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A new history of knowledge

This book tells the story of how modern environmentalism emerged in postwar Sweden. It shows that the ‘environmental turn’ in Sweden occurred as early as the autumn of 1967 and that natural scientists led the way. The most influential was the chemist Hans Palmstierna, who was both an active Social Democrat and a regular contributor to the nation’s leading morning paper. Thus, he had a unique platform from which to exert influence. Drawing on his rich and previously untapped personal archive, the book explores how popular environmental engagement developed in Sweden. The book also highlights the journalist Barbro Soller, who in the mid-1960s became Sweden’s – and indeed one of the world’s – first environmental journalists. Moreover, it demonstrates how the pioneering historian Birgitta Odén, in collaboration with the Swedish National Defence Research Institute, sought to launch an interdisciplinary research programme based in the humanities and the social sciences as early as 1967–1968. An important conclusion of the book is that environmentalism emerged in Swedish society before there was an actual environmental movement. However, from 1969 onwards new social movements began to alter the dynamics. Hence, by the time the United Nations arranged the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in June 1972, environmental knowledge had become a source of conflict between rival interests. The environmental turn in postwar Sweden is the first full-length study to emerge from the Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge (LUCK), and demonstrates how its specific take on the history of knowledge enhances historical scholarship.

Open Access (free)
David Larsson Heidenblad

This chapter introduces the main research problem, taking its starting point in the UN’s first Conference on the Human Environment, arranged in Stockholm in 1972. By then, knowledge of a global environmental crisis had circulated widely in Swedish society. Five years earlier, in the summer of 1967, things were very different. At that time, it was not at all self-evident that humans were in the process of destroying their own living environment. Hence, in a short period of time, a radical change took place: an ‘environmental turn’. How did that happen? When did it happen? Who set the ball rolling? And what were the consequences? The chapter then introduces and discusses the history of knowledge, the circulation of knowledge, and this rapidly growing field’s relationship with other branches of scholarship (such as the history of science and intellectual history). The chapter also highlights international scholarship on the emergence of environmentalism and compares the Swedish trajectory to other nations, notably the United States and Sweden’s Nordic neighbours. The chapter also introduces the three main actors which the story is weaved around: chemist Hans Palmstierna, journalist Barbro Soller, and historian Birgitta Odén.

in The environmental turn in postwar Sweden
David Larsson Heidenblad

The chapter provides an in-depth account of the moment when the environmental debate in Sweden took off: the autumn of 1967. Special emphasis is put on the choir of natural scientists who at this point in time started to warn the public and politicians of an impending environmental crisis. Most influential was the chemist Hans Palmstierna, who in October 1967 published the short paperback book Plundring, svält, förgiftning [Plundering, famine, poisoning] which became the first major environmental bestseller in Sweden. Another influential group was the scientists behind the book Människans villkor [The predicament of man]. The chapter studies how these two books, and the expertise of their authors, circulated in the mass media (press, broadcast). In addition, it examines how environmental issues were discussed at this time at the highest state level and at the Swedish National Defence Research Institute. In closing, an exchange of letters between Hans Palmstierna and a layperson in Gothenburg sheds light on how environmental issues were understood outside of the media and the corridors of power.

in The environmental turn in postwar Sweden
David Larsson Heidenblad

This chapter tells the prehistory of the big breakthrough in 1967 and situates this Swedish history within a larger international context. Was it really true that something radically new happened in the autumn of 1967? Had environmental issues not been discussed in a similar way before? Drawing on the existing literature, especially Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin’s landmark study The Environment: A History of the Idea (2018), longer trends are made manifest. What is emphasized in the chapter, however, is that this longer history of environmental concern took place outside the public eye, or was understood in a more narrow sense. The chapter addresses the importance of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Rolf Edberg’s On the Shred of a Cloud (1966), and provides an in-depth account of when, how, and why Hans Palmstierna and Karl-Erik Fichtelius (editor of Människans villkor) became pioneering environmentalists. The chapter makes clear how the environmental crisis was linked to other global threats: nuclear war, overpopulation, and the depletion of natural resources.

in The environmental turn in postwar Sweden
David Larsson Heidenblad

This chapter provides a new perspective on the environmental turn by deliberately putting the spotlight on two non-scientists. The chapter tells the story of how journalist Barbro Soller and historian Birgitta Odén became engaged in environmental issues. The first half of the chapter follows Soller’s gradual transition from general reporter to full-time environmental journalist. Particular focus is placed on her close collaboration with certain researchers and her landmark reportage Nya Lort-Sverige [New filth-Sweden] in the spring of 1968. In the second half of the chapter, Birgitta Odén’s work on preparing an interdisciplinary research application and building up an environmental history research group at the Department of History in Lund is analysed. It is noted that her younger brother, Svante Odén, was the scientist who discovered and alerted the public about the environmental hazard of acid rain in the autumn of 1967.

in The environmental turn in postwar Sweden
David Larsson Heidenblad

This chapter focuses on how the big breakthrough of environmental issues in the autumn of 1967 paved the way for diverse forms of popular engagement. The chapter is based on Hans Palmstierna’s preserved correspondence. This unique material makes it possible to access students, senior citizens, priests, bank directors, trade unionists, and public-school teachers. How come all these people wrote to Sweden’s foremost environmental debater? How did knowledge of a global environmental crisis affect their lives? The chapter also tells the story of what Hans Palmstierna himself actually did to make things happen. In February 1968, he left the Karolinska Institute to take on a position at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (the first in the world, established in 1967). In addition, he collaborated with Folksam (Sweden’s largest insurance company at the time) to launch the youth campaign Front Against Environmental Destruction. This initiative was the first large-scale attempt to create an organized environmental movement in Sweden.

in The environmental turn in postwar Sweden
David Larsson Heidenblad

This chapter address the issues of when, how, and with what consequences modern environmental movements emerged. The focus is on the organization Nature and Youth Sweden and its engagement in and for the environmental turn. The organization had originally been founded within the older nature conservation tradition (which emerged in the nineteenth century). Hence, through this organization it is possible to study youth involvement before, during, and after the major breakthrough of environmental issues. The study demonstrates that the organization, beginning in the autumn of 1967, was politicized and radicalized (partly influenced by the rise of the New Left). Towards the end of the chapter, Nature and Youth Sweden is situated in the broader landscape of the new environmental movements that emerged in the early 1970s.

in The environmental turn in postwar Sweden
David Larsson Heidenblad

This chapter highlights how the dynamics of the environmental debate in Sweden changed during the early 1970s. Partly, it was the new environmental movements that raised the level of conflict. However, representatives of the establishment were also profoundly involved. The first part of the chapter examines the media storm that erupted after Hans Palmstierna gave a speech on work-environment issues at the Factory Workers’ Union’s congress in Stockholm in August 1971. There he accused researchers of pursuing the interests of business, rather than workers and society. Axel Iveroth, managing director of the Federation of Swedish Industries, struck back and a heated debate ensued. One of those who sought to moderate the tone – to no avail – was Birgitta Odén. The second half of the chapter is devoted to the large future debate that followed upon the publication of biochemist Gösta Ehrensvärd’s paperback book Före – Efter: En diagnos [Before – after: a diagnosis] in 1971. The book became a major bestseller and sparked open controversy when in February 1972 the nuclear physicist Tor Ragnar Gerholm published a counterpart named Futurum exaktum. Taken together, the chapter demonstrates that the environmental debate of the early 1970s was increasingly polarized and politicized.

in The environmental turn in postwar Sweden
David Larsson Heidenblad

The concluding chapter highlights the study’s most important results: the big breakthrough took place in the autumn of 1967; the driving actors were natural scientists; environmental issues began to be seen as a threat to the survival of humanity; the environmental debate contained a non-apocalyptic and more low-key strand; environmental issues became politicized and subject to conflict; the morning paper Dagens Nyheter and social democracy exerted major influence; the environmental movement emerged only after the big breakthrough. Thereafter the chapter discusses the merits of the new history of knowledge approach and the study’s contribution to international scholarship of the environmental turn. Lastly, a comparison is made between environmentalism around 1970 and the contemporary climate debate. In this way, the chapter emphasizes the importance of historical insight to tackle contemporary global challenges.

in The environmental turn in postwar Sweden