The Age of Melting Glaciers

By Robert N. ProctorApril 22, 2014

The Age of Melting Glaciers

The Age of Ecology by Joachim Radkau


“BIG HISTORY” has become fashionable in recent years, what with all the talk about climate change and the Anthropocene and the like. Its rising currency can also be seen as an effort to fix a mistake made by one of the founding fathers of the discipline of history—a pious German by the name of Leopold von Ranke.  About 150 years ago, he categorically limited the scope of historical scholarship to events since the invention of writing.  Knowledge of the past, he declared, must be based on documents; all else is speculation or the realm of faith or natural science.  And since there wasn’t much in the way of writing before, say, Egyptian hieroglyphics, historians weren’t really supposed to delve into anything prior to about five thousand years ago.  Older events were to be handled by our colleagues in the snazzier buildings—housing fields like archaeology, paleontology, or physics.

Over the past few decades, however, with the growth of interest in “body history” and “material culture” (i.e., object history) and as historians try to transcend the conceit of “history for its own sake” the discipline has broadened its inquiries and horizons.  More and more historians are starting to think big: “big data” has become fashionable (yes, even in the humanities!), opportunities for “digital history” are exploding, global history and mapping are back in fashion, and more and more historians seem to be willing to break Ranke’s rules.  

Why, after all, should the invention of writing be the be-all and ‘begin-all’ for the scholarly practice of history?  Humans had bodies long before that time, and tools and homes and hopes and dreams—and some of these have left traces in the archaeological record.  The oldest tools date from over two million years ago, bipedalism dates from about five million bp (“years before present”), binocular vision from tens of millions bp, and so forth.  And since it’s pretty much arbitrary what we mean by “human,” historians shouldn’t feel the need to confine what we write about to the last few millennia.

Environmental history is one such field that breaks with Ranke’s myopia.  One reason for its increasing popularity is, of course, the climate crisis, which threatens to make other human endeavors pale in significance by comparison.  Another is the rapid growth of new methods for chronicling climates of the past, often in exquisite detail.  Climate history can be inferred from ship captains’ logs and tree rings and from  paleo-thermometers derived from ancient corals and ice cores and the carbonates in caves. And into this heady new mix now steps Joachim Radkau, a German historian who has taken on the task of charting environmental movements over the past couple of centuries or so.

Historians sometimes make their mark by characterizing the essence of an age.  We talk of the Progressive Era, or Cold War science, or Victorian morals and the like—or even seeming oxymorons like “early modern,” meaning Europe in the 16th and 17th century. Radkau hopes to establish yet another periodization, which he announces in the title of his book:  we are now living in an “Age of Ecology,” he declares, which he dates from around 1970 with the founding of the EPA, a flood of environmentalist literature, and the launch of Earth Day in the spring of that year (April 22).

Often we can understand a scholar by looking at what was going on when they were 20 or 25 years old, and in our case this fits pretty well:  Radkau was 27 with the birth of Earth Day, and clearly he has been marked by surrounding events.  Born in 1943 to a Protestant Minister in a small town in northern Germany, he first made a name for himself studying business practices in the Third Reich, along with the emigration of Jews from Nazi Germany.  This was followed by books treating Max Weber’s sexual peccadillos, a social history of forests and forest conservation, and an in-depth analysis of Germany’s anti-nuclear movement—the topic of his Habilitation (required for promotion to the rank of Professor).  Radkau has since turned into one of Germany’s foremost environmental historians; his 2002 Natur und Macht—translated into English as Nature and PowerA Global History of the Environment—sets a high bar for breadth and nuance, and has earned him numerous accolades.  Radkau also practices what he preaches; in The Age of Ecology he confesses that he has never had a driver’s license, and considers automobility one of the chief obstacles to environmental health and well-being.

Green Enlightenment

Here he turns to the history of environmental movements, with an over-arching thesis that the “ecological revolution” of 1970 owes more to the Enlightenment than to any kind of wistful romance.  Unhappy with those who imagine environmentalists as a bunch of tree-hugging back-to-naturists, he instead stresses the sober tech-savvy aspects of such movements; ours is an age of “Green Enlightenment,” an age that “essentially belongs in the history of the Enlightenment, more in the head than the belly.”  It is therefore wrong  to regard environmentalists as apocalyptics or alarmists; indeed, “the main driving force of the eco-age is not panic or fear but intellectually mediated concern.” 

Part of the utility of Radkau’s level-headed book—as of several of his previous tomes—is his recognition that environmental activism is much older than we usually think.  Sustainability we tend to associate with the Arab oil crisis of the 1970s, for example, but Radkau reminds us that, by the 18th century, German woodsmen were  already decrying the “death of the forest” as acre after acre was cleared for farming, fuel or building.  “Tree hugging” similarly bursts into the western mind in the late 1970s as an activist tactic to obstruct logging, but Radkau recounts how, in the 1730s,  Amrita Devi in Rajasthan tried to protect her sacred khejri trees from the axe by literally embracing them—for which she and 362 other “tree huggers” were hacked to death by the Maharajah’s lumbermen.   

Radkau also shows that appeals to solar energy are older than we might imagine.  It’s been known since 1938 that fusion powers the sun, and Radkau recalls how early atomic enthusiasts had hoped that nuclearity “would bring solar power down to earth in concentrated form, making it unnecessary to catch the sun’s diffuse rays.”  Nuclear power was basically just solar power, re-created in the form of mini-suns here on earth.  (Of course the sun runs on fusion and atomic plants exploit fission, but fusion still remains the Holy Grail in governmental mega-labs.)  Radkau draws our attention to predictions from as early as 1900 that sunshine could drive the engines of the world:  Friedrich Kohlrausch, President of Berlin’s Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, pleaded that year for “a solar colonialism in the sun-drenched deserts,” observing that only “a few square miles in North Africa would be enough for a country like the German Reich.” 

Cheap oil and coal have always made solar hard to swallow, and, as recently as 1974, the chair of Nixon’s Atomic Energy Commission (Dixy Lee Ray, who loved to hate what she called “militant vegetarians”) scoffed that “Making solar energy use technically feasible is about as difficult as getting 10 million fleas to produce useable energy by hopping in the same direction at the same time.”  Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House, but Ronald Reagan took them down.  For a long time coal was the presumptive alternative to oil for both Lefties and Greens—though Radkau does a good job of complicating our understanding of environmental allegiances.  One might think that global climate concerns would fall squarely in the liberal camp, for example, but Radkau shows how Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s welcomed CO2 worries as a means to thwart her Labor Party adversaries, who were still enthralled with coal.  Climate scientists never found much common ground with the antinuclear movement, he observes, since nuclear power was often seen as the solution to the climate problem:  ‘stop burning coal, switch to nuclear.’   

Radkau has a sharp eye for environmental oddities, facts that might seem counter-intuitive in retrospect:  that John Muir had no interest in birds, that Green voters burn more jet fuel than other German voters, that the Viennese author of Bambi—the fawn-friendly novel made into a Disney classic—was also the author of pornography.  Radkau’s is not the voice of an environmental “contrarian”— a much-abused word — but rather the voice of an astute observer with a relish for nuance and detail.

It is, however, easy to get impatient with reading Radkau. The book is encyclopedic in both a negative and positive sense:  it covers a lot of ground, but is also spineless insofar as he clings to his Weberian (or even Rankean) understanding of history as just the laying out of facts as they’ve occurred, elucidating complexity while keeping his “values” pretty much to himself.  (Weber was the foremost architect and defender of the ideal of “value-free science.”) There is a lot of overwrought sociological theory in this volume—and the text is peppered with exclamation points that seem randomly placed!  His focus is less on environmental ideas than on environmentalist institutions—groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace and EarthFirst! and a couple of dozen others, whose trials and tribulations he charts in moderate detail.  He makes an admirable effort to cover the globe, though what is gained by breadth is sometimes at the cost of depth. 

There are also lots of little annoying mistakes.  On page 271, for example, he says that leaded gas was “completely banned” in the U.S. in 1988, but he doesn’t seem to know that private aircraft still use this mind-addling fuel, as do specialty cars like those used in NASCAR.  He rightly recognizes occupational health and safety as part of environmental history; indeed, he writes that “the origins of the modern environmental movement lie at least as much in toxicology as in ecology.”  But he doesn’t get the name of the key figure in this bridgework right (it’s Wilhelm Hueper, not Wilhelm Huper), and he doesn’t say how Rachel Carson came to use Hueper’s pioneering work for the cancer chapter of her Silent Spring.   He also misses the interesting fact that Hueper was a secret devotee of the Nazi movement:  Hueper had actually written a “Heil Hitler” letter when applying for a job back in Germany in 1933, which cannot have been known to Carson when she honored this environmental cancer giant.

There are more serious oversights.  Radkau points to the importance of understanding the particulars of a people’s historical and physical geography for understanding local environmental concerns, and surely he is right about this.  But sometimes he blunders.  In a section on “The Ecology of Ecologism,” for example, he claims that “the United States and Australia lacked ancient temples and Gothic cathedrals; that left only natural landmarks as national monuments.”

This is an astonishing lapse, given the multitude of ancient monuments in the U.S. and how central they have been for American memory, statecraft, and architecture.  The Ohio Valley alone is home to thousands of native mounds and monuments; some of these involve circle and square geometry structures covering hundreds of acres.  Native American architecture helped inspire the State Capitol building in Columbus:  the edifice is a deliberate fusion of Graeco-Roman and Hopewell/Adena circle-square architecture crafted from plans drawn up by Thomas Cole, the brilliant landscape painter and founder of the Hudson River School.  Roger G. Kennedy in his Hidden Cities points out that Thomas Jefferson incorporated native themes in building his house in Poplar Forest;  the main structure is an octagon, with native mounds adorning the sides.  Jefferson had excavated at least one Indian mound in his native Virginia, and recognized these as Indian in origin (contra later fancies of these being the works of Vikings, Celts or Jews).  Indeed, when the American Antiquarian Society was formed in 1812—largely to investigate these magnificent works—Jefferson wrote to congratulate the Society, hoping that, “by their exertions, the monuments of the character and condition of the people who preceded us in the occupation of this great country will be rescued from oblivion before they will have entirely disappeared.”  

Radkau seems to have overlooked the vast scholarly literature on this topic, which stretches back to the 1840s, when George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis published their impressive Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, the first publication of the Smithsonian series on “Contributions to Knowledge.”  Time and apathy have taken their toll on many such monuments, but Ohio alone is home to the magnificent High Bank Works, the Marietta Works, the Newark Earthworks, the Portsmouth edifice, and the enigmatic (and gigantic) Serpent Mound east of Cincinnati, one of the most spectacular effigy mounds of the Americas.  Outside of Ohio we have the great pyramids of Cahokia, the medicine wheels of Montana, the Poverty Point structure in Louisiana, Fort Center in Florida, and so forth.

Think Tank Denialism

A more serious oversight is the scant attention Radkau gives to the opponents of environmental thinking and policy.  Radkau’s focus is more on organized environmental movements—which is fair enough, but  ignoring the organized opposition hampers our ability to make sense of why some movements have succeeded while others have failed. 

Consider, for example, the pathetic record to date with regard to global warming.  If a sizable fraction of the American populace still believes there to be a genuine “controversy” surrounding whether the earth is warming, then that is largely due to the dogged efforts of deep-pocket denialists.  In the United States today there are several dozen right-wing “think tanks” cranking out the message that environmentalism is basically the thin edge of socialism; environmentalists by this reckoning are “watermelons”:  green on the outside but red on the inside.  A sizeable and growing scholarly literature on such groups includes books like Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner’s Deceit and Denial, David Michael’s Doubt is Their Product, James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up, Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science, or Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s Merchants of Doubt.  My own Cancer Wars has a chapter on denialist trade associations (“Doubt is Our Product”), and denialism features in my Agnotology:  The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, co-edited with Londa Schiebinger.  Movements triumph or dissipate according to the strength of the resistance they encounter, and this should be part of any effort to understand why we haven’t (yet) seen the full flower of “Green Enlightenment.”

In the case of global warming, it is imperative that we understand the force of elites like the Koch brothers who, by dint of their billions, are able to shape public ignorance and impotence.  American events represent perhaps half of Radkau’s 500-page book, but we find no mention of the Koch brothers, or Rupert Murdoch’s Fox media empire, or bodies like Americans for Prosperity or ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council established to draft “model bills” for legislators willing to follow the paths cut by corporate fat cats.  Radkau does mention the role of Fred Singer in fomenting climate denial, but he takes no notice of denialists’ ties to “think tanks” like the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Marshall Institute, the Cato Institute, the Ayn Rand Institute, and myriad others—all laboring to defend free market solutions to all social problems.  Or to deny that such problems are problems.  Environmentalists have to face such headwinds, precisely because such institutes (or their Astroturf appendages) are so effective in generating distraction science or data chaff. 

Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway in their Merchants of Doubt have shown how several of our most vocal climate deniers cut their teeth denying cigarette-cancer links; several were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the tobacco manufacturers or their agents (Frederick Seitz and Fred Singer, for example.)  Denialism thus became a sophisticated black art, with strikingly similar techniques deployed to deny the science linking CO2 to climate change, coal emissions to acid rain, CFCs to ozone depletion, and secondhand smoke to cancer.  “Balance” was an effective lure to get journalists on the “two-sides” team, but a purported need for “more research” was also used “to keep the controversy alive.”  The brilliance of this scheme — devised by cigaretteers in the 1950s — was that by manufacturing doubt, liberal rhetorics of openness could be used as a kind of heat shield to neutralize critics.  “Doubt is our product” was the cigarette industry mantra, memorialized in a 1969 secret document by the makers of Kool and Viceroy cigarettes.  More recently, Stanton Glantz, Rachel Grana and Amanda Fallin at UCSF have described  how Big Tobacco money was key to the rise of the Tea Party, with its blinkered devotion to free market fundamentalism.  Chicanery seems to travel in packs.   

Radkau deserves some credit just for mentioning cigarettes, given the historical tendency of the Greenish Left to regard smoking as a “lifestyle choice” and therefore not really part of environmental health.  Many early Greens were smokers, and, as recently as 2012, the leader of Germany’s cigarette lobby was a former Green Party member of the German Parliament.  Radkau notes that movements to combat tobacco smoke and smokestack smoke have often ignored one another, but he fails to probe the history of this disconnect.  For decades, the tobacco industry used “air pollution” to explain away the modern rise of lung cancer, providing massive funds to scholars willing to propagate the “air pollution theory” over and against “the cigarette theory.” Experts in the field of occupational health and safety (including Wilhelm Hueper) were lionized by the industry to deflect attention from cigarettes.  Radkau makes no reference to this strategy, part of an orchestrated conspiracy (according to the 1500 page ruling of a federal judge in USA vs. Philip Morris) to blame anything but tobacco for the deaths caused by cigarettes.

Radkau also underestimates the historical depth of movements against tobacco.  At one point he writes that “Only the Nazi regime, which would have gradually eradicated such people [smokers] altogether, waged a campaign against tobacco.”  It’s galling enough that he cites my Nazi War on Cancer to buttress this claim. More serious is that he gets the facts mixed up.  It’s true that the Nazi regime did have the world’s strongest anti-cancer campaign, and it’s also true that this included pioneering research into harms caused by tobacco, asbestos and radioactive isotopes; it’s also true that Germans under Hitler had some of the world’s strongest bans on smoking in public.  But never was there any suggestion that smokers would be exterminated, though to be sure some industry shills tried to raise such a specter.  It’s also not true that “only the Nazi regime” opposed smoking.  In the final decade of the 19th century, the U.S. already had a powerful anti-tobacco movement.  As a result, fifteen U.S. states banned the sale of cigarettes from 1890 to 1927, when the last such law (in Kansas) was repealed.   

Knowing this particular history could actually help solve one of Radkau’s riddles, since he rightly wonders why concerns for secondhand smoke have so rarely been part of broader movements against air pollution.  There are actually several reasons for this omission.  For one thing, it is important to realize that, over a hundred years ago, smoking in public was widely regarded as an offense — a toxic pollutant — which is one reason cigarette sales were banned in so many U.S. states (until governments realized how much they could make from tobacco tax revenues).  Fears were also that innocents would inhale the smoke, which is why municipalities like Kansas City banned smoking on all street cars.  “Street smoking” was also regarded as impolite, as we learn from authorities like John Quincy Adams, the nation’s fifth president. Restaurant smoking was not considered respectable until the American Tobacco Company launched its campaign urging diners to “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” (in the late 1920s). 

The whole idea of a distinctive secondhand or “environmental” smoke with uniquely toxic properties doesn’t gain traction until the 1930s, when American Tobacco researchers claimed that the most dangerous stuff wafted safely away from the distal end of the cigarette, a “fact” deployed by the industry to reassure smokers that the really nasty stuff never got inhaled.  “Environmental” smoke is thus not just a reification, it’s also (at least in part) an invention of the industry.

Sticking with tobacco, another curiosity Radkau ignores is the threat of radioactivity from cigarette smoke.  Radioactive polonium-210 was identified in cigarette smoke in 1964—following earlier fears of potassium isotopes—and while tobacco industry laboratories quickly confirmed this, they deliberately kept it quiet to avoid “waking a sleeping giant” (as Philip Morris executives confided in a secret memo from 1978).  Anti-nuclear activists never liked this uncomfortable fact: that cigarette smoke is probably a far graver radioactive threat than anything ever spewed from a nuclear plant.  How many Greens today even know that cigarette smoke exposes smokers and non-smokers alike to deadly radioactive isotopes—including a notorious alpha emitter?  The myopia is hardly mysterious:  radioactivity in cigarette smoke has long been used to diminish the harms from exposures coming from nuclear reactors.  Radioactivity in smoke is also ignored by the tobacco control advocates, however, because they fear that a focus on a particular component and how it might be “fixed” could appear to be collaborationist. As for radiophysicists, they have tended to ally themselves with nuclearists, downplaying atomic threats more generally.  In short: radioactivity in smoke has fallen into a kind of ideological gap or disinterest pit.

Necronomastics and Contingency in the Anthropocene

A thread running throughout Radkau’s book is the ever-present danger of bureaucratization, which leads him to a certain cynicism.  He discusses the rise of “conference tourism,” including conferences so large that an effective published summary becomes virtually impossible.  The Third World Water Forum in Japan in 2003, for example, he calls “a pointless megashow” with the de facto goal of pressing for “the privatization of the world’s water.” He postulates a “tendency to institutionalization” of environmental movements, and he is grim in his view that environmental associations “tend to define success not in terms of greater environmental protection but by the level of donations.” 

Taken one step further, however, one might question whether we are really justified in talking about ours as an “Age of Ecology.”  This brings us back to his failure to explore organized anti-environmentalism. 

This is not a trivial complaint.  I guess it’s fair enough to name an age after what is being destroyed:  ‘place-names’ often honor what was destroyed in creating that place:  “Crystal Springs,” “Ocean View,” and the like—plus all those Midwestern counties named after vanished Indian tribes.  Perhaps this same cruel irony can be found in calling ours an age of ecology rather than, say, an “Age of Ecocide” or “Climate Crisis”?  If the ecological revolution began in 1970, it hardly seems fair (yet) to call it much of a success.  Radkau recalls that the United States in the 1990s was producing 13,000 times more pesticides than in Rachel Carson’s time (by weight, I’m assuming, though of course the formulas have changed).  From the greenhouse point of view, we seem  hell bent on burning up every last bit of carbon stored in the earth—even though the warming envisioned only as a possibility in the 1970s has now become an established fact, skeptics be damned.  A more apt name might be “The Age of Melting Glaciers.”  If ours is an age of ecology, then perhaps we should rechristen Germany in the 1930s and 1940s “The Age of Jews.” 

Radkau’s failure to historicize the opponents of environmentalism leads him to some notable oversights.  He comments blandly on Nixon’s 1971 call for a “war on cancer,” but misses the fact that corporate kingpins were invited to help plan that war, which conveniently ignored the cancers caused by effluents from those same corporations.  He stresses the importance of the spread of “information” for 1970s environmentalism, but he makes no mention of the campaigns of mis- and disinformation spread by trade associations to confuse and distract the public from thinking about hazards.  He references (not altogether uncritically) our living in an “information society,” but ignores the equally important manufacturing and distribution of ignorance to defend against product regulation (the proper study of which is agnotology). 

Perhaps I am being too grumpy.  Radkau is not a bad storyteller, and the material he covers is spiced with insights:  that gardening cannot provide a model for environmental management, that conservation was born in the railroad age, that wood has been undervalued as a research object.  Radkau recounts how Jane Jacobs helped preserve Greenwich Village from destruction (she called freeways “the sacking of cities”), and how Russia’s Minister of Disaster Relief estimated 300,000 deaths from Chernobyl (in 2000).  Anti-nuclearity is clearly at the center of Radkau’s ideal of environmentalism, and he is at his best describing the impact of Chernobyl, including the significant role played by that disaster in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So, if ours is not the Age of the Ecology, then what would be a better name?  Michael Soulé at UC Santa Cruz has suggested “the Castrophozoic”; others have proposed the Homogenocene, or the Anthrocene (“cene” is from the Greek meaning ‘recent’).  The more popular term, however, is Anthropocene, a term coined in the 1980s by a Great Lakes diatomist named Eugene Stoermer to designate a new stage in human and geohistory. The word thus reflects the unprecedented capacity of Homo sapiens to change the planet.  Geologists are now debating whether to allow this new category into their pantheon of epochal monikers; a decision by the International Commission on Stratigraphy is supposed to be rendered in 2016.

What’s interesting about the Anthropocene is its conflation, or interweaving, of human works and geologic facts—violating that separation of human and natural history championed by Mr. Ranke.  Paul Crutzen popularized the term in the early 2000s, culminating a career in which he had shown how CFCs were eroding the ozone hole.  Ozone depletion turned out to be fixable in ways that the carbon crisis is not; indeed, the climate crisis is far more treacherous, given the centrality of fossil fuels in global capitalism.  Geologists now talk in terms of an anthropogenic “signature” that is likely to be readable in rocks even millions of years in the future.  We are also starting to see a certain philosophical unease, comparable perhaps to the unease felt by Copernicans first realizing that the earth is not the center of the universe, or by Darwinians discovering that humans are not the apples of God’s eye (more like the unripened persimmon, one might think).  Humans once thought of themselves as living on,  off, or from the earth, and here in the Anthropocene we feel the earth itself—with its ice and wind and waves—literally shifting beneath our feet.

Perhaps it is premature to say how dramatically all of this will alter our understanding of human existence on the planet.  Anthropocentrism is nothing new in human history, and neither is hubris, or apathy, or ignorance, or greed—or hope and despair.  But the carbon economy does seem to force us to recognize a new kind of relationship with the planet, a new kind of action at a distance, a deep history we are part of and party to.  In myth or in science, we used to imagine humans as having sprung from the earth, whether by acts of God or by natural selection.  Humans inhabited the earth, but had limited powers to transform it—for better or for worse, apart from local improvements and pollutions.  Now, with evidence of the  de-icing of entire continents and prospects of famines and floods approaching biblical proportions, we are perhaps justified in talking about something new under the sun: a new kind of anthropo-geo-history that might help us find new ways to stave off the heat.  Good history, after all, is always about the appreciation of contingency, and surely we can still hope and act in ways that ensure that our future will not be written only in stone.  


Robert N. Proctor is the author of Golden Holocaust: Origins of  the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). He is Professor of the History of Science, and Professor, by courtesy, of Pulmonary Medicine, at Stanford University. 

LARB Contributor

Robert N. Proctor is a professor of history of science at Stanford University. He specializes in 20th century science, technology, and medicine. He also does work on human origins including: changing notions of the oldest tools, art and fire, changing body imagery, the history of molecular anthropology, visual rhetoric in phyletic diagrams, changing archaeological techniques and images of "humaness," the history of global creationism and of Evo Devo, catastrophic geology, global climate change, and environmental policy.


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