Conserving nature in a changing environment: Ecology experts in international environmental problem solving (1960-1980)

PhD Candidate: Simone Schleper MPhil
Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Ernst Homburg and Dr. Raf de Bont

In international projects of nature protection, scientists play a prominent role. Up to this very day they are leading players in debates about which nature to protect, why to protect it and how. Ecologists in nature conservation have a long track record in dealing with these issues that goes back as far as the 1920s. During the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the international context in which these scientists worked changed considerably. Especially in the years around 1970, the rise of wide-spread environmental thinking led to the emergence of a multitude of new sorts of actors and organisations, bringing forth a sea change in international environmental endeavours and policy making.

Surprisingly, despite these large-scale socio-political transitions, the history of nature conservation during those years is characterised by consistency rather than change. On the basis of existing institutional histories of conservation organisations and the biographies of individual scientists, we know that many ecologists, who had been involved in the conservation of nature before the rise of the environmental movement around 1970, still exerted great influence in the new international projects that were established in its backwash. These conservation experts continued to give direction to the international environmental decision-making processes that shaped many of our modern ecological concepts such as biodiversity or sustainable development.

None of the existing historical accounts explain why and how it was possible for this old-established group of ecologists to prevail throughout those years of great changes in the international context. In my project I investigate this puzzle: Why did the old-style nature protectors (often white, upper-class males living in a few western cities – drawing on a colonial network) not get replaced by the strident activism of the environmental revolution? My working hypothesis is that ecologists in nature conservation could uphold and foster their expert position by ably renegotiating their science, and by reframing their expertise in a way that suited the changes and developments in international environmental politics.

My research is part of the larger VIDI research project “Nature’s Diplomats”, which investigates the activism of ecologists and the role of their local roots in twentieth-century international nature conservation projects. The spatial dimensions of conservation and the relation between ecology and activism, central to the VIDI-project as a whole, take on a special importance in the transitional period studied in my project. Within the framework of the VIDI-project, two other sub-projects examine the early internationalisation of traditional nature conservation until the late 1950s, and the role of experts in contemporary environmental policy making after 1980. The two intermediate decades, studied in my project, were characterised by large-scale contextual changes related to the internationalisation of environmental policy-making and the rise of new types of environmental activism. These significantly affected the geographies and ideologies of traditional nature conservation. In order to examine why conservationists remained influential in international environmental projects of the 1960s and 1970s, I look at their negotiation and framing strategies in relation to (1) the new spatial organisation of nature conservation, which emerged as part of internationalised environmental debates, and (2) the shifting relations between science and activism in environmental policy making of the time.