Interview: Dr Paul Warde, author of The Environment: a History of the Idea

Dr Paul Warde is a lecturer in environmental history at the University of Cambridge. He co-authors a new book called The Environment: A History of the Idea, which is released on January 25. He spoke to Thomas Barrett about why our understanding of the environment has changed, how to un-politicise environmental matters and the President Trump effect.


What surprises did you find when researching the book?

Our biggest surprise was that nobody had asked the question of why we use this idea of the environment. Why not ‘nature’? We now see it as self-evident what the environment is, but in the 1930s, nobody would have understood it.

Environmental politics has been something of a revolution since the 1960s, but we argue it took a revolution in the mind first, a way of connecting up the fate of the planet to what was happening locally.

What was the biggest turning point in the 20th century in our understanding of the environment?

The late 1940s and the post-war moment. The experience of WWII led many people to think on the scale of the planet, of problems as global. It’s the age of the UN and the bomb.

Two questions – how to avoid human destructiveness, and how to promote development – came together in the idea of a nature under threat. That nature was called ‘the environment’. The first books in this genre, the first conferences, come in 1948-9. It’s long before the popular politics of the 60s, but this is when the ideas are formed.

How has your understanding of the environment changed since you started studying it until now?

The environment isn’t just a thing out there to be studied. It’s an act of imagination that everything connects. And it’s connected to a story of degradation, of human destructive power.

The imaginative act came before many of the ways to study and measure it were worked out: it created a demand for a new type of expert. That raises the question: did we choose the right measures, the right experts? Nature doesn’t determine how we think about it: we do.

President Trump is an outspoken sceptic of climate change. How damaging (or helpful) has this has been to the environmental movement? 

As a historian, it’s too early to say! Clearly, the US isn’t making any progress with policy. But the galvanising effect of resistance might prove stronger in the long run. What is clear is that the US took a lot of the lead in environmental thought between the 40s and the 60s. That’s no longer the case. It’s just as, or more important, what happens in China, Brazil, in India.

Politics is getting more and more polarised. Can you un-politicise environmental matters?

During the Cold War, science and the environment were seen as a neutral ground where people to come together. That was part of the reason for using the term: it seemed cool, and technocratic. But that is in itself a type of politics.

It became much more polarised from the 70s. The idea of ‘environment’ was deliberately used to create a safe political ground. If that has gone now, maybe we need new terms and new imaginaries. But the environment will always be political.

How do you rate the current Government’s record on the environment?

When ‘environment’ was proposed as a policy area in the early 60s, it was meant to be a way of promoting join-up thinking, of getting out of policy silos. In that regard, all governments since the Conservatives created the ministry in 1970 have failed: they have created a new silo.

There have been successes in individual areas, but the approach is narrow and defensive. But maybe this is the post-war legacy: policy framed as environment vs development.

How do you encourage the public to take warnings around climate change more seriously?

There’s a paradox in the history. ‘Environment’ was taken up as a policy area because it seemed scientific, neutral, expert-led. But its advocates also understood environmental issues as a crisis of civilization, of values, of goals. They were right in this, but nobody wants to be told by an expert what their values should be.

Maybe we shouldn’t assume that the public are acting unreasonably – from where they stand. And as soon as we debate values, there are going to be differences. These are problems of political language, not of knowledge. More facts won’t help. Nor will telling people off.

Are you optimistic about the future of the environment?

Another question: will we even talk about ‘the environment’? Maybe that idea has done all the work it can in shaping how we live with nature. ‘Environment’ was born of avoiding catastrophe; it’s always had that pessimistic vision in it. It was a thing under threat.

Optimism might need new terms: something we can love, and be proud to show our love for it.




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