The Greenest Nation? A New History of German Environmentalism

Frank Uekötter (MIT Press, Cambridge 2014), 233 pp., $28.00, ISBN 9780262027328 (hardcover)

Author Frank Uekötter is now a reader in Environmental Humanities at the University of Birmingham (UK). In Germany he became an expert for history and environmentalism. For example he is the author of the book "The Green and the Brown: A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany“ and of "The Age of Smoke: Environmental Policy in Germany and in the United States, 1880-1980“. This illuminates the broad background of the author.

Besides his profound knowledge Uekötter declares his personal engagement for a sustainable future. He confessed "I usually buy organic food and pay climate compensation for my air travel“. He writes that his concern for environmentalism results from two insights: "That it is a necessity in our age and that it is fun (at times)."

In his book he wants "to identify the main factors and forms in the development of German environmentalism while keeping its distance from intellectual monoculture.“ His goal is "to give non-German readers a general idea of the path of German environmentalism, providing them with a road map that may stimulate more in-depth inquiries.“ He supports additional readings by listing four pages of significant literature at the end of the book. Also, more than 20 pages of footnotes give the engaged reader a lot of study material.

Following the renowned French sociologist, philosopher, and public intellectual Pierre Bordieu he looks on environmentalism from three frames of reference: "a field of civic activism, a field of government policy, and a field of cultural and life (Lebenswelt).“ This is a broader-than-usual starting point for an ecological topic and justifies the word "New“ in the subtitle.

The book's five chapters are: (1) Environmentalism and Environmental History in the Twenty-First Century; (2) Creating a Tradition: German Environmentalism, 1900 to 1945; (3) Getting in Motion: German Environmentalism, 1945 to 1980; Interim Remarks: Explaining the Rise of Environmentalism; (4) The Green Enigma: German Environmentalism, 1980 to 2013; (5) German Environmentalism in Mid Passage; How Green After All? An Epilogue.

This gives a first idea of the content. To be more specific, the five chapters are structured by helpful section headings. For example the two sections of Chapter 2 are titled: Defining Decades: The Early 1900s; Times of Crisis: World Wars, Weimar Years, and the Nazis. And the six sections of Chapter 4 give a good overview how the author handled the central chapter: Ecological 1980s — A West German Sonderweg; Globalizing Environmentalism II — The Green Ending of the Cold War; GDR Tradition — Ephemeral Environmentalism; Sleeping through the 1990s; The Red-Green Coalition, the End of Nuclear Dreams, and a Can Deposit — 1998 to 2005; German Environmentalism after Fukushima.

The history starts at the end of the nineteenth-century with problems resulting from rapid industrialization and urbanization, i.e. air pollution, urban sanitation, national parks or natural monuments. But in Germany the fight against these problems was not guided by "a general, authoritative idea of nature in need for protection."

Uekötter describes in detail the diversity of the important initiatives and organizations. The issues were: endangered species, power plant projects, dams, observation towers, etc. However, in comparison to other nations, air pollution was not recognized by the active conservationists. The movements of imperial Germany can be characterized as individual actions without a common identity.

Despite his enumeration of the important initiatives, local actions, and facts, Uekötter makes an effort to summarize and generalize his presentation. This summary sheds light on the German situation when he compares it to the development in other countries, namely the United States or in Great Britain.

The section about environmentalism during the Nazi period is interesting and surprising. The "Reich conservation law“ of 1935 "offered nearly every thing that the movement had been demanding for decades. For a few years, conservationists could take decisive action in a way that was surely impossible in a democratic state under the full rule of the law.“ But this had made them complicit in a criminal and genocidal regime.

After the Second World War, environmentalism in Germany was more a cozy duty concentrating on deforestation, dirty water and air pollution. But the environmental problems helped to transform "the German Untertan [a citizen of imperial Germany who accepts the hierarchical structure, and the title of a famous novel by Heinrich Mann] into a self-conscious, active citizen.“ In the election of 1961 Willy Brandt declared: "The sky over the Ruhr region must become blue again".

Reform was not the task of the broad population but of the political elite. Especially "the third field of environmentalism, culture and life, was bleak. Most people were happy to enjoy the pleasures of mass consumption."

In the sixties "a new type of threat emerged: The new dangers are global not local.“ The book "Silent Spring“ by Rachel Carlson, "Limits of Growth“ from the Club of Rome, and the first oil shock characterized the new situation. Even the dynamic of public debates fostered a consensus, namely that environmental issues were the key challenge for modern societies. "Indeed the greatest challenge of all: the survival of humankind and of the biosphere."

At the end of the 1970s, there were encouraging signs in all three fields of environmentalism. The author identified nine driving forces in explaining the rise of the Green movement, including changing values from material to post-material, transforming Marxist concepts to ecology, environmental fears, growing importance of the service sector, Germany as a deeply insecure nation, etc.

The ecological movements during the 1990s was stagnating despite the fact that in 1998 the Green Party became a part of the Red-Green Coalition. In concluding, Uekötter is convinced that "for the foreseeable future, Germany will remain a green country" despite his conclusion that German environmentalism is in a crisis at the moment.

Uekötter has written a fascinating, concise, and convincing small book about Germany's path to becoming a green nation and about actual and future problems of environmentalism. I recommend his work to readers who want to become acquainted with the history of this complex development.

Dr. Ulrich Harms
Physics teacher and Senior Lecturer in Computer Sciences
University of Applied Sciences Esslingen

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.