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Conference Report: "Environmental Protection in the Global Twentieth Century: International Organizations, Networks and Diffusion of Ideas and Policies"

News from Nov 20, 2012


Sponsored by the Kolleg-Forschergruppe "The Transformative Power of Europe", and organized by the KFG alumni Wolfram Kaiser (Portsmouth) and Jan-Henrik Meyer (Aarhus), the international conference "Environmental Protection in the Global Twentieth Century" brought together fifteen scholars from Europe and North America from 25-27 October 2012 at the Freie Universität Berlin.



by Dr. Jan-Henrik Meyer


The long rays of the yellow autumn sun shining on the red leaves of the Dahlem Campus provided a local touch of nature for an international conference devoted to the protection of the environment on a global scale. Sixteen researchers from eleven different countries from Europe and overseas gathered at the Free University's Silberlaube conference centre to discuss "Environmental Protection in the Global Twentieth Century: International Organizations, Networks and Diffusion of Ideas and Policies".

International organizations (IOs) played a crucial role in defining and diffusing ideas about the environment. Notably, IOs were central forums for negotiating and placing environmental protection on the international political agenda. It is widely assumed that 1972 – the year of the first UN conference on the human environment in Stockholm and of the publication of the Club of Rome report "Limits to Growth" – marked the starting point of international environmental politics. Taking a long-term perspective across the entire twentieth-century, the conference set out to reconsider this received wisdom. Paper givers approached IOs from two perspectives: first, which role did IOs play as norm entrepreneurs, selecting, defining, diffusing and translating ideas about the environment in the course of the twentieth century? Secondly, which structural conditions facilitated – and at times inhibited – diffusion? A core assumption was that the embedding of IOs in national and transnational networks crucially mattered in this respect.

The contributions addressed these core issues in six panels in roughly chronological order. In a first panel Patrick Kupper (Zurich) traced the origins of environmental internationalism to Paul Sarasin, a Swiss scientist and networker, advocating "World Nature Protection". Sarasin managed to gather an international group of scientists in Berne in November 1913 for what could have been the start of a first international NGO, but the outbreak of World War I thwarted his ambitions. Sarasin's ideas were however not forgotten. As Anna-Katharina Wöbse (Geneva) explained in her paper on the League of Nations, other activists picked up these ideas and took them to the new organization. While the League of Nations failed to fulfill the hopes of the activists, its definitions of nature – frequently in terms of economic resources – continued to frame discussions well into the post-World War II United Nations. Iris Borowy's (Paris) paper similarly traced diffusion of ideas across IOs. She argued that it was a network of – mostly individual – actors who transmitted and translated environmental ideas from the OECD Environment Committee to the Brundtland Commission, the latter combining both developmental and environmental issues.

Focussing on different actors, the second panel addressed a number of issues that only became part of the environmental agenda in the early 1970s. While Enora Javaudin (Paris) studied how scientists turned nuclear technology into an environmental issue, Wolfram Kaiser (Portsmouth) rather pointed to the conditions for preventing ideas diffusion and change. In the relevant committees of the OEEC and the UN Economic Commission for Europe, heavy industry representatives made sure that air pollution in their sector was exclusively treated as a technological issue in the 1950s and 1960s, to avoid the imposition of tighter rules and new capital costs. Raf de Bont outlined the research agenda of the new project "Nature's diplomats" at Maastricht University, which focuses on experts in environmental IOs in the 20th century.

Two panels zoomed in on the Stockholm conference of 1972. Luigi Piccioni (Calabria/Rome) allowed the audience a glimpse behind the closed doors of the Vatican, and its surprisingly active involvement and networking in the context of the Stockholm conference. Michael Manulak (Oxford/Ottawa) and Roger Eardley-Pryor (Santa Barbara) both considered the role of developing countries led by Brazil at the UN conference, opposing a strong UN environmental organization and laying the groundwork for the subsequent "sustainable development" agenda. Jan-Henrik Meyer (Aarhus) and Francesco Petrini (Padua) pointed to IO responses to the Stockholm conference: The European Communities started their own environmental policy, taking on board what seemed to be a popular new issue. OPEC's price rise in 1973 was informed by debates within OPEC about limited resources – and the need to protect them for the future.

As part of a panel on societal actors, Stephen Macekura (Charlottesville) returned to the issue of sustainability, however, highlighting the role of NGOs in the crafting of the World Conservation Strategy. Renaud Bécot (Paris) provided insights in the diffusion of ideas on the working environment between labour unions and the International Labour Organization. The final panel was devoted to post-1972 issues across the globe. Allessandro Antonello (Canberra) explained how the scientific concept of the ecosystem became a shorthand reference for political actors designating the political and ecological space of Antarctica. David Hirst (Manchester) pointed to the scientific networks and path dependencies in the creation of the International Panel on Climate Change. Michel Dupuy's (Paris) study about the late German Democratic Republic's vain attempts to conform to international conventions on air pollution provided an instructive case of the strength of IOs as norms entrepreneurs across the Iron Curtain.

The conference was a pioneering enterprise – trying to bring together for the first time researchers working on this issue world-wide, laying the basis for future cooperation, and mapping the field. This field seems to be dominated for the moment by Western researchers working with (mostly) Western sources. De-centering Europe – one of the initial objectives of the conference in line with the KFG's goals – will eventually require moving beyond this state of research, activating scholars in other world regions like Asia and Latin America to discuss issues linking environmental protection, international organizations and diffusion.