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The enigma of environmentalism: the power of knowledge and the power of memory

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Few recent phenomena have received more divergent readings than modern environmentalism. Even its general nature is open to debate: was environmentalism a social movement, or a broader cultural force, or even a ‘new enlightenment’, as Joachim Radkau argued in a recent book? This big-picture talk seeks to gain a better understanding of environmentalism as it evolved post-1945 through the combined forces of memory studies and the history of knowledge. More than other movements, environmentalism relied on the cognitive skills and the political pull of scientific expertise. At the same time, environmentalism was perhaps the most powerful transformative force of science in the last third of the 20th century. However, while scientific expertise and its peculiar blinders have received great attention, the power of memory is more of a hidden force – though one that has grown in strength over time. We cannot understand policies on DDT without the legacy of Rachel Carson or the row over genetically modified organisms without the experience of high-risk technologies such as nuclear power and industrial chemistry. So as it stands, environmentalism is about expertise, power, economic interests, and a legacy, with the strains between these forces becoming ever more obvious. In conclusion, this talk will argue that global environmentalism as we know it may prove to be a one-generation project – and that may not even be a bad thing.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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