Inventing the Environment

August 15, 2019   •   By Carolyn Taratko

The Environment

Sverker Sörlin

The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment

Perrin Selcer

ON CHRISTMAS EVE of 1968, the first manned mission to the Moon reached its destination. As the crew completed its fourth orbit, astronaut Bill Anders snapped a photo of the horizon.Earthrise,” as the image came to be called, showed the bright blue orb — our bright blue orb — suspended in black above the moon’s gray surface. From the time of its release the photo was widely circulated. Its stark visual language made it ripe for commercialization: a 1969 postage stamp issued by the USPS commemorated the voyage, it became the symbol of Stewart Brand’s countercultural Whole Earth Catalog, and has since appeared on any number of bumper stickers and tote bags. Audiences worldwide reacted to the image’s simplicity: the only patch of green and blue in a vast and inhospitable universe.Earthrise,” followed by the similar “Blue Marble” photo in 1972, became icons of the nascent environmental movement.

But the embrace of “Earthrise” and “Blue Marble by the environmental movement also obscured the circumstances of their capture. As the photographs transformed into icons of planetary unity, the irony of the NASA images was lost: they were the products of Cold War tensions, funded by hefty investments in military research and development, and photographed by a small cohort of experts.

Two new books help to restore this perspective, exploring how the idea of a global, interconnected, and vulnerable environment developed in the postwar world. They show us how contemporary notions of the environment were informed by experts and developments in science and technology. The first of these two books, The Environment: A History of the Idea, is a collaboration between three prominent environmental historians Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin, based in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Sweden respectively. They trace the concept of the environment beginning in 1948, focusing on the networks of interdisciplinary experts who transformed its meaning through their work. The second work, The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment: How the United Nations Built Spaceship Earth, is the first book by Perrin Selcer, a professor of history at the University of Michigan. Also focusing on the decades after 1945, Selcer traces the idea of a global environment by following experts involved in UNESCO and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

Readers may be surprised to learn that the idea of the environment is of such a recent vintage. Together, the two books persuasively show that it was during the postwar years that it became possible to speak of “the environment” as a single entity. The two books take somewhat different approaches: while Selcer focuses on the migration of ideas about world community from the social to the natural sciences, Warde, Robin, and Sörlin focus on the evolution of the term “environment” as an integrative concept, enrolling actors and interests from different epistemic communities. Yet both succeed in shifting the focus of environmental history from marginal figures to international diplomats and technocrats. In doing so, they show how the language of science — supposedly neutral, objective, and universal — was used to overcome political and regional divisions and assert the necessity of international institutions like the United Nations. Ultimately, they also raise questions about the value and limitations of expert knowledge in the continued fight to mitigate anthropogenic climate change.


In the 18th and much of the 19th century, climate was quite distinct from larger understandings of the natural world. It was a static and local phenomenon that referred primarily to atmospheric conditions. The climate was also thought to impact the qualities and mentalities of those living in different regions. As Montesquieu famously argued in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), varying degrees of heat and humidity affected the organism differently and this in turn influenced inhabitants’ intellectual abilities. In tropical areas, inhabitants were prone to sloth and excess, he claimed, while in more temperate zones the population was supposedly more industrious. Although climate could change humans, humans could not change the climate.

The turning point in understanding climate as something mutable — and, indeed, vulnerable — came slowly. During the second half of the 19th century, climate science transformed from a study of the static and fixed properties of a given place to a dynamic model of circulation. By the 20th century, climate science had moved from examining local and place-bound knowledge in favor of wrestling with the complex interactions of systems at multiple levels of scale. The vulnerability of the earth became even clearer in the wake of World War II: the war’s massive death toll — after fighting, bombardment, famine, nuclear warfare, and extermination camps — demonstrated, beyond a doubt, the destructive capabilities of technology and the need to better understand human effects on the global environment.

In The Environment: A History of the Idea, Warde, Robin, and Sörlin explore how this new discourse of the environment crystallized in the postwar period. To introduce this shift, they focus on two books that integrated previously disparate scientific fields: William Vogt’s Road to Survival (largely forgotten today but an international best seller in its time) and Henry Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet, both published in 1948. They argue that these two publications heralded a change in the use of the term “environment” — it no longer referred to the background or surroundings of an individual or organism but instead to a single, interconnected object of global proportions. Crucially, it also came to include a very particular species under its purview: humans. By acknowledging the fragility of the natural world at the hands of humankind, this usage represented a conceptual sea change.

However, the spread of the discourse of the environment did not just result from the efforts of conservation-minded individuals aiming to protect the planet and its resources. It also came to play a key role in the Cold War. As Warde, Robin, and Sörlin show, World War II had mobilized the geophysical sciences; in the years that followed, enthusiasm — and funding — continued to pour into research programs. Projects focusing on weather and climate manipulation attracted great interest for their national security value. During this time, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) war planning circles took seriously Soviet plans to block the Bering Strait in order to alter the climate. These, and other defense-related anxieties, led to the development of computer-based climate predictions and simulations. Ice core drilling and satellite technologies entered the scientific arsenal. As the authors show, these new technologies expanded understandings of the environment by allowing scientists to scale up their projects and operate with more ambitious horizons of time and space.


In The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment, Perrin Selcer also considers how massive global data sets and models helped construct a new vision of the planet. But although these two works resemble one another in their contours, Selcer has set for himself an altogether different task. As he tells it, he is writing an “antiecological” environmental history. The focus is on networks and systems of experts — many of whom were finding second acts after careers in imperial administration and science — who supported the UN’s internationalist vision. In spite of the book’s title, he is not interested in the idea of the environment, per se. 

Selcer explains that the UN’s interest in the global environment was, in fact, an accidental outcome of its effort to develop unifying projects that would bring international politicians and experts together under common cause. Selcer begins with the social scientists — led by Julian Huxley — who espoused the idea of a commitment to world citizenship, in the years after the war. They developed, for example, a UNESCO-sponsored school curriculum in the United States celebrating “unity in diversity” and laying the foundation for world government. But when (perhaps unsurprisingly) these world citizenship initiatives failed amid a chauvinist backlash, UNESCO and FAO bureaucrats took a more pragmatic approach to internationalism. These “experts,” “technocrats,” and “cosmopolitan scientists,” as Selcer alternately calls them, turned to projects that made transnational and international physical features visible. Through the idea of the “environment,” they produced the basis for the ideal of global governance.

The work of mapping and conserving shared watersheds, soil zones, and arid lands that traversed national borders created the environment as a problem in need of governance, Selcer argues. In theory, these projects were supposed to draw on the expertise of local communities and thus provide material evidence of their place in a global community. In the process, however, they proved indispensable in constructing a discourse of the “environment” that would require cadres of experts to be dispatched around the world.

There are two ways of judging the success of the projects Selcer studies. The first is an internal and institutional one, evaluating the projects of the specialized agencies in terms of their resonance within the larger UN structure. Selcer’s work shines when examining the intra- and inter-agency rivalries that ultimately set the agenda for different programs. In this view, the reader must take the UN as the horizon, which, to be sure, many of these actors did. By this measure, the work of constructing the environment as an object of UN governance was a success: despite the growing tension between the imperatives for economic growth and conservation in the 1960s, at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden — the ending point of Selcer’s book — principles of conservation were enshrined as development goals.

While many postwar environmental histories in the United States focus on fringe demonstrators or broken windows at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, both of the books under review here place the environment firmly within the mainstream of postwar ideas and institutions. In these accounts, the environment was a cause for diplomats and scientists, not just wild-haired, Birkenstock-clad activists. In this sense, both books move environmental history from the periphery to the mainstream of postwar intellectual and political history.

The second basis for judgment involves taking a larger view and asking whether these initiatives were ultimately successful at enforcing a global ideal of stewardship over resources. Here the results are more ambiguous. The incorporation of conservation into development aims at the 1972 Stockholm Conference represented a major achievement in the context of the United Nations, but only a modest compromise from an ecological perspective. It was a mere nod to a problem that required vigorous action. While the idea of the environment gained traction within the UN as an institution, it continued to lack enforceable standards out in the world. When we adopt a broader view, it becomes clear that the success of the environment as a binding international ideal faltered, as Selcer freely acknowledges. We continue to deal with the idea’s failure to gain traction today. In place of world citizenship, UN experts reproduced themselves — an auspicious sign for bureaucratic autonomy, to be sure, but not for the enduring success of their ideals.

Present-day claims about environmental issues, and especially climate change, are often dismissed by skeptics as the work of a cabal of international elites with disdain for the people. No amount of compelling scientific evidence can compensate for this. In this respect, Selcer’s book — which demonstrates the layering of social-psychological dimensions with natural-scientific ones through roughly two decades of international projects — is illuminating. Ultimately then, both books invite further reflection: Is it possible to create political momentum for a cause like climate change, with such diffuse and unpredictable effects and distant time horizons? And how can we mediate between expert knowledge and quotidian concerns of millions of people? As the authors demonstrate, scientists and technocrats have broadcast the same message for decades. The delay in action does not stem from insufficient knowledge, but from a lack of political will.


It’s now been over two years since the United States announced its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, a modest framework for mitigating the global average temperature increase, under a president who rejects the basis of man-made climate change. Once again, the limits of international governance and the paucity of the global imagination were on display. The intervening years have yielded a bumper crop of environmental catastrophes. Whether in the form of wildfires in California, unprecedented hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, or reports of plummeting insect populations, the effects of man-made climate change jockey to grab our attention on the front pages of major news outlets.

We register these changes not just through measurements of carbon dioxide concentration in parts per million — the index of our time — but in human terms. The devastation transforms not only the natural world but also the social fabric of communities and politics. As Southern California burned, millionaires hired private firefighting teams to defend their mansions. During Hurricane Maria, executives in Puerto Rico hired Pinkertons to defend their well-provisioned compounds. The risk distribution between rich and poor, and between the Global North and South, is an important dimension of today’s environmental concerns. These responses illustrate that environmental problems are very much human problems, not just in the victims they claim but in their origins. These scenes are the faces of our era, where natural disaster and human malfeasance are deeply intertwined. In both cause and effect, it is clear that today’s environment is not a natural given.

Pointing out that the environment is both modern and constructed, as these two books do, is more than just a neat trick for historians. It allows for the reassertion of human agency and action in the face of abstract ideas. Instead of drifting into an unknown, but likely disastrous future scenario in which the increase in global average temperatures exceeds two degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels, acknowledging the role humans play in transforming natural processes also means it is up to us to find solutions. These solutions will not only require the mobilization of experts in the natural sciences but also different and diverse social groups across the globe. In short, the relatively recent vintage of “the environment” establishes it as a field for human action and grounds for valid — and urgent — political claims.


Carolyn Taratko is a historian of modern Europe completing a PhD at Vanderbilt University. Her research focuses on the interplay between science, politics, and the environment in 19th- and 20th-century Germany. She lives in Berlin.