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2,000 years of ruthless exploitation of nature and the environment in Germany

Professor Hans-Rudolf Bork went on a search through 2,000 years of German environmental history. The result is a publication which for the first time and comprehensively describes the people and their impact on nature over the course of time.

Old illustration
Taken from the book »Umwelt­geschichte Deutschlands«

In the early 20th century, synthetic ammonia was produced for the first time. This provided yield increases in agriculture, which this promotional postcard pointed out. But the production had significant environmental impacts due to the large energy consumption and the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide.

418 pages in A4 format, small font size, written in two columns and a good 1.3 kilos in weight: what Hans-Rudolf Bork has served up to interested readers is certainly not light reading. But the comprehensive scope is necessary. Because in his work, "Umweltgeschichte Deutschlands" (Environmental History of Germany), the professor of Ecosystem Research at Kiel University casts an objective eye on the Germans and the impact of their actions on the environment over the past 2,000 years.

Bork begins chronologically with the Romans and their settlements, who already at that time carried out farming at the expense of species-rich ecosystems. He follows the timeline through the early modern period, industrialisation with its smoking chimneys, coal mining and industrial agriculture, right through to the explosive growth of consumption and the use of raw materials since the middle of the 20th century – which was also due to the reconstruction after the world wars and during the German Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle). The environmental problems in reunited Germany are also addressed, as well as the diesel scandal and the modern Fridays for Future movement.

The work can also be read according to subject categories such as climate, biodiversity, agriculture, industry, transport, energy, environmental impacts of power and war, or environmental policy and environmental protection. However, the focus always remains on the question of how humans affect the natural environment through their actions. At the same time, Bork also examines the effects of the environment on the people living in Germany.

Old postcard of an industrialised city
Taken from the book »Umwelt­geschichte Deutschlands«

On 18 October 1758, industrial iron production began in the Ruhr region and the chimneys were glowing, as the postcard of the blast furnaces of the Phönix ironworks in Duisburg-Ruhrort showed. When the hard coal was burned, fine dust, fly ash, heavy metals such as mercury entered the atmosphere - the effect of heavy industry on people's health and their environment was serious.

It took him seven years to carry out his research and write the texts. "Writing Umweltgeschichte Deutschlands was something that was very close to my heart," explained the scientist, who has a wide scientific background. Bork is a graduate (Diplom) geographer, geoecologist, soil scientist and geoarchaeologist. "In my youth and when I was a student, I found it fascinating that you can read the landscape like a book. Everything is interlinked," explained the Kiel native, who in 1979 found indications of St. Mary Magdalene's flood in the soil layers during a geographical excavation, the flood of the millennium in the late Middle Ages (1342), which was enabled by forest clearing.

However, the inspiration for his latest work was the book written together with Verena Winiwarter, "Geschichte unserer Umwelt" (History of our Environment), which won the science book of the year and environmental book of the year awards in 2015. "Here, the focus was on global events and topics," said Bork. Selecting the stories was not easy for him at the time. There was so much worth reporting just in Germany alone that the idea developed of writing about the environmental history of Germany. No sooner said than done.

But the search through 2,000 years of German history led to the discovery of so many relevant environmental events that Bork also had to make a subjective selection here: 260 local or regional environmental events – summarised, but with references to more in-depth literature – form the core of the book. "These are what I see as the most important, most interesting and most exciting environmental events on the territory of the modern Federal Republic of Germany," said Bork. For example: the cholera outbreak in Hamburg in August 1892 due to contaminated water, and the battle by Robert Koch, who by closing all schools and public pools, prohibiting any form of dance events in restaurants and bars, disinfecting infected buildings, and displaying posters with rules of conduct for the citizens, such as boiling water, ultimately prevented an even bigger catastrophe. But Bork also finds room in his work for the first appearance of the African violet in Germany (in 1893 due to colonial officials’ passion for collecting), the establishment of protected state parks (1898) and the killing of the last wolf in Germany (1904).

Of course, well-known events and issues of the past decades such as acid rain, the dying forests in the 1980s or Chernobyl appear in his book, as well as rather unknown and frightening facts: the use of radium in food ("chocolate containing radium is rejuvenating"), cosmetics ("for radiant white teeth") and cigarettes, which were successfully sold in the first half of the 20th century. "And this despite Marie and Pierre Curie, among others, suffering skin redness, inflammation and burns during experiments on themselves, and making these observations known." It was not until the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that people’s perception changed and the radium disappeared from the articles. Instead, in the period afterwards, asbestos ended up in walls – and in baby powder. Harmful softening agents were added to children’s dummies and similar products, and tiny plastic particles have been found not only in cosmetics, but also in food, said the scientist, who assumed the role of an independent observer in his book. Nevertheless, his conclusion at the end of the book is clear: "We must continue to work intensively on the path towards a sustainable society. Sustainability must not remain a utopia. We owe this to ourselves and the environment."

Author: Jennifer Ruske

Further reading: Hans-Rudolf Bork: Umweltgeschichte Deutschlands. Springer publishers, September 2020