The En­vi­ron­ment

A His­tory of the Idea

Foreword Reviews - - Spotlight Reviews | Climate Change -

Paul Warde, Libby Robin, Sverker Sör­lin Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity Press (DE­CEM­BER) Hard­cover $29.95 (256pp), 978-1-4214-2679-2

Three aca­demics delve into the his­tory of the en­vi­ron­ment in the solidly re­searched, ex­pertly writ­ten The En­vi­ron­ment.

Though “the en­vi­ron­ment” is a term fre­quently bandied about by ac­tivists, sci­en­tists, and jour­nal­ists, even its most fer­vent pro­tec­tors may be ig­no­rant of where the conceptual idea came from. In this highly read­able his­tory, Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sör­lin set out to trace the ori­gin of the term and ex­am­ine its fu­ture.

The en­vi­ron­ment gained in­ter­na­tional ex­po­sure with the 1962 pub­li­ca­tion of Rachel Car­son’s best­selling Silent Spring, but this book sug­gests that the stage was set in 1948 with the pub­li­ca­tion of Wil­liam Vogt’s Road to Sur­vival—“about the planet as a whole, and all the var­ied peo­ples that lived on it.” Vogt used the term “en­vi­ron­ment” as “a global ob­ject.” From here de­vel­ops a fas­ci­nat­ing study that of­ten ref­er­ences much ear­lier works which al­luded to the en­vi­ron­ment without em­ploy­ing the spe­cific term.

The re­search in this book is im­pres­sive. Just as im­pres­sive is its use of his­tor­i­cal con­text to dis­cuss the en­vi­ron­ment in broad, con­tem­po­rary terms. It ex­plores the “four di­men­sions” of the mod­ern-day def­i­ni­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment: fu­ture, ex­per­tise, trust in num­bers, and scal­a­bil­ity. Each of these is ex­plained in clear, pre­cise de­tail.

Surely the most in­trigu­ing over­lay onto the en­vi­ron­ment in re­cent years is “cli­mate change,” and a chap­ter is de­voted to how the cli­mate and the en­vi­ron­ment have con­verged. Equally fas­ci­nat­ing is the book’s cov­er­age of the politi­ciza­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment, which emerged in the 1960s.

The book ends by rais­ing a provoca­tive and in­trigu­ing ques­tion: “Does the en­vi­ron­ment have a fu­ture?” Reading this ex­cel­lent, au­thor­i­ta­tive, and in­sight­ful ex­po­si­tion should help pro­vide the an­swer.

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