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A journey through the history of the environment

For this year’s Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture, environmental historian Sverker Sörlin examined the evolution of the concept of the environment.

Photo: Sofia Runarsdotter and Enrique Díaz / 7cero, Getty Images (modified)

Anneli Sundin / Published on 11 November 2019

Sverker Sörlin, professor of environmental history at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, was the speaker at this year’s Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture. His lecture focused on the evolution of “environment” as a concept – the topic of his recent book The Environment – a History of the Idea, co-authored with Paul Warde of Cambridge University and Libby Robin of Australian National University.

“Green” Stockholm

Professor Sörlin started off by praising Stockholm as one of the “greenest” capitals in the world:

“Stockholm is green in a different way. Not because there is a lot of nature between the buildings. Rather because there is a lot of green spirit inside the buildings. One of these buildings is where SEI has its headquarters – an organization with ‘environment in its name. Thirty years ago, it was the obvious word. But only two decades earlier, the Swedish EPA was still called the Nature Protection Agency. And since 1989 we have seen the birth of centres, institutes and organizations around concepts such as sustainability, the Anthropocene, resilience, climate, earth, planetary.”

– Sverker Sörlin

An evolving concept

Professor Sörlin asserted that the history of “environment” could be divided into different phases: conceptualization, institutionalization and pluralization, while today “we are often referring to narratives of transformation”.

He cited one of the early landmarks in environmental thinking, the 1948 book Road to Survival by William Vogt. Travelling in Latin America in the 1940s, Vogt “saw serious disturbances of ecosystems, he observed soil erosion, overharvesting of forests,” said Prof. Sörlin. Vogt’s book was one of the first to use the word “environment” as we know it today in print, making it “arguably the first modern environmentalist text . . . We started to see the formation of the concept itself.”

The institutionalization of “environment”, spurred on by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring and important global events such as the 1972 UN Conference on the Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference, from which SEI takes its name), saw the establishment of national environmental protection agencies, environmental treaties and agreements as well as many scientific and political conferences on topics concerning the environment.

Since the 1990s the concept has expanded, changed and given birth to new ways of looking at nature and the planet, Sörlin said.

Sverker Sörlin at the Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture 2019.

Science and the environment

The concept of the environment has always been surrounded and backed up by scientific expertise, Prof. Sörlin said. The authors of The Environment – a History of the Idea collected hundreds of pages of text on the environment, building a genealogy of the concept.

”What is striking is how comprehensive the register was that the genealogy covered: population issues, natural resources, measurement and quantification, biological diversity, ideas about geography and the progress of civilization, technology,” Sörlin said. “Climate is a case in its own right. It arrived late, and was for a long time wrapped up in a veil of Cold War secrecy. It was a different kind of expertise too.”

Prof. Sörlin’s lecture was followed by a panel discussion with the philosophy researcher Olle Torpman, SEI Research Fellow Fiona Lambe, politician Anders Wijkman and Swedish parliamentarian Rebecka Le Moine. The panel discussed the future of the concept of the environment, what new narratives we need, and how individuals can help to shift norms globally.

Watch the interview with Fiona Lambe below.

Fiona Lambe, Research Fellow at SEI, at the Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture 2019.


View photos from the event on Flickr.

About the memorial lecture

The Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture is held annually in honour of Gordon Goodman, founding director of the Beijer Institute at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences from 1977 to 1989 and SEI from 1989 to 1991. It recognizes his unique contributions to global environmental issues. The memorial lecture is organized by SEI, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and Stockholm University.

Watch the full lecture

You can watch the full lecture by Sverker Sörlin by clicking the link below.

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