An Interview with Verena Winiwarter, Austrian Academic of the Year

VerWin_1This interview was conducted by Klaus Taschwer for To view the German text, please click here. Thank you to Rachel Shindelar for helping to translate the interview.

Austria’s environmental journalists have selected you as academic of the year. Surprised?

Yes, I was completely surprised. Most of the previous recipients have a profile that is rather different from mine. I was nevertheless very happy, because it provides another opportunity to bring environmental history into the mainstream.

In 1998 you wrote the first “Austrian” environmental history dissertation and in 2007 you became the first Austrian professor in environmental history. How should we understand these terms?

They are best understood in light of our research. For instance, in a project that we have just completed, entitled “Enviedan,” we researched the changes in the Danube in the Vienna region from 1500 to the present, analyzing the many unanticipated and long-lasting consequences of the regulation of the river on the ecosystems and society. In another project, which began in March 2012, we focus on the effects of ski tourism on the Austrian landscape and environment.

Environmental history is at heart the history of the side effects of human activities. Doctors and pharmacists inform people of the effects and possible undesired side effects of medicines; environmental history does the same with regards to nature.

How important is outreach to you as a part of your scientific activities?

It is one of my highest priorities, for two reasons. First, the Faculty for Interdisciplinary Research and Development (IFF), to which I belong, has for over 30 years been charged with making knowledge available to society. That in turn means working intensively at the interface of science and society. I do so very actively because I want our knowledge to figure in environmental politics. Secondly, our research is funded with public money. And therefore we have the obligation to make available to the public the research that has been financed with their money.

How do you do that, exactly? And whom do you want to reach?

I am trained in public relations and I’m therefore well aware that there is no such thing as a singular “public.”  In reality we are concerned with everyone from children to political figures. I give presentations in children’s museums and in schools, and I use that opportunity to discuss the long-term nature of the interaction between nature and society with children.

Civil society plays a decisive role in environmental issues: it is the decisive actor in the movement towards sustainable development. For that reason we have to reach out to civil society—and through it, to politics.

What exactly do you talk about with children? And what environmental histories do you have to offer to civil society?

With children I tend to recount the history of the toilet, because that plays an important role in the reality they know, and expounds on many issues. We are not going to run out of good stories about the consequences of intruding on the environment: I just finished a manuscript with a German geographer containing 60 case studies. One of these deals with the Galapagos Islands and the introduction of invasive species as a result of tourism, another deals with mercury from Huancavelica in Peru—under Spanish colonial rule there was an environmental catastrophe that is poisoning the soil to this day. These 60 stories were very easy for us to come up with. And I am not going to run out of environmental histories for Austria either.

How has the opinion of Austria concerning environmental policy development in the past decades? Is the impression that we have gone from an international pioneer in the 1980s to a straggler correct?

Yes, I agree with this assessment. Earlier, we truly were a pioneer, which was possibly connected to the preparation for our entry into the European Union.  We have long lost this position. As a historian, I know however, that is difficult to make conclusions about the present—and so I am speaking here as a concerned citizen and a consumer of media.

However, it is obvious that environmental policy has lost its status as a high-priority political field, which it had achieved in the 1980s. Though, this has also happened in other countries.

How and why did it come to this?

I think that there was an ecological awakening that emerged from the USA and from books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the late 1960s, which led for example to the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s. This movement has, however, lost its strength, because it became clear not only that the evil manufacturers were at fault, but that all of us must change our lifestyles.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol, which addressed the protection of the ozone layer, was so successful because it require only a single, concrete course of action: that is, to ban chlorofluorocarbon substances. This opened up opportunities for many companies, because alternative substances had to be developed.

Courses of action against climate change are not about replacing one thing with another, but rather to stop doing many things. As a result, environmental policy was no longer appealing to a majority, and even has lost its central position in the Austrian Green party platform.

Aren’t there also a couple of Austrian specifics, such as the fact that environment and agriculture have been combined into one ministry?

That certainly plays a role: as a result of this composition the only conclusion that the environmental department can reach is that agriculture cannot be damaging for the environment. In addition there is the very powerful agricultural and forestry lobby.

The structure of the Austrian federal government is also not quite beneficial for environmental policy, to put it cautiously. However, it must be stated that in general we are living in an age of policy failure that is not limited to the environment. In the meantime there are private companies that are often more sustainable than the nation.

How can citizens be motivated to change their lifestyles? The populace seems to be rather unaffected by the dramatic reports about the consequences of climate change.

That is correct. It is not a problem to motive the people to do something for giraffes in Kruger National Park, because you can still continue to live the way you do. If we take climate change seriously however, and want to do something about it, then all of us in the so-called first world countries must significantly change our lives. But no one wants to hear or do that. The ever-increasing dramatization by the media is not a big help in this case.

And what would help?

One possibility is demonstrated by the “Solutions Journal.” This magazine does not publish articles that focus on problems—as is common in academia—but rather articles that suggest solutions. One possible message could and should be that a lifestyle that has less impact on the climate possibly leads to a better and happier life.

And generally we know what to do: Porsches do not necessarily make you happier. I do not think it is impossible that this path could lead to something like a Sufficiency Revolution, a new form of frugality. We may have everything, but we do not seem to be a happy society.

Is climate change the greatest environmental problem that we have?

I consider the change in our soil to be just as dramatic as climate change. We are destroying the best soils by covering and sealing them with cement and asphalt. There are however many other ways to destroy soil: bioenergy is a bad solution because the intensive cultivation of the land is completely diffusing the soil—and after a few years the soil will be ruined.

Why is that such a catastrophe?

The soil is unusable for a thousand years. It is not a renewable resource—at least not according to human measurements. I am, however, especially concerned with this problem because it receives next to no attention from the press.

Why is this?

You can write about climate change, because the air that we breathe is a common good. It does not belong to any one. And each one of us is directly affected by the temperature of the air. With soil it is different; normally it belongs to someone. According to current laws it is next to impossible to intrude on property rights.  For this reason I can suffer the talk of an eco-social market economy only so much, because these basic problems concerning soil remain untouched.

Which brings us back to the problem that the environment and agriculture have been merged into one ministry. What do you say to a different merger, the merging of economics and science and research?

I think that politicians need to be measured by their actions first and foremost. And it remains to be seen if the new double-Minister will be able to give the science and research department, which is not exactly uncomplicated, enough attention.

That would mean, among other things, investing more money in the Austrian Science Fund and in universities. If he does this, then I do not see any problem with the merger, besides symbolically. Austria already has one of the highest levels of investments in economically oriented research. And if the merging of economics and science leads to an increase in this level, then that would be a clear aberration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: