Freiburg

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