Flows, Histories, and Politics of Pollution in Europe (17–20 Century)

Conference Report

Dates: 28–29August, 2020.

Organizers: Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC)

Conveners: Andrei Vinogradov (RCC) and Professor Julia Herzberg (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München).

The online workshop started with welcome remarks by the conveners, who outlined the key methodological framework of the event. Pollution is one of the earliest topics in global environmental history, but developments in the humanities and the current state of research in the field has allowed us to look at it from a new perspective. First of all, the history of environmental pollution was mainly considered within the national borders of European countries: there are still very few attempts to study the subject on a larger scale or from a comparative and transnational perspective. The topic is an important impulse for transnational research on the history of pollution abatement. The existing research on pollution-related conflicts in European history allows us to shed more light on how different societies conceptualized, measured, described, and attempted to control pollution.

Conference Participants
Conference Participants

The participants of the workshop considered these questions within their own research contexts. The first panel “Pollution in between…” included reports examining pollution between or beyond the political borders of European states from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Michel Dupuy (Institut d’histoire modern et contemporaine) showed how the expert community tried to abate air pollution in Central Europe in the post-war period, when economic recovery implied usage of large amounts of coal fuel. After a series of meetings, experts formalized the scientific vocabulary related to pollution, research methods, and discussed new approaches and opportunities such as filtration technology and legislative measures. The broad expert community included scholars from the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and Austria. According to Dupuy’s findings, the experts’ anti-pollution proposals were more hospitably met in the Eastern Block than in the West, where they fell under pressure from governments and industrial corporations.

Katrin Kleemann (RCC) turned to the history of pre-modern Europe of the eighteenth century, and, unlike other participants of the seminar, studied non-anthropogenic pollution. Her research is focused on the Laki eruption of 1783, which was the largest on the planet in the last thousand years. Due to the large share of sulfur dioxide (SO2), the volcanic haze covering several European countries had an unpleasant odor and caused high morbidity rates among the population. Due to the lack of scientific knowledge about how the volcanic haze spread and affected the environment, the event received different explanations and interpretations, which formed the main focus of Katrin Kleemann’s research.

Odinn Melsted (University of Innsbruck) continued the topic of sulfur dioxide pollution, but focused on that caused by human activity in the twentieth century. Due to the widespread usage of fossil fuels, by the 1960s SO2 emissions caused air, soil, and water pollution, which had a negative effect on public health in several European countries. This problem reached its peak in 1974 (when almost 14 tons of sulfur dioxide reached the atmosphere), after which the pollution level steadily decreased due to measures agreed and enacted by several states. These measures to reduce emissions included the installation of filters in factories and heating stations, desulphurization of oil and natural gas, replacement of high-sulfur coal with low-sulfur oil and gas. Melsted looked at the history of the desulphurization of European industry from a transnational perspective, with a particular emphasis on the Austrian experience.

The presentation by Markus Lay (Universität des Saarlandes) was devoted to the environmental history of the Saarland region in the nineteenth century. An important source of coal for the European economy, the Saarland has undergone significant transformations in the times of the Industrial revolution. Rapid industrial growth brought a number of serious environmental problems related to pollution. Unlike many other industrial centers, pollution control in the Saarland region was complicated by its boundary location: most of today’s Saarland belonged to Prussia, while Bavaria owned the city of St. Ingbert and a number of agricultural areas. Lay focused on differences in perceptions of industrial pollution and the nature of the protests in Bavaria and Prussia.

The key question of the second panel was how ideas and concepts of pollution change in space and time. Opening the panel, Franziska Neumann (Universität Rostock) talked about waste management in London in the eighteenth century. Using this case, she focused on how pollution was perceived by contemporaries and what differed pollution from waste. London’s waste management system was largely based on the legal concept of nuisance: dirty trades in the city were recognized as an inevitable evil, but the law considered it necessary also to protect the welfare of local dwellers. At the same time, the practical implementation of the law was largely determined by existing notions on which substances in the environment were tolerable and which were not. This implies studying pollution not only as hazardous matter, but also as a changeable cultural construct—which became one of the cross-cutting topics of the workshop.

Image courtesy of Andrei Vinogradov and Stanislav Petriashin

Andrei Vinogradov (RCC) and Stanislav Petriashin (Russian Museum for Ethnography) examined the history of environmental pollution through the lens of “timescapes.” Their research was based on the case of Kokshan Chemical Factory, founded in 1850 and closed in 1925. Despite the fact that almost a century has passed since the factory’s closure, it still affects the environment with the heaps of toxic waste, deposited in the village of Novy Kokshan (modern Mendeleevsk district of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russian Federation). The ongoing toxic effect creates a single timescape that connects the period of the factory’s operation with present day and the environmental history of the region with current ecological challenges, including the need to recycle toxic waste. As shown by Vinogradov and Petryashin, the problem of pollution in Kokshan became visible at the intersection of different temporalities (industrial and agricultural, academic and bureaucratic) and received different coverage in two key contesting narratives formed within the single timescape—“environmentalist” and “industrial-progressist.”

While other participants considered the concept of pollution on the scales of countries, cities, and institutions, Mitya Pearson (University of Cambridge) focused its research on biographies of members of the British Green Party. Based on interviews with its leaders and eminent activists from 1973 to 1979, Pearson showed how and why the problem of environmental pollution motivated them to political activity. The life-story approach enriched the discussion and provided a new perspective on the discussed problematics.

The second day of the workshop started with a panel on the history of water pollution in Europe. Taylor Zajicek (Princeton University) analyzed Soviet environmental policy in relation to the Black Sea pollution in the times of Leonid Brezhnev. In his report, Zajicek challenged the widespread stereotype about ecocide in the USSR and showed that, despite some significant shortcomings in nature conservation, the history of the Soviet Union can provide examples of successful environmental management. Despite numerous challenges—such as lack of materials and inefficient planning—the USSR’s agencies managed to install filtration systems at plants, factories, and ports and reduce sea pollution. According to Zajicek, the recognition of pollution as a factor threatening public health and economic stability of the Black Sea region is a merit of Soviet industrialists and expert scientists.

José Rafael Soares (Universidade do Minho) presented on the pollution of the Avi River in Portugal. The chronological framework of the study, which includes the period from 1892 to 1974, allowed him to consider the development of pollution control methods under three different political regimes. By working with a wide range of historical sources, José Rafael Soares examined the key activities that led to the pollution of the river and showed that, regardless of the political regime, river towns served as permanent places of conflict between old ways of using the river and new environmental challenges.

The subject of the report by Alicia Gutting (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) was the Nuclear Research Center in Karlsruhe, which in the mid-twentieth century launched two research reactors with a capacity of 44 and 200 MWt. The construction of the new reactors raised environmental concerns among parts of the population due to contamination of the Rhine River with water from the cooling system. Gutting studied sources from a broad discussion among officials, Nuclear Research Center staff, and public representatives, focusing on how people imagined the risks and possible solutions.

The final panel of the workshop contained two reports addressing the history of pollution in a comparative and transnational perspective. Tatiana Konrad (University of Vienna) devoted her report to the materiality of plastic as an integral part of the modern (petro)capitalist world. Having transformed modern material culture, plastic and other substances associated with its production and processing are causing serious negative effects on human health and the environment. Analyzing the modern transformation of environmental policies and waste management systems, Konrad showed how they are contributing to the liberation of modern culture from the use of plastics.

The last but not the least was the presentation by Iva Pesa (University of Groningen), in which she traced the changing environmental values in the Central African Copperbelt in the context of environmental pollution. Her research focused on various actors involved in the development of the Copperbelt: engineers, officials, workers, doctors, and farmers. Throughout the most part the twentieth century, industrial pollution in the region was disregarded, but over time, local people became increasingly concerned about the state of the environment and the negative impacts of pollution on their health. Pesa showed how environmental values in industrial areas were changing and what affected this process.

The online workshop provided an opportunity to discuss a number of important research questions related to the history of pollution control through a variety of cases covering different territories in Europe and beyond from the eighteenth century to the present day. The workshop shed light on how the concept of pollution is fluid in time and space and how it was shaped and understood by different social actors. Future discussions on these problematics are planned in joint publications by the participants and presentations at the upcoming conference of the European Society of Environmental History (ESEH), which will be held in Bristol in July 2021.

Conference Schedule

August 28

14:00-14:15 (CET)Julia Herzberg, LMU Munich Andrei Vinogradov, Rachel Carson Center Welcoming address and introductory remarks  
14:15-15:45Pollution in between: studying pollution beyond and across the borders. Chair: Michel Dupuy.
Michel Dupuy (Institut d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine, Paris) The building of an epistemic community in central Europe against air pollution (1956-1966)
Katrin Kleemann (Rachel Carson Center, Munich) Volcanic pollution in the summer of 1783 impacted human health and vegetation in Western Europe
Odinn Melsted (University of Innsbruck) Adapting to pollution challenges: the “desulfurization” of the Austrian energy system in transnational perspective, 1960-1990
Markus Lay (Universität des Saarlandes) The romanticism of hell. The environmental history of the Saar-region in the 19th century  
16:00-17:30Inventing pollution: challenging ideas and perceptions of pollution across space and time. Chair: Franziska Neumann.
Franziska Neumann (Universität Rostock) Dirty trades and stinking privies? Waste, pollution, and the materiality of London’s 18th century waste regime
Andrei Vinogradov (Rachel Carson Center, Munich), Stanislav Petriashin (Russian Ethnographical Museum, St Petersburg) Toxic histories: pollution timescapes around chemical factories of the ‘Ushkov & Co.’ Association (1850-2020)
Mitya Pearson (University of Cambridge) How ‘the environment’ became political in Britain – a ‘life story’ approach, 1973-79  

August 29

14:00-15:30Water pollution in Europe. Chair: Alicia Gutting.
Taylor Zajicek (Princeton University) Soviet effluence on the Black Sea: environmental policy, marine pollution, and wastewater treatment in the Brezhnev-era
José Rafael Soares (Universidade do Minho, Braga) The waters of transgressors: the case of industrial pollution in the River Ave Hydrographic Basin
Alicia Gutting (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) Supplying drinking water from Germany’s nuclear core. The case of Eggenstein-Leopoldshafen’s Wasserkonzept 2000  
15:45-17:15Looking beyond Europe: pollution in global and comparative perspectives. Chair: Tatiana Konrad.
Tatiana Konrad (University of Vienna) The petroproduct: on plastics, capitalism, and oil Iva Pesa (University of Groningen) Between waste and profit: environmental values on the Central African Copperbelt Eda Acara (Bakırçay University) Hydro-social politics of class and ethnicity across the polluted landscapes of the Ergene River  
17:30-18:00Concluding remarks

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