Understanding and Controlling the Environment in Contemporary History

Collaboratively written chapter for the open-access textbook The European Experience: A Multi-Perspective History of Modern Europe, 1500–2000.

Introduction: Over the course of the twentieth century, Europeans, the European environment, and their mutual relationship underwent dramatic changes. The acceleration of industrialisation at the turn of the century amplified existing problems like water and air pollution. So, too, did two catastrophic World Wars which dramatically affected humans and their environment: bombshell-scarred landscapes are still seen today; phosphor from sunken munitions is often mistaken for amber on the beaches on the Baltic Sea. As the Cold War developed, Europe was separated into two opposing blocs—communist and capitalist-democratic. As much as these two were ideologically opposed, both sides still shared a strong faith in planning, which would have an important impact on the environment. Belief in a ‘scientific-technological revolution’ in the East and systematic modelling of the future in the West led to the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects, which exacerbated environmental problems that had already emerged with industrialisation in the nineteenth century. The world beyond Europe had also been environmentally divided into North and South. A mechanised, chemically intensive agricultural sector and the development of mass consumption generated new environmental questions regarding waste deposits and energy supplies, for example, or the ‘outsourcing’ of environmental problems from richer to poorer countries. By the 1970s the environmental crisis had caught up with European societies: the environment became established as a political field, an object of diplomacy, a topic of public as well as scientific debate, and an issue for social movements.

Jiří Janáč, Sophie Lange, Juan Pan-Montojo, and Andrew Tompkins, “Understanding and Controlling the Environment in Contemporary History,” in in Jan Hansen, Jochen Hung, Jaroslav Ira, Judit Klement, Sylvain Lesage, Juan Luis Simal, Andrew Tompkins (eds.),The European Experience: A Multi-Perspective History of Modern Europe, 1500–2000 (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2023), pp. 549–558. doi:10.11647/OBP.0323.51