E – Concepts and digital tools, fields and disciplines in global history

One globe, three histories? Thinking environmental, global, and international history together

Event Details

  • Date

    Thursday, 25 June - 15:30 – 17:30

    Friday, 26 June - 14:00 – 16:00

  • Venue
    tba
  • Theme
    E – Concepts and digital tools, fields and disciplines in global history
Convenor
  • Lucas Mueller (University of Geneva)
  • Simone Müller (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich)
Chair
  • Dipesh Chakrabarty (University of Chicago)
Commentator
  • Glenda Sluga (University of Sydney)
Panelists
  • Iris Borowy (Shanghai University)
  • Nathalie Jas (Paris Dauphine University)
  • Stephen Macekura (Indiana University)
  • Lucas Mueller (University of Geneva)
  • Simone Müller (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich)
  • Perin Selcer (University of Michigan)

Papers

  • Iris Borowy
    Waste – Between Local Experience and Global Significance

    Waste – Between Local Experience and Global Significance

    Waste is part of people’s private lives, manifest in dustbins in bedrooms and in the casually consumed and discarded coffee to go. Waste is also a rapidly growing economic product and environmental burden, reaching every corner of the globe. As a major trade item, waste has an impact on international relations, as shown by the recent decision of the Chinese government to sharply restrict the types of plastic it imports. As a product ending on landfills and in incinerators it has a non-negligible influence on global climate change. As part of a way of life, waste forms a constitutive element of globalization, with its promises and threats of rising living standards for an increasing percentage of the world population. Poor people cannot afford to waste, in that sense the growth of waste is also the sign of positive global developments. With its devastating short-term and long-term environmental effects, it is also the manifestation of a profound misdirection of this development. Changing this path towards ever-increasing quantities of waste will require no less than changing global and private, deeply entrenched ideas of progress and well-being. To what extent such changes can be achieved through education, by liberal “nudging”, or authoritarian regulations or any combination thereof will form the subject of societal negotiations. This talk addresses some of the tensions between those conflicting but inter-related demands.
  • Nathalie Jas
    Governing a Toxic World

    Governing a Toxic World

    At the beginning of the 21st century, there are many signs that we no longer live in a world that is simply contaminated by chemicals but has become toxic in many ways and various scales - from the very local ones to the global one. In this paper, I will present the results of the work carried out with Soraya Boudia, in order to identify and characterize the dynamics that have led to the production of this toxic world ; i.e. a world which is constituted by pollution produced in the past which are combined with pollution being produced and, which, despite becoming generalized, has disproportionately affected the poorest and most dominated populations. By seeking to trace the economic and political transformations that have since 1945 led to this generalization of pollution and the shaping long-lasting dangerous environments, we have identified and characterized three « modes of government » that are now intertwined and overlapping in national and international policies: a government through control, a government through risk, and a government through adaptation. I will analyse these three modes of government, each of which appearing at different times in order to respond to new problems posed by the impossibilities to master industrial toxic overflows. I will show that the development of these modes of government has not so much aimed at effectively solving the problems posed by pollution and their toxic effects as at facilitating the development of chemically intensive economies based on the massive extraction of raw materials and their transformation by the chemical industries, defined as the “industries of the industries.”
  • Stephen Macekura
    The Growth Debate, North-South Politics, and the Fate of Environmental Internationalism in the 1970s

    The Growth Debate, North-South Politics, and the Fate of Environmental Internationalism in the 1970s

    During the 1970s, fears of environmental degradation, declining energy reserves, and slowing economic growth rates pervaded international politics. At the same time, the countries of the Global South challenged an unequal world order in multiple venues and myriad ways, as many leaders and intellectuals argued for a “right to development” and the creation of a New International Economic Order (NIEO) to overcome persistent inequalities and boost their growth prospects. My paper explores how internationalist environmentalists wrestled with the tensions between their anti-growth impulses and sympathies toward the Global South. Internationalist environmentalists, defined as those who took the entire planet as the primary object of their activism, often held anti-growth views and radical critiques of existing modes of political economy. Yet they struggled to reconcile those arguments with the Global South’s desire for global redistributive justice and democratic decision-making. I argue that the conflicts over the future of growth in an unequal world persisted with little resolution throughout the 1970s and continue to hamper global environmental governance to this day.
  • Lucas Mueller
    Molecular Globe

    Molecular Globe

    Molecules have become important tools of global environmental governance since the mid-twentieth century. Experts, diplomats, and civil servants at national and international agencies have often framed environmental issues in terms of acceptable levels of specific molecules in air, food, and water. Greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), insecticide DDT, cancer-causing aflatoxin and other molecules have easily moved between local and global scales, providing a seemingly coherent frame for multifaceted global issues. These scientific objects have also captured the imagination of environmental activists concerned with individual carbon dioxide emissions and local toxic exposures. In this paper, I describe the ‘molecularization’ of global environmental issues in the case of aflatoxin, a food contaminant, in the 1960s and 1970s and of CFCs, atmospheric pollutants, in the 1980s and 1990s. I argue that framing environmental problems on the level of molecules has obscured concomitant questions of economic justice. For example, newly decolonized countries’ forceful demands for food sovereignty and access to export markets in the 1970s were transformed into technical question of acceptable levels of aflatoxin in cash and staple crops. Governing the global environment on this technical-material level of the molecule has thus served to reinforce existing geopolitical and economic relations.
  • Simone Müller
    American rules for a global environment?

    American rules for a global environment?

    “We know that you don’t have the power to stop a transaction, but for goodness sake, we are all on the same planet,” scolded Congressional Representative, John Conyers, EPA representative Sheldon Meyers during a congressional hearing on U.S. waste exports in July 1988. Congress had been called together to respond to the growing trend of U.S. hazardous waste exports to poorer nations around the globe. Since the late 1970s, American waste traders had sold material classified as hazardous waste to countries with less rigid environmental and waste management standards, primarily those in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Through such transactions, exporters evaded rising disposal costs, while the poor importing nations had found a valuable source of foreign dividends. At the congressional meeting, Congressman and EPA representative found themselves locked up in a seemingly unresolvable antagonism. While Conyers positioned arguments of planetary environmental solidarity, Meyers did not withdraw from the legal perspective that any U.S. involvement beyond its borders would infringe upon the other state’s sovereignty. Based on the controversy over U.S. American export of hazardous waste to poor countries around the globe from the late 1970s on, this paper scrutinizes modern environmentalism’s national territoriality in the face of international environmental problems. It extrapolates how political and public debates targeted the question if there should be American rules for a global environment, while leaving it unresolved.
  • Perin Selcer
    Causality at Global Scale

    Causality at Global Scale

    Environmentalists attempting to mobilize political action warn that climate change poses national security risks. Internationalists determined to escape the scourge of war seek to rally humankind for the conquest of nature. For scientists, explaining global change often amounts to distinguishing anthropogenic versus natural causation. Particularly at planetary scales, where causes and effects are difficult to distinguish, epistemic and political imperatives merge in choices about where to draw boundaries between political, social, and natural factors—the categories by which this round table defines international, global, and environmental history. In recent years, however, prominent social theorists have called for the abandonment of these modernist divisions altogether. Is such an analytical move possible or even desirable at the scale of world history? Could such a history effectively inform policymakers and activists? Rather than abandoning the old categories, I argue for not one or even three histories, but rather a multitude of stories that follow causal chains in unexpected directions and across scales. Such stories do not quite fit the standard definitions of disciplinary fields. They might suggest opportunities for unexpected alliances between disparate communities.

Abstract

The perseverance of millions of young students around the world protesting every Friday for their future has caught politicians and diplomats by surprise. Although they have been talking about global or international concerns for decades, they did not meet the planetary ambitions of #fridaysforfuture. What is generally discussed as an inter-generational controversy, we argue, reveals a much larger conceptual divide. Environmental activists, politicians, diplomats, scientists, and other political actors have taken “the globe” as starting point of large-scale analysis and action but, following their own trajectories, reached seemingly incongruous conclusions for political action. Such divides are also reflected in the fields of international, global, and environmental history. International history primarily centers on international institutions, global history on flows and processes of global integration, and environmental history on a natural and material flows and changes that imply the irrelevance of all national borders. This panel brings scholars, whose work straddles these different fields, together to examine different meanings of the globe, global, and international in the late twentieth century. The papers analyze trajectories of different ideas of the “globe” and the political and historiographical consequences of these conceptual distinctions. These ideas emerged in response to environmental processes as much as they have been shaped by divergent economic, scientific, and activist discourses in the industrialized and “developing” countries. Based on archival study of civil servants, scientists, and activists, the individual papers analyze which processes, scales, forms of agency, and boundaries these understandings of the “globe” have foregrounded. Taken together, the panelists undermine the singularity of the one Globe and open new avenues for thinking beyond the conceptual divides.