The route to the breakthrough, 1948–1967
in The environmental turn in postwar Sweden

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 autumn of 1967, scientific warnings of an impending global catastrophe were nothing new. 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. Knowledge about a global environmental crisis emerged in, and was shaped by, this broader historical context.

International environmental history research has highlighted 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. Previously the term had referred to the external circumstances which affected humanity. Now it began to be used in order to indicate how human action was reshaping the world. Humanity was regarded as a force of nature and a danger to itself.

Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin stress that this new understanding of the environment was primarily integrative. It assembled a range of problems, challenges, and ideas into a new and more complex whole. This gave rise to a ‘modern catalogue of environmental problems’, including overpopulation, erosion, industrial waste, overfishing, and water scarcity. The problems themselves were far from unknown, but the overall scientific approach was new. By viewing the various phenomena as aspects of one and the same global complex of problems, the individual problems also came to be regarded as survival issues.1

Two influential works from this period are Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s Road to Survival. Both were published in the United States in 1948 and became international bestsellers. In the spring of 1949, the Swedish translation of Osborn’s work was marketed as an ‘unusual book about a terrible threat to humanity’. The ad asked whether humanity was ‘undermining the foundations of its civilization?’.2 In Vogt’s book, the author argued that ‘[b]y excessive breeding and abuse of the land mankind had backed itself into an ecological trap’. Drastic measures were necessary to avoid a global collapse, and we must all reorientate ourselves in our relationship to the world we live in. ‘We can no longer believe valid our assumption that we live in independence’ but must instead thoroughly learn ‘our dependence upon the earth and the riches with which it sustains us’.3

The American warning voices immediately acquired an interpreter in Sweden: Georg Borgström. On the radio in December 1948, he warned of devastating global famines. The following year he wrote, in the preface to the Swedish edition of Our Plundered Planet, that ‘humanity’s traces in nature are terrifying’.4 Through debate articles in the press, new radio lectures, and such books as Jorden – vårt öde [The earth – our destiny] (1953) and Mat för miljarder [Food for billions] (1962), Borgström continued to forcefully deliver his message.5 In the autumn of 1967, he was one of the researchers who contributed to Människans villkor.

Another early voice of warning in Sweden was the author, botanist, and member of the Swedish Academy Sten Selander. He was chairman of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and wrote the extensive work Det levande landskapet i Sverige [The living landscape in Sweden] (1955). It combined an older nature-conservation tradition with the new concept of the environment. Selander also regularly wrote contributions to Svenska Dagbladet’s prestigious daily essay section ‘Under strecket’. There he stated that, over the past century, humanity had gone from being an animal species to being a force of nature. Humanity had ‘launched a whole new geological epoch, the human-ruled one’.6

Borgström, Selander, Vogt, and Osborn did not operate in obscurity. They claimed a place on the public stage and attracted considerable attention. A search in their books can easily discover comments that could have been uttered by Hans Palmstierna in the autumn of 1967. Even so, it must be stressed that they were not perceived as environmental debaters in their own time. Not even the leading actors were explicitly aware of the integrated understanding emphasized by Warde, Robin, and Sörlin. As was pointed out above, in the Swedish public debate up until the middle of the 1960s ‘the environment’ referred to something more limited. In November 1962 when Dagens Nyheter wrote that ‘the environmental debate had taken off’, it was referring to discussions about street and urban planning in Stockholm – not to any global set of problems.7

There were, however, significant contexts in the 1940s and 1950s where the new environmental understanding was more prominent. One such context highlighted by Warde, Robin, and Sörlin was the conference Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, which was held at Princeton in June 1955. It brought together seventy-three researchers from all over the world to discuss the global challenges facing humanity. By assembling experts from various fields – mainly natural scientists, but also a small number of social scientists and humanities scholars – the conference laid a foundation for applying a broader scientific approach to the environmental field. The importance of expanded international cooperation was also accentuated by major ventures such as the International Geophysical Year from 1957 to 1958. This type of large-scale scientific collaboration was crucial to the formation of the concept of the environment and the new integrated understanding of it. An aggregation of expertise occurred, and around 1960 the term ‘environmental sciences’ was coined.8 What, then, characterized this new understanding?

The new environmental concept of the postwar era

The new environmental concept was built around four dimensions: future, expertise, trust in numbers, and scale and scalability. Together they shaped and made possible a qualitatively new understanding of the human situation. The idea that there existed a global environment which humans influenced, and also scientific knowledge about a global environmental crisis, emerged symbiotically. The histories of ideas and science intersect with each other here, but also with political history. The institutions and cooperative bodies which were constructed during the postwar period, especially within and via the UN, were of decisive importance to the emergence of the new understanding.9 But what did these four dimensions involve?

‘Future’ refers to the temporal direction of the new environmental concept and the threat of a global catastrophe. People began to believe that it was possible to gain knowledge about what was to happen via a scientific route – in broad outline if not precisely. Scientific forecasts and future scenarios thus came to play a central role. This distinguished the concept of the environment from that of nature. The latter had a temporal direction towards the past, and it contained a streak of nostalgia about an original condition which had been lost and could possibly be restored. Conversely, ‘environment’ referred to a crisis in the making.10

Scientific interest in the future grew markedly during the first few decades of the postwar period. Many actors and institutions were involved in this development. Major ventures were made – not least in the United States – within academia, the military, and industry. Warde, Robin, and Sörlin talk about this development as ‘a futurological soup’. In that soup, the new environmental concept became an important ingredient.11 Recent years have seen extensive empirical studies of how the interdisciplinary field of future studies emerged. One important insight conveyed by them is that futures research in the 1950s and 1960s was not one single thing but rather several contradictory ones. The future was an elastic, and highly ideological, concept.12

‘Expertise’ refers to the growing scientific legitimacy with which certain actors and institutions spoke about the future. This expertise was integrative rather than specialized and empirical. Nevertheless, it was important for those who positioned themselves as experts on the future that they possessed some form of specialist expertise. Such expertise guaranteed their status as scientists, which was necessary if they were to speak with authority about key issues for humanity.13

Hans Palmstierna is a typical example of this group. His legitimacy as a scientist was based on the fact that he was an associate professor of chemistry. The main theme of his scientific warnings, however, was overpopulation. In this respect he made himself a spokesman for science as a whole rather than for his own field of research. This pattern recurs in all the scientific warning voices during the postwar period. The new environmental concept was so comprehensive that no single person had more than fragmentary expert knowledge. Therefore the expertise had to be aggregated, either by an actor turning himself into a spokesperson, such as Hans Palmstierna, or by a number of people joining forces, such as the twelve authors of Människans villkor.

‘Trust in numbers’ refers to the way in which scientific knowledge was aggregated in practice. This was done through the quantification of data. The changes that were being caused by humans were visibly presented in the form of diagrams and steeply rising curves. With the help of numbers, scientifically based predictions could be made. Lines of development could be extrapolated and the significance of different variables discussed. Expertise and knowledge about the future rested on a conviction that measurements and calculations comprised an objective and neutral knowledge base.

One crucial factor which allowed numbers to acquire this status was that they were able to illustrate change over time. It was fundamental to the new understanding of the environment that such a change was occurring, and that humans were the cause. Quantifications legitimized this view, functioning as arguments for political action. In addition, numbers could be transferred between disciplines and used to construct models. In this respect computers became increasingly important. They enabled the making of ever-larger calculations and the simulation of future developments.14

‘Scale and scalability’ means that the new environmental concept connected local phenomena with global conditions. The environmental concept was useful on all levels. Environmental impact might refer to how an individual industrial plant was polluting a specific watercourse, but it could also refer to the impact of the burning of fossil fuels on the Earth’s climate. The latter is an example of a global process which came to be linked to local phenomena such as storms and forest fires.

That the same methods and techniques could be used to achieve knowledge at various levels was also a significant factor. Numbers, models, and simulations could be done on all scales – from individual ecosystems to the entire planet’s biosphere. The quantitative approach made it possible to combine local data in order to comment on wider contexts. Scale and scalability reinforced trust in scientists who adopted a comprehensive approach to the entire set of environmental problems. Their specialist expertise about a phenomenon on a specific scale also gave them the authority to comment on problems that were on completely different scales: they established a scientific meta-expertise.15

The four dimensions of the new environmental concept were closely linked. They were one another’s prerequisites, and they reinforced one another. Scalable numbers made it possible for scientific expertise to comment on a threatening future. However, another historical context existed which was crucial to the formation of the new environmental concept: the threat of a devastating nuclear war.

The nuclear weapons threat

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Second World War and launched a new era. At the time, it was said that humanity had entered the atomic age. That age came to be characterized by the realization that humanity now possessed the power to destroy itself. A full-scale nuclear war could kill unimaginable numbers of people within a short time. In the long term, radioactive fallout would make the Earth uninhabitable. Knowledge about this new situation began circulating immediately after the bombings.16

In recent years, historians have asserted that the nuclear-weapons threat made new ways of thinking about global threats possible. The nuclear threat made people more sensitive to perceptions of planetary contexts and deadly risks. The threat of human-caused planetary destruction gradually expanded from nuclear war to overpopulation and insufficient natural resources. From there it was a short step to the global environmental crisis. All of these threats were explained and discussed using similar words and images, unified by an apocalyptic use of language. Scientific warning voices played a key role.17

The first joint initiative was taken in March 1946 with the publication of the report One World or None, in which the world’s leading nuclear physicists sought to explain the full implications of the atomic bomb. The report’s authors included Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, and the preface was written by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. The scientists tried to awaken the general public to a realization of the life-threatening situation. The solution they envisioned was expanded internationalism. Time was short, and humanity’s survival was at stake. However, the political realities of the Cold War as well as nascent anti-communist sentiments in the United States would soon silence the scientific alarms.18

A second phase of scientific activism emerged in the mid-1950s and was sparked by the American nuclear test explosions on the Bikini Atoll in 1954. Their radioactive fallout had an adverse effect on Japanese fishermen, who were far outside the specified safety zone. People’s fear of radioactivity grew, and resistance to atmospheric nuclear testing emerged. The philosopher Bertrand Russell and the scientist Linus Pauling assumed leading roles, launching petitions and collecting signatures. An international scientific cooperation organization, Pugwash, was also created in order to promote peace and disarmament.19

The scientists’ actions occurred in parallel with the emergence of new social protest movements. Natural scientists often played key roles in peace and disarmament campaigns. Some historians believe that these movements were the direct predecessors of the environmental movements of the 1970s.20 In the case of Sweden, these issues were brought to the fore in the late 1950s as a result of plans to develop Swedish nuclear weapons. An intense debate flared up. The resistance was organized via Aktionsgruppen mot svenskt atomvapen [Action Group against Swedish Nuclear Weapons].21

The Swedish plans to become a nuclear power were not realized, and the debate and opposition subsided. However, concern about nuclear war remained strong in the society of the early 1960s. Sweden’s civil defence system was one of the most developed and best funded in the world.22 The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 marked a culmination: never before had nuclear war been so close to becoming a reality.23 The following year, however, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom signed the Partial Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which banned atmospheric tests. A period of detente between the Great Powers began. For almost two decades, the threat of nuclear war was relatively absent from the public debate and cultural life. Paul Boyer has labelled the period from 1963 to the early 1980s ‘the Big Sleep’.24

That is a reasonable description of the nuclear-weapons threat as an isolated global menace. However, if it is regarded as being one of several interconnected hazards, a different picture emerges. Then the 1960s do not look like a sleeping decade, but rather like a period when anxiety broadened and the focus shifted from nuclear war and radioactivity to overpopulation and environmental destruction. Many cultural connections were made between these threats, not least the growing concern about ‘the population explosion’. For example, Georg Borgström illustrated the demographic trend with a diagram in the form of a mushroom cloud, and Paul Ehrlich’s international bestseller was entitled The Population Bomb (1968).

In the dawning environmental debate of the 1960s, radioactivity and its link to cancer played a similar role. This invisible threat came to influence society’s perception of other environmentally hazardous substances, not least chemical pesticides such as DDT. The starting point for this debate was Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962). Carson warned that birdsong would be silenced and that human DNA risked being broken down. She wrote that such ‘poisons’ should not be called ‘insecticides’ but ‘biocides’.25 Her book caused a huge debate in the United States. Sharp lines of division were created between industrial interests and nature conservationists. Scientists spoke out on both sides, but politicians and lay people were also involved. The environmental debate entered a new and increasingly intense phase. Carson herself, however, did not experience much of it. In April 1964 she died of breast cancer.26

The early 1960s debates in Sweden

The American debate over biocides did not pass unnoticed in Sweden. Silent Spring was translated more or less immediately and was published in March 1963 as Tyst vår. In Carson’s book, the new concept of the environment plays a key role. She asserted that along with ‘the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war’, the key problem was ‘the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm’.27 Her starting point was that over the past twenty-five years, mankind had become a force of nature. Speaking about ‘man’s assaults upon the environment’, she added that a ‘universal contamination of the environment’ was occurring with disturbing rapidity.28 ‘Future generations’, she wrote, ‘are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.’29

The Swedish reception of Tyst vår has been studied by Anna Tunlid. She points out that Swedes began discussing the book even before it had been translated. As early as February 1963, the Swedish Natural Science Research Council held a conference on the use of biocides.30 Simultaneously, zoologist Erik Dahl reviewed the English edition in Dagens Nyheter. He stressed the great uncertainty which existed regarding long-term consequences. There were not yet enough ‘definite and concrete facts’. However, the possibility of ‘increased cancer rates’ and ‘hereditary changes’ was a cause for concern. Dahl underlined that biologists and physicians were uneasy about developments. He hoped that Carson’s book would become ‘a kindling spark in a public debate that we have been lacking for far too long’.31 That hope would be fulfilled.

The Swedish biocide debate was particularly intense during the spring and summer of 1963. Just as in the United States, opinion was divided. On one side stood representatives of the chemical industry and authorities such as Statens växtskyddsanstalt [the Swedish Plant Protection Agency] and Giftnämnden [the Poisons Board]. These voices argued that Carson’s portrayal was one-sided and tendentious. On the opposite side, proponents of nature conservation maintained that Tyst vår was factual and moderate. Overall, the debate focused very much on biocides; there was no in-depth criticism of modern industrial society. Both sides were profoundly confident that scientific expertise and technological solutions could solve the problem.32

Most of the debaters were scientists. They wrote on editorial and cultural pages in the general press, but they also developed their reasoning in learned and specialist journals. The biocide debaters primarily wrote to and for each other and did not seek to mobilize the general public. They broadly agreed that more research was needed in this area and that large-scale studies of the effects of environmental toxins must be initiated. The debaters focused most of their attention on how animal and birdlife were being affected. It was nature that was under threat, not humanity.33

The Swedish biocide debate became a catalyst for new research projects. Particular focus was placed on mercury-treated seeds and their impact on birdlife. The National Veterinary Institute and the Swedish Ornithological Society played important roles in this respect.34 However, the biocide debate also coincided with the Swedish government assuming an increasingly active nature-conservation role during the early 1960s.35 Official reports were commissioned, and special committees were set up. The previously mentioned Forskningsberedningen was crucial in this context. It ensured that the step from scientific debate to discussions at the highest political level was short. The appointment of the 1964 government enquiry into natural resources, which went on to present its report in the autumn of 1967, was one result of this close connection.

The debates, official enquiries, and research initiatives of the early 1960s were intertwined. Science and politics were communicating vessels. The new environmental concept was also sporadically in evidence, for example in Tyst vår. Despite this, there was no general talk about an environmental debate or environmental debaters. It was nature and nature conservation that were on the agenda. From 1965 onwards, though, there are indications of a linguistic reorientation. It is, for instance, evident in the Riksdag debates, which began using the concept of ‘environmental protection’ that year.36 There are also traces in the press. Bengt Lundholm, secretary of the then-ongoing enquiry into natural resources, said in an interview that it was ‘characteristic of the new approach to the problems that the term “nature conservation” is increasingly being replaced by the term “human protection”’.37 An unsigned editorial in Dagens Nyheter further proposed that the term ‘environmental protection’ should replace the ‘somewhat worn concept’ of ‘nature conservation’. The latter brought to mind ​​‘the aesthetic requirement not to throw away tins in the woods’ rather than ‘the vital need to curb the poisoning and imbalance of our living environment and our natural resources that are a consequence of civilization’.38 This comment is a foretaste of the direction that the debate was about to take. Its tone of voice was about to be raised to a higher pitch.

Unlike the biocide debate of the early 1960s, the upcoming Swedish environmental debate came to focus on humanity’s survival. Even so, the actual substantive issues did not disappear from the agenda. On the contrary; as the decade continued, mercury and other environmental toxins received even more attention. This was done by linking the biocides with, and integrating them into, a larger global complex of problems. The following section presents a particularly illustrative example of this process.

Rolf Edberg and the three global threats

In the autumn of 1966, Rolf Edberg, Sweden’s then ambassador in Oslo, published the book Spillran av ett moln [published in English as On the Shred of a Cloud (University of Alabama Press, 1969)]. The book has long been central to Swedish environmental-history research, and it has been described as something of a breakthrough in the general public’s awareness of an environmental perspective.39 Published simultaneously in the three Scandinavian languages, Spillran av ett moln immediately made an impression in their respective national public spheres. In retrospect, it has become regarded as an early document of environmental awakening. The global environmental crisis was only one aspect of Edberg’s message, though. The theme throughout the book was that modern industrial civilization posed a deadly threat to life on Earth in a variety of ways. Edberg addressed the issues of nuclear war and accelerating population growth both prior to and in more detail than the issue of environmental destruction.40

Spillran av ett moln is difficult to categorize in terms of genre. It has some of the characteristics of a popular-science debate book, but it is equally a pastoral travelogue. Besides, it is a philosophical contemplation of existence. Edberg’s literary ambitions are obvious. Poetic formulations overshadow numbers and scientific facts. This distinguishes his book from Plundring, svält, förgiftning and Människans villkor. But then, Rolf Edberg was not a scientist. In fact, he had no academic credentials to speak of. Immediately after graduating from secondary school, he began working for the social democratic press and simultaneously launched a political career. During the 1940s and 1950s, he represented the Social Democrats in the Riksdag for two mandate periods. Edberg was an unusual voice in the emerging environmental debate. He was the learned layman who used literary techniques in order to turn himself into a spokesman for science.

The overall narrative structure of Spillran av ett moln consisted of a hiking trip in the Norwegian mountains made by Edberg together with his 17-year-old son – ‘the travelling companion’. Their co-existence was wordless, but it added topicality and concreteness to the global state of emergency. In his account, Edberg combined his concern for his son’s future with lyrical depictions of nature. He depicted the long history of life on Earth, emphasizing that humanity was merely a small part of a large web. Edberg described the thin film covering the parts of the Earth where human life is possible as ‘a marginal home for marginal beings’, surrounded by ‘the cosmic realms of the dead’. The whole history of the human race had taken place in that sphere, but the existence of humanity had changed utterly at a single stroke: ‘It became a different one the moment humans acquired opportunities to exterminate their own species.’41

The nuclear threat was the book’s starting point and vital thread. In Edberg’s words, his generation had crossed the boundary of an epoch. The destructive power conjured up by humans ‘lies beyond the concrete capacity to imagine’. It extended not only in the present but also ‘deep down into unborn generations’. The contrast to the Norwegian mountain expanses was sharp and hard to grasp. ‘The chattering brook by the hiking trail and the threat of global poisoning – something here doesn’t add up. Yet both are realities.’42 It seemed even more absurd to him that nuclear war could be triggered by accident.43

Edberg’s view of humanity was characterized by a biological, evolutionary, and historical point of view. Humans were what they had always been and acted as they had always done. This was cause for deep concern. ‘The sum of human history’, he wrote, ‘becomes the story of one species, more self-destructive than any other in Creation.’44 What was needed was to lead humanity’s ancient instincts and habitual behaviours down new paths. Otherwise the collective suicide would soon be complete. To avoid this, Edberg argued, humanity must fundamentally change its way of thinking and being. He believed this could happen if human beings realized their cosmic insignificance and began to see themselves as part of a larger whole.45

From the threat of nuclear war and the cosmic expanses, Edberg shifted his focus to the population explosion. He pointed out that all the lines on charts were rising at a ferocious speed; they ‘are bolting such that all numbers are quickly becoming out of date’. The reason was that humankind, by means of science and technological development, had ‘freed itself from the brakes that hold other species back’. The future was bleak despite the fact that all the necessary knowledge existed. ‘International bodies and the mass media are showering us with facts about the population explosion’, yet it was continuing unabated. If nuclear war did not become a reality, ‘overpopulation could become an even more tangible threat to a future generation’.46 Edberg envisioned a world that was on the brink of catastrophic famines and experiencing constant crises, conflicts, and global anarchy. In this situation, the global threats were united into one. The population explosion risked ‘ultimately becoming the direct trigger of the nuclear bomb’.47

Edberg, however, also perceived a third threat to the survival of the human race: the global environmental crisis. In this context, history – not least the decline and fall of classical civilizations – played a central role in his reasoning.48 ‘The most imposing ruins along humanity’s path are not found at the Acropolis or the Roman Forum’, he wrote, but ‘are encountered in ruined landscapes.’ This was a classic tragedy which happened again and again. In their short-term arrogance, humans subjugated nature and thereby destroyed the long-term basis of their own existence. Edberg perceived this pattern recurring in all countries with a long cultural history. The fate of the ancient world ‘is becoming that of the globe’. For him, this was an ‘indirect form of cannibalism, more macabre than the direct one ever was, because it affects generations as yet unborn’.49

To Edberg, overpopulation and the destruction of nature went hand in hand. He described humanity as ‘the skin cancer of the Earth’ which ‘has etched deep wounds and scratches on the face of the Earth’. He singled out chemical pesticides as ‘something new which has been added to the old story of humanity’s reckless advance on the globe’. Their use was evidence of insensitivity to the context and interdependence of all living things. The long-term consequences were unpredictable, but all indications were that they would be devastating. Humankind was in a stage of ‘accelerated pollution of our entire environment’, he wrote, a ‘cancer crisis of the globe’.50

To Edberg, it was perfectly clear that humanity had placed itself in this dire situation. It alone was responsible for the ‘triple threat’ it faced. But ‘there will be no Ragnarök unless humans themselves initiate it’, he emphasized. The threats could be averted if ‘our concepts and our actions are radically adapted to the fundamentally altered conditions we ourselves have created’. He placed his hope in some form of world government and the establishment of a new world view. Humanity could no longer afford to put itself and its immediate needs first. If it did, that would be the end of the human race.51

Spillran av ett moln shows in an almost overly explicit way how the postwar environmental consciousness was shaped by the historical context in which it arose – a time and a culture deeply marked by the Cold War, the nuclear arms threat, and realizations about the sufferings of the world’s poor. But what impact did Edberg’s book actually have in 1966? Did it really mark the breakthrough of an ecological point of view in the public consciousness? My studies of the book’s contemporaneous Scandinavian reception do not confirm this to be so. The extensive extant review material shows that the book was perceived as topical and successful, but hardly as pioneering. This might have been due to the very fact that Edberg adopted a holistic approach to humanity’s crucial issues. Nuclear war and overpopulation had been discussed for a long time. Given the prominent place these themes have in the book, it is not surprising – nor in itself incorrect – that his contemporaries felt he was conveying well-known warnings.52

Rolf Edberg’s fame as an environmental pioneer emerged later. Within a couple of years, his book came to be read in new ways and appeared in new editions. The same was true of Rachel Carson. Silent Spring circulated in a different way in 1970 than it had done back in the early 1960s. By 1970, it had become a cornerstone in a larger context in which a chorus of scientific voices warned of a global environmental crisis. In Sweden, the big change occurred in the autumn of 1967. But the breakthrough did not happen like a bolt from the blue. Two of the key scientific actors, Hans Palmstierna and Karl-Erik Fichtelius, had begun to warn of an impending catastrophe as early as 1966. The knowledge arena they used was Dagens Nyheter’s cultural page.53 By retracing their footsteps we can see how they, and their interaction with other actors, paved the way for the great breakthrough.54

The survival debaters

The first of the two scientists to raise his voice was Hans Palmstierna, and the time was the spring of 1966. The previous year he had begun writing articles for Dagens Nyheter on science topics, but those early works were of an explanatory and apolitical nature. In March 1966 he addressed the population question and adopted a more strident tone. In dramatic terms he stated that ‘if we do not alter our thinking quickly, inform our fellow human beings of the catastrophe that not only threatens but is already a fact, then we will slide straight into an overpopulated hell of disease and famine within a few decades’.55 The only solution to the problem that he could see was to restrict the birth rate.

Palmstierna’s first article did not attract any attention, but the second one did. ‘Malthus och världssvälten’ [Malthus and world hunger] was published in May 1966 and started out from the fact that 1966 marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the British cleric and social philosopher Thomas Robert Malthus. Palmstierna pointed out that Malthus was the first to ‘express with mathematical rigour the formula which shows that humanity may steer down into the inferno of overpopulation’. But Palmstierna had little time for his predecessor’s appeal to moral restraint. Pious hopes were doomed to fail. ‘We do, however, have means in our hands that Malthus did not have’, he emphasized, adding that ‘we have a huge propaganda apparatus on the radio and television, with and without satellites. We have a reasonably well-functioning press all over the world. This expanded and effective apparatus could be used for propaganda to control the birth rate.’56

Shortly afterwards, the editor-in-chief of Dagens Nyheter, Olof Lagercrantz, said he had received many compliments about the article.57 Even more important, though, was that the acclaimed author, engineer, and public intellectual Sven Fagerberg drew attention to it a couple of weeks later. He stated that it was ‘every scientist’s duty’ to comment on the human situation on the basis of his or her own expertise. ‘Unfortunately, this happens far too seldom, but there are shining exceptions. As I write this, the most recent example is Hans Palmstierna’s article on the population issue.’58 Fagerberg’s appreciative words reached their subject immediately. That same day, Palmstierna wrote Fagerberg a letter thanking him for the kind words and inviting him home for dinner.59

Their amicable relationship would strengthen. The proposed dinner took place in the summer of 1966. In connection with it, Fagerberg encouraged Palmstierna to write a debate book.60 The idea took root, and in September Palmstierna told Lagercrantz that he was ‘gradually persuaded to try to write a “debate” book about overpopulation, erosion, and the consumer economy’.61 Shortly thereafter, he published his third major article on the population issue in Dagens Nyheter. In it he drew an analogy with the growth curve of a bacterial culture. ‘What happens to these creatures can serve as a model for what happens to cultures of organisms in closed systems, e.g. humanity on earth.’ For the bacteria in a laboratory flask, an explosive growth phase was followed by an equally rapid logarithmic death phase. ‘Humanity, however, differs in one respect from bacteria and mould: it seeks to see into the future and adjust its actions according to the result. Herein lies the opportunity for humanity to control its own growth curve.’62 The next day, Palmstierna’s article was discussed in an editorial. It stated that the information about the factual situation and trends had now undoubtedly begun to make a breakthrough on a broad front. ‘Nearly everyone knows theoretically today’, but ‘to understand the implications and try to act accordingly’ – that was something completely different.63

The dire situation weighed heavily on Palmstierna, as is clear from a candid letter to Fagerberg in November 1966. ‘I know that I have to write, have to speak’, he said. ‘You do not know what you started when you urged me to write. I had protected myself behind a wall of supposed inability to write about what concerns us most.’ Palmstierna emphasized his own fear of discouragement and depression. He was tormented in and about his new role as a survival debater. ‘It is not right that I must be one of those who see that things are going to hell, that I must write about it, as if nothing could be done about it.’ In the letter he reflected further on the limitations of language. ‘[I] also detest the term “debate book”. As if there were something to debate. Then it is in the same category as the “infidelity debate” and other manias – valuable in a society that believes it will survive, but meaningless in the face of catastrophe.’64 The deep apprehension and reluctance that Palmstierna expressed shows how the transition process from research to social debate manifested itself for him. The new role was almost a calling, forced on him by scientific clearsightedness. There was no alternative: he had to act.

On Christmas Eve 1966, a new scientist appeared on Dagens Nyheter’s culture page to discuss the key issues for humanity. Karl-Erik Fichtelius’s insights into the crisis closely resembled those of Hans Palmstierna and Rolf Edberg. ‘It is utterly obvious’, Fichtelius wrote, ‘that a catastrophe of previously unimagined dimensions may befall humanity in the near future. One does not have to be a doomsday prophet to come to that conclusion.’ His article focused on the population explosion as well as on weapons of mass destruction, but he was also preoccupied with humanity’s biological nature and innate aggression. This was what made humanity so dangerous to itself. ‘So something must be done, and done soon, for us to avoid annihilating ourselves.’65

Fichtelius openly admitted that he was moving into a new and hard-to-navigate arena. ‘It is hazardous for a scientist to discuss political issues’, he wrote, because it was so easy to be ‘branded a political idiot’. He did not oppose this state of affairs; on the contrary, he emphasized that scientists lacked politicians’ expertise in this field. Consequently, he attempted to pass the ball to the politicians, who he felt were the only ones with any prospect of creating peace on earth. ‘Politicians are specialists in creating opinion and leading development’, he asserted, but they needed to be ‘influenced by suggestion in order to become emotionally involved in the right way.’66 Here, perceptive scientists had a key role to play.

Fichtelius’s thoughts have clear idealistic overtones. He placed his trust in an enlightened world government which would rule on the basis of scientific information and not be affected by any conflicting goals or interests. His reasoning gravitated towards a global species level. He felt that important answers to humanity’s challenges could be found in ethology – the study of animals and their behaviours. Where Palmstierna cited bacterial cultures, Fichtelius focused on jackdaws and dolphins.

The late winter and early spring of 1967 was a period of increasingly intense activity for the two debaters. Both men regularly wrote new articles on many different topics. For Palmstierna, this was an integral part of his work on his book manuscript. His debate articles in Dagens Nyheter would become essential parts of Plundring, svält, förgiftning.67 This relationship was discussed with the publisher, who pointed out that a maximum of one-third of a book could have been previously published in a newspaper.68 However, it was Fichtelius who reflected most extensively on his new role and activities. In March 1967, he said that scientists did manage to make their voices heard from time to time. ‘They come with cold numbers and convincing arguments about humanity’s vital problems: new data on the effectiveness of the atomic bomb, new frightening forecasts of population growth and the food crisis.’ The individual scientist, however, had no possibility of creating change. He ‘shouts a few times and is soon used up’, and he is not infrequently declared a ‘political idiot’. Nevertheless, Fichtelius emphasized that ‘scientists in responsible positions must from time to time cry out so loudly that politicians listen for a while’. When it came to critical issues for humanity, there was no time for passivity and helpless resignation. The important thing was not more research or technological innovations – all the necessary funds were available. The politicians had ‘mass media to influence the people, telephones to call their colleagues in other countries, planes to go there on, effective contraceptives to implement birth control, and so on’. The route to world peace and world government lay open.69

Even so, Fichtelius believed that the work should begin at home. The method he proposed was a governmental information campaign about humanity’s situation. He envisioned ‘a never-before-seen information campaign’ which could provide voter backing for an active Swedish foreign policy. With the majority of the Swedish people behind them, the politicians could turn to the UN and show what they had achieved. There they could offer to invest money in similar information campaigns in all countries. Scientists around the world were sure to support the initiative and help. ‘What happens next is entirely in the hands of the politicians’, he concluded.70

The programme Fichtelius presented aimed to bring about a new union between science and politics. The path to this fusion went by way of edification and information. He believed that knowledge and insights into the gravity of the crisis could be disseminated in a linear fashion: from scientists to politicians, from politicians to the general public, and from Sweden to the world. All that was required was determination, mass media, and financial resources. In a subsequent article, he developed his view on how politicians – ‘the practical sociologists’ – could bring about social change. Fichtelius supplied an example from the world of jackdaws. ‘If a young, low-ranking jackdaw shows signs of unease, it is ignored by the others in the flock’, he wrote, ‘but if one of the leaders, the high-ranking birds, does the same, the whole flock reacts.’ Psychologists had shown that humans functioned in the same way, and this was where the politicians’ opportunities lay. Being at the top of the social hierarchy, they had unique opportunities to exert an influence.71

Throughout the summer of 1967, Fichtelius continued to apply ‘biological observations to the current political debate’.72 He particularly stressed that humans were one animal species among many. They had to overcome their pride, acknowledge their animal nature, and begin to live in accordance with the laws of biological reality.’73 However, he did not go into the question of what this would mean in practice.

Concurrently, Hans Palmstierna became more closely linked to Dagens Nyheter. At the end of May 1967, he was invited to an informal round-table discussion on current environmental issues, to be followed by dinner. The goal was to arrive at a common strategy for the continued opinion-forming process. In addition to Olof Lagercrantz and Sven Fagerberg, the participants in the meeting included the journalist Barbro Soller and the ecologist Bengt Lundholm.74 It is noteworthy that Palmstierna wrote a letter to Lagercrantz before the meeting, inquiring about the possibility of employment at the newspaper.75 The issue seems to have been raised before, and it shows that Palmstierna had very advanced plans to leave the research world behind. He wanted to influence people and drive social change.

The third global threat

Hans Palmstierna and Karl-Erik Fichtelius’s first year in the public sphere is interesting for several reasons. First, it shows how the two scientists gradually built up a position in a key knowledge arena. They thereby became visible to more people and gained contacts which became absolutely crucial for the development of that position. Without the Malthus article and the friendship with Sven Fagerberg, Plundring, svält, förgiftning would not have been written. Equally important was that Palmstierna and Fichtelius built up a degree of interest around themselves over time. Not all debate books published in the autumn of 1967 were written about by the press. Even fewer featured in the evening news or were the focus of a televised cultural magazine.

A comparison with Rolf Edberg’s actions at this time is enlightening. What was he doing? My research shows that he did not in fact participate in the Swedish debate. Spillran av ett moln was a one-off contribution. It was neither preceded nor followed by any articles or television appearances – at least, not in Sweden. From a Norwegian perspective, the situation looks different. Edberg lived in Oslo, and after ten years as ambassador he had a wide-ranging network of Norwegian contacts. Accordingly, he was interviewed on Norwegian television, gave lectures, and published short excerpts from his book in various magazines. In 1966 and 1967, the Norwegian public sphere was his home ground. He usually declined invitations from Sweden.76

There were other differences too, of course. Edberg was a layman, not a scientist. In the autumn of 1966 he was a lone warning voice, not part of a choir. Spillran av ett moln was a hardback, not a cheap paperback. The most important difference, though, was that he did not personally continuously intervene in the public debate. Hans Palmstierna and the researchers behind Människans villkor did so. As a direct result, knowledge about a global environmental crisis began to circulate with a new intensity in Sweden in the autumn of 1967.

Additional conclusions can be drawn from the activities of Palmstierna and Fichtelius, though, not least with regard to the environment and the role of the environmental crisis in the Swedish survival debate of the 1960s. The environmental threat was not particularly prominent in that debate during 1966. For Palmstierna the focus was overpopulation, and for Fichtelius it was the nuclear-weapons menace. In the autumn of 1967, however, the centre of gravity shifted from these two established global threats to the third one. At the time, though, it was not possible to draw any sharp boundaries. Environmental and population issues in particular were intimately intertwined. They comprised an integrated complex of problems with a mutually reinforcing dynamic.

Hans Palmstierna and Karl-Erik Fichtelius undoubtedly played a decisive role in the shift which occurred in Sweden in 1966–1967. However, the social breakthrough of knowledge was not their work alone. To understand the historical process, it is important to study other actors as well: people who were not in the most glaring limelight, but who were nonetheless nearby. Consequently, the next chapter provides a different perspective on the course of events by following the journalist Barbro Soller and the historian Birgitta Odén.

2 Anon., ‘Hotet mot jorden’, DN, 20 April 1949.
5 Linnér, The World Household; Engh, ‘Georg Borgström and the Population–Food Dilemma’.
6 Sten Selander, ‘Historia vid landsvägskanten’, SvD, 3 July 1955. For a discussion of the ‘Under strecket’ essays’ significance in the history of the Swedish press, see Johan Östling, ‘En kunskapsarena och dess aktörer: Under strecket och kunskapscirkulation i 1960-talets offentlighet’, Historisk tidskrift 140.1 (2020).
7 Anon., ‘Fart på miljödebatten’, DN, 8 November 1962.
8 Warde, Robin, and Sörlin, The Environment; Warde and Sörlin, ‘Expertise for the Future’, pp. 47–49.
10 Warde, Robin, and Sörlin, The Environment, pp. 14–15, Warde and Sörlin, ‘Expertise for the Future’, p. 39.
11 Warde, Robin, and Sörlin, The Environment, p. 15.
13 Warde, Robin, and Sörlin, The Environment, pp. 15–16; Warde and Sörlin, ‘Expertise for the Future’, pp. 41, 48–50.
14 Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010); Howe, Behind the Curve; Warde and Sörlin, ‘Expertise for the Future’, pp. 44, 49–51; Warde, Robin, and Sörlin, The Environment, pp. 16–17; Theodore Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton, IL: Princeton University Press, 1995). See also Johan Fredrikzon, Kretslopp av data: Miljö, befolkning, förvaltning och den tidiga digitaliseringens kulturtekniker (Lund: Mediehistoriskt arkiv, 2021).
15 Warde and Sörlin, ‘Expertise for the Future’, p. 42; Warde, Robin, and Sörlin, The Environment, pp. 17–18.
20 Nehring, ‘Cold War, Apocalypse, and Peaceful Atoms’; Nehring, ‘Genealogies of the Ecological Moment’.
26 Lear, Rachel Carson; Kroll, ‘The “Silent Springs” of Rachel Carson’.
27 Carson, Silent Spring, p. 8.
28 Ibid., p. 6.
29 Ibid., p. 13.
31 Erik Dahl, ‘När fågelsången tystnar’, DN, 8 February 1963.
32 Tunlid, ‘Människan och naturens överlevnad’, pp. 15–22.
33 Ibid., pp. 15–22.
34 Ibid., pp. 20–22.
37 Anon., ‘Amerikansk kontroll avslöjar DDT i luften’, DN, 16 February 1965.
38 Anon., ‘Miljöskyddet’, DN, 27 March 1965.
42 Ibid., pp. 14, 18–21.
43 Ibid., p. 23.
44 Ibid., p. 48.
45 Ibid., p. 52.
46 Ibid., pp. 107–112.
47 Ibid., pp. 117–118.
49 Edberg, Spillran av ett moln, pp. 127–131, 135.
50 Ibid., pp. 151–165.
51 Ibid., pp. 169–187.
52 Larsson Heidenblad, ‘Ett ekologiskt genombrott?’, p. 263.
54 The following is based on Larsson Heidenblad, ‘Överlevnadsdebattörerna’.
55 Hans Palmstierna, ‘Vaccin mot spetälska’, DN, 17 March 1966.
56 Hans Palmstierna, ‘Malthus och världssvälten’, DN, 3 May 1966.
57 Letter from Olof Lagercrantz to Hans Palmstierna, 11 May 1966, 452/3/2 (HP ARBARK).
58 Sven Fagerberg, ‘Målsättning och dubbelmoral’, DN, 20 May 1966.
59 Letter from Hans Palmstierna to Sven Fagerberg, 20 May 1966, 452/3/2 (HP ARBARK).
60 Letter from Sven Fagerberg to Hans Palmstierna, 21 July 1966, 452/3/2 (HP ARBARK).
61 Letter from Hans Palmstierna to Olof Lagercrantz, 22 September 1966, 452/3/2 (HP ARBARK).
62 Hans Palmstierna, ‘Konsumtion och kritisk befolkningstäthet’, DN, 13 October 1966.
63 Anon., ‘Ständig folkexplosion?’, DN, 14 October 1966.
64 Letter from Hans Palmstierna to Sven Fagerberg, 13 November 1966, 452/3/2 (HP ARBARK). The so-called ‘infidelity debate’ was carried out in the Swedish culture pages in the mid-1960s and focused on living independently and free from traditional norms. In a Swedish context, the discussion was linked to the emergence of the New Left. For studies of this see Birgitta Jansson, Trolöshet – En studie i svensk kulturdebatt och skönlitteratur under tidigt 1960-tal (Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1984).
65 Karl-Erik Fichtelius, ‘Om frid på jorden’, DN, 24 December 1966.
66 Ibid.
67 Hans Palmstierna, ‘Förskingringens sekel’, DN, 15 January 1967; Hans Palmstierna, ‘Profiten först – hälsan sen’, DN, 17 February 1967; Hans Palmstierna, ‘Förskingringen kan hejdas’, DN 21 March 1967.
68 Letter from Hans Rabén to Hans Palmstierna, 19 May 1966, 452/1/4 (HP ARBARK).
69 Karl-Erik Fichtelius, ‘Vad väntar politikerna på?’, DN, 19 March 1967.
70 Ibid.
71 Karl-Erik Fichtelius, ‘Biologisk sociologi’, DN, 23 May 1967.
72 Karl-Erik Fichtelius, ‘Ett underbart djur’, DN, 8 June 1967.
73 Karl-Erik Fichtelius, ‘Skapelsens krona?’, DN, 25 June 1967.
74 Letter from Ingemar Wezelius to Hans Palmstierna, 27 May 1967, 452/3/2 (HP ARBARK).
75 Letter from Hans Palmstierna to Olof Lagercrantz, 30 May 1967, 452/3/2 (HP ARBARK).
76 Larsson Heidenblad, ‘Ett ekologiskt genombrott?’

The environmental turn in postwar Sweden

A new history of knowledge


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 70 70 2
PDF Downloads 55 55 7