Nature’s diplomats: Ecological experts and the conservation policy of international organizations (1920-2000)

Today it is a broadly shared assumption that environmental problems are global, and that we should address them by resorting to a neutral and universal science. This assumption is a (relatively recent) historical construction. In the NWO-funded VIDI-project ‘Nature’s Diplomats: Ecological Experts and the Conservation Policy of International Organizations, 1920-2000’ we will explore the practices and ideas behind it. To this end, we will study a type of expert with a very long track record in international organizations: the ecologist specialized in the protection of species, landscapes and habitats.

The overall aim of the project is double. Firstly, it will investigate how ecologists have historically combined the role of neutral expert with the explicit advocacy of nature protection. Secondly, the project will assess how the local roots of the ecologists influenced the ideas, approaches and values they defended at the international level. The institutions included to study this double question range from the Office Internationale pour la Protection de la Nature, over the World Wildlife Fund and the International Biological Program to the European Union and the United Nations.

Three researchers will jointly work on the project. Raf de Bont, the coordinator of the project, will focus on the build-up of the first transnational networks of conservation experts in the period between 1920 and 1960 and on the slow rise of ecology as their leading discipline. PhD candidates Simone Schleper and Hans Schouwenburg will explore how the role of experts in international conservation changed in the following decades – when new generations entered the field, when organizations started to operate at an entirely different scale, when new disciplines crystallized and new media were mobilized. Simone will focus on the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which an unprecedented environmental activism, the advent of decolonization and a détente in the Cold War all impacted on expert networks and their conservation ideals. Hans, then, will zoom in on the 1980s and 1990s, when, amongst others, globalization and climate change, the intensification and end of the Cold War, and the growing involvement of the European Union in conservation issues altered the scene of international conservation expertise once again.

Relevant publications:

de Bont, R.F.J. 2015.“’Primitives’ and Protected Areas: International Conservation and the “Naturalization” of Indigenous People, Ca. 1910-1975”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 76: 215-236.

de Bont, R.F.J. 2015.‘Borderless Nature: Experts and the Internationalization of Nature Protection’, in: Evert Peeters, Joris Vandendriesche and Kaat Wils (ed.), Scientists’ Expertise as Performance: Between State and Society, 1860-1960 (London, Pickering and Chatto) 49-65.

de Bont, R.F.J. 2015. Stations in the Field: A History of Place-Based Animal Research, 1870-1930 (Chicago and London, the University of Chicago Press).

Schouwenburg, H. 2015. ‘Back to the Future? History, Material Culture and New Materialism’, International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity, 3:

Schleper, S. (2016). “Conservation Compromises: The MAB and the Legacy of the International Biological Program, 1964–1974.” Journal of the History of Biology, 1-35. doi: 10.1007/s10739-015-9433-4

de Bont, R.F.J. and Rajesh Heynickx. 2012. “Landscapes of Nostalgia: Biologists and Literary Intellectuals Protecting Belgium’s Wilderness?” Environment and History, 18 (2): 237-260.

de Bont, R.F.J. and Geert Vanpaemel. 2012. “The Scientist as Activist: Biology and the Nature Protection Movement, 1900-1950.” Environment and History, 18, 203-208.

de Bont, R.F.J.. 2012. “Dieren zonder grenzen: Over wetenschap en internationale natuurbescherming, 1890-1940.” Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, 125 (4): 520-535.

Read here a report on the conference: Experts and the Global Environment in the 20th Century.