In the summer of 1971, an eleven-year-old boy in Gothenburg, Sweden, wrote a letter to the pioneering environmentalist Hans Palmstierna. The boy had recently read a report on the environment in a youth magazine and was shocked. “Is our little Tellus really in such bad shape?,” he asked, adding that it was terrible that there were people who destroyed the environment just to make money. “They should be given a real lesson” for everything they had done to “people newly born.” Now it was his generation, those born in the 1950s and 1960s, that would be forced to “fight against humanity’s possible downfall.”
To find out more about the global environmental crisis, the boy had bought a copy of Hans Palmstierna’s bestselling paperback book, Plundring, svällt, förgiftning (Looting, Starvation, Poisoning). He thought it was extremely interesting and rich in content, but also depressing. “How can anyone be happy in this society?,” he wondered. He told Palmstierna that he had taken the book to school several times so that he could read a chapter out loud. Not many of his classmates had wanted to listen. When he grew up, he told Palmstierna, he wanted to become someone who worked for the environment.
The book the boy had bought was originally published in the fall of 1967. This was a key moment in Swedish environmental history: Hans Palmstierna and dozens of other Swedish scientists entered the public fray to sound the alarm. Mankind, they argued, had entered a perilous situation in which environmental degradation posed a severe threat to future generations. The scientists sought to awaken politicians and the public to the pressing issue at hand. Their initiative was successful, and in a few months’ time, the environmental debate in Sweden took off. Knowledge of an environmental crisis circulated in the media with unprecedented intensity, while various organizations and people from all walks of life started to engage in environmental issues.1
This national event had global repercussions. In December 1967, a delegation of diplomats proposed to the United Nations that a major international conference on the environment be held in the early 1970s. That was the first step toward the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which eventually took place in June 1972. At the time of the proposal, the modern environmental movement did not exist, but in the following years numerous new organizations saw the light of day, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. These organizations were inspired by, and to some extent overlapped with, the New Left of the global 1968 movement; however, the modern environmental movement was a broader political phenomenon. It included traditional conservationist organizations, such as The World Wildlife Fund and The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. These established organizations were transformed, taking on a more activist stance.
To be sure, this complex international chain reaction was not sparked by the Swedish events of 1967. A lot of other forces were at work, but there were important connections between the local and the global. By the early 1970s, environmental concern had turned into a worldwide phenomenon. In the United States, the celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, manifested the largest political event of the era. It brought together young and old, environmental activists and longtime conservationists.2
Yet scientific warnings of an impending global catastrophe were nothing new by the late 1960s and early 1970s. Knowledge that humanity posed a threat to its own survival had been circulating throughout the postwar period. At first, the focus lay on the dramatic threat of a nuclear war causing total annihilation. In parallel with this, equally serious discussions began about overpopulation and dwindling natural resources, which has been discussed previously on this blog by Nicole Bourbonnais. Knowledge about a global environmental crisis emerged in, and was shaped by, this broader historical context.
Environmental historians highlight the late 1940s as a particularly significant era. That was when a new understanding was established of how humanity, nature, the world, and the future were connected. The very concept of “the environment” gained a new meaning.3 Previously, the term had referred to the external circumstances that affected humanity. Now it began to be used to indicate how human action was reshaping the world. Humanity was regarded as a force of nature and a danger to itself.
This understanding, however, was not yet predominant in society. In fact, hardly anyone, even among natural scientists and well-informed politicians, thought in terms of humanity standing on the brink of a global environmental crisis until the mid 1960s. To be sure, various environmental hazards were recognized, notably biocides after the intense debate sparked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). But these problems were largely understood as isolated issues, not parts of an interconnected crisis. Each field had its own experts, laws, and technologies. The global systems thinking that characterized the Stockholm Conference in 1972 was not prevalent in the summer of 1967. Not in Sweden or anywhere else.
But the situation changed dramatically over the course of five eventful years. What was hard to know about in early 1967 was hard not to know about in 1972. What caused this social breakthrough of environmental knowledge? Who were the historical actors that opened people’s eyes to the environmental crisis? When did it happen? What was done to make it happen? How did local, national, and international levels interact?
I have grappled with these questions now for almost a decade, for as long as I have been involved in the history of knowledge. Together with my colleagues at the Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge, I have sought to develop a new research agenda, with the circulation of knowledge in society at its core.4 The emergence of modern environmentalism is, I would argue, a prime example of what this scholarly venture seeks to understand.
In my new history of knowledge, The Environmental Turn in Postwar Sweden, I seek to pinpoint how this social knowledge breakthrough occurred. The story involves well-known and highly influential actors such as Hans Palmstierna, who shaped policy and public debate, but also completely unknown actors, such as the eleven-year-old boy from Gothenburg whose letter I began this piece with. For in my view, understanding the social circulation of knowledge requires us to cast our nets widely and to take a programmatic interest in the experiences and thoughts of manifold historical actors. The eleven-year-old boy’s concern for the planet and the future in 1971 exemplifies how the once exclusive environmental knowledge of certain interested groups was now engaging much broader groups of people.
David Larsson Heidenblad is associate professor of history and deputy director of the Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge (LUCK). His book, The Environmental Turn in Postwar Sweden: A New History of Knowledge (Manchester University Press and Lund University Press, 2021), is open access. David chronicled the book’s writing in a blog in Swedish in 2019–20. The blog’s popularity led to its publication as a book and to the blog’s release in English at A Year of Academic Writing under a two-year time delay (2021–22).
- David Larsson Heidenblad, “Mapping a New History of the Ecological Turn: The Circulation of Environmental Knowledge in Sweden 1967,” Environment and History 24, no. 2 (2018): 265–84, https://doi.org/10.3197/096734018X15137949591936. ↩︎
- Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013). ↩︎
- Paul Warde, Libby Robin and Sverker Sörlin, The Environment: A History of the Idea (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). ↩︎
- Johan Östling and David Larsson Heidenblad, “Fulfilling the Promise of the History of Knowledge: Key Approaches for the 2020s,” Journal for the History of Knowledge 1, no. 1 (2020), http://doi.org/10.5334/jhk.24. ↩︎