Ecological transformations and disasters in global environmental history

Date: 1 September 2017, 09:00–03:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 328


Please note that there is a break from 12 pm - 1.30 pm.


This panel seeks to analyse how capitalist transformations and resource extractions can be understood as significant ‘ruptures’ with numerous intended and unintended consequences in the histories of global environments. Global environmental history, which is a relatively new, yet highly dynamic, area of research, addresses humanity’s capacity to transform the environment even on a planetary scale – intentionally but often unintentionally. Many environmental issues present in our daily lives can be fruitfully approached from a global perspective, yet should – so we argue – at best be coupled with detailed attention to local specificities and trajectories. These issues include, among others, the complex manifestations of (and reactions to) climate change, ecological fears, and the formation of worldwide environmental movements.

In this context, our panel seeks to analyse the ‘dark sides’ and accidental effects of human ecological interventions into ecosystems for the aim of resource cultivation and exploitation from the later nineteenth century until today. We explore how and why ecological disasters happened, how contemporaries became aware of them, and how different actors reacted to them. Furthermore, we seek to understand the reactions to such human-induced disasters, including the often slow change of practice. We enquire into actors’ interests – both economic and political – as well as their ideological motivations, shaped by global, often imperial connections, in dealing with the ecological challenges that were often of their own making.

The papers assemble a range of cases from the 19th and 20th century. This enables us to discuss change over time – which includes the histories of European colonial expansion, of modern biotechnical agriculture, oil drilling, flood protection, nuclear energy, of increased competition over natural resources before and after the period of decolonisation, and the ways states, firms, and private actors sought to prevent but ultimately had to react to ecological risks and catastrophes once transpired.

The search for and application of resources such as oil, rubber, radioactive material, and drinking water can account to a significant degree for the environmentally tumultuous developments of the past 150 years. The panel ultimately raises questions about the present need for more sustainable approaches to significantly alter the very relationship between humanity and the finite resources and limits of resilience to unbounded resource extraction and industrial pollution of the earth.


Stefan Hübner (National University of Singapore)

Moritz von Brescius (University of Konstanz)


Uwe Lübken (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich)


Moritz von Brescius (University of Konstanz)

Fiona Williamson (National University of Singapore)

Julia Mariko Jacoby (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Berlin)

Stefan Hübner (National University of Singapore)

Jan-Henrik Meyer (University of Copenhagen)

Rüdiger Graf (Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam)



Moritz von Brescius: Zones of expertise: Tropical plantation economies and the formation and failure of a ‘global rubber science’, 1870-1918

This paper proposes to analyse, from a trans-imperial perspective, the emergence, maintenance, and partial failures of global rubber plantations between the 1880s and 1918, a time that saw a deep and lasting transformation of the tropical world. As natural caoutchouc became a ubiquitous substance in modern material culture, penetrating all aspects of human life from hygiene to communication and transport technologies and warfare, demand for rubber skyrocketed in the late 19th century. The seemingly infinite applicability of the material led numerous private investors, firms and empires to push for a more systematic cultivation of rubber on plantations, away from wild tapping that endangered naturally grown rubber trees.

The paper takes an interest not only in the global exchange of rubber seeds and seedlings that saw a major shift of caoutchouc production away from the Amazonian region to plantation complexes in Africa and especially Asia (Ceylon, Malaya, Indonesia, e.g.) by the 1910s. It also proposes to study the emergence and limits of a ‘global rubber science’ and trans-imperial expertise transfer that accompanied the establishment of French, Dutch, British, US-American and German plantations from Asia to Africa and South America. It asks through what channels knowledge of rubber cultivation was exchanged across imperial boundaries, and how shared expertise and extractive systems emerged amongst otherwise competing imperial powers in tropical ‘ecological zones’. Yet, I also look at histories of failures, of supposed rubber expertise and insights leading to unintended consequences and agricultural disasters such as massive soil erosion or pests in different local settings, with a particular focus on the failed visions of rubber autarky in the German colonial empire.

Fiona Williamson: Cities and disasters: Floods and urban development in colonial Singapore

This paper focuses on the history of floods in colonial Singapore. It pays close attention to how the British authorities and the city’s inhabitants understood and reacted to serious inundations and in turn, how these responses shaped the city’s development. The history of urban floods is intimately connected with planning, functionality and changing city space. Central here are questions of adaptability, resilience, and scientific knowledge.

Using nineteenth and early twentieth century Singapore as a case study, this paper seeks to understand the multifarious impact of floods on Singaporean urban life. Based on primary archival sources relating to governance and urban development in the British Straits Settlements, including municipal records and contemporary newspapers, it also argues that the lessons learned (or not) by cities facing disasters in the past can be useful in addressing urban disasters in the modern world.

Julia Mariko Jacoby: Industrialization, groundwater-related land subsidence and typhoons in 20th century Osaka: How Japan became covered with concrete

This paper explores how land subsidence was observed and debated in Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, during the 1930s, and how countermeasures were taken in the 1950s and 1960s. It examines how residents recognized it was groundwater extraction that indirectly caused disastrous floods, and how both resource extraction and safety were reconsidered during high economic growth, resulting in fighting natural disasters with technology and concrete.

Modernization and industrialization have caused, among other things, urbanization and an enormously increasing need for water supply worldwide. Groundwater extraction has led to land subsidence of many coastal cities, aggravating flooding disasters. This problem has been brought to attention in connection with the sea level rise caused by global warming. Japan, a country prone to various kinds of natural disasters, already faced this problem in the 1930s.

During that time, Osaka experienced a series of serious floods, the worst caused by the 1934 Muroto Typhoon which killed over 1,500 people. Scientists attributed the frequent flooding to ground subsidence. Its cause was first contested between groundwater extraction and earthquake faults. The city of Osaka decided countermeasures that were postponed because of World War II. By the 1960s, Japan's disasters were considered an impediment to economic growth, thus overcoming them became crucial for global competitiveness. Ground subsidence was combated by installing water pipes and filling up endangered areas, water supply was ensured by building dams on the Yodo River.

This paper traces how resource extraction and danger were discussed between the 1930s and 1960s, and how tackling both tasks led to a state-driven disaster prevention system that responded by trying to control the whole water cycle with technology, causing massive intervention in nature. Special attention is given to the growing role of experts. It also attempts to illuminate Japan's complicated relationship with nature between “Japanese” tradition and “Western” industrialized modernity.

Stefan Hübner: Urbanization's Floating Frontier: "Overpopulation", Climate Change, and Floating City Extensions since the 1950s

The second half of the twentieth century saw an enormous technological progress in the construction of offshore oil drilling platforms, which inspired other oceanic colonization projects, such as the creation of very large floating structures and visionary projects of mobile, floating cities. Among others, illustrious U.S. and Japanese architects and engineers such as Tange Kenzō, R. Buckminster Fuller, Kikutake Kiyonori, and John P. Craven already since the late 1950s drafted plans for floating city extensions and cities, which were designed to allow permanent offshore living without the need for large-scale land reclamation. While improvements in elevator technology and other reasons turned such projects uneconomical, climate change and a rising sea level recently have encouraged further projects among architects and engineers.

In this paper I argue that what I term an “oceanic colonizing mission” was and is driven not only by urbanization and industrialization caused population growth in coastal regions, environmental pollution, traffic congestions, and a shortage of land resulting in rising land prices. Increasingly, floating structures such as houses are also promoted as a solution to a climate change induced rising sea level (rising with it) and instable dykes, drainage related subsidence (water does not have to be drained anymore), and countermeasure to a growing likelihood of disasters both through prevention (limited protection against hurricane caused waves) and recovery assistance (floating helipads and first aid stations, etc.). Consequently, this paper sees floating structures as an increasingly significant element in global debates about continuing urbanization processes in coastal areas.

Jan-Henrik Meyer: Moving ahead, regardless: The strange non-ruptures of nuclear history

When Eisenhower held his famous Atoms for Peace Speech in 1953, attempting to reframe nuclear power from an instrument of death to the beacon of modernity and prosperity, the undesirable consequences of splitting had already become apparent to those involved in nuclear technology. However, given official secrecy in the ongoing Cold War battle between the empires East and West of the Iron Curtain, much of the substantial ecological and epidemological knowledge about nuclear fission’s unintended side-effects acquired in and around the first military reactors and plutonium plants never saw the light of day.

This paper argues that strategies of official secrecy and a lack of openness throughout the booming Cold War nuclear energy sector were both a carry-on from its military origins during the conflict between two empires and a result of the many unresolved issues the technology had in store. What I call the „strange non-rupture“ – that is the development of nuclear technology despite a growing awareness of its ecological consequences, and an unwillingness to openly engage with critics - continues to constitute a liability with regard to attempts at public engagement.

This paper will draw on the research of the cooperative research project HoNESt – History of Nuclear Energy and Society. Empirically, it will zoom in on the European experience, namely the practice of siting nuclear installations in border areas, and the transnational protest that ensued. The paper will enquire into the interests and ideologies of those involved in public engagement concerning the issue of nuclear risks. Contrasting cases where nuclear energy was successfully challenged to the majority of cases where it wasn’t, the paper seeks to explain the strange non-rupture of nuclear history.

Rüdiger Graf: Too much oil: The consequences of resource abundance in the 20th century

At least since the 1970s, with the rise of the ecological movement, the debates concerning the “Limits to Growth”, and the mounting concerns about “energy security”, it has become customary in some political and intellectual circles to discuss the problems of natural resources, above all, in terms of their alleged scarcity. Yet, at least in the case of oil, there is ample evidence that it is rather its abundance that causes the worst consequences. In my paper, I will scrutinize these problems of abundance ranging from the ecological consequences at the sites of extraction, over so-called “resource curse” for national economies and the attempts to stabilize the oil price on a national and global level to the planetary effects of the excessive consumptions of hydrocarbons.

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