Introducing Environmental Historians to the History of Knowledge. The Circulation of Environmental Knowledge in Sweden 1967

In this post David Larsson Heidenblad makes a case for the emerging field of ‘history of knowledge’, discussing the background and broad theme of his forthcoming article in Environment and History,  ‘Mapping a New History of the Ecological Turn: The Circulation of Environmental Knowledge in Sweden 1967’. The paper is currently open access here in uncopyedited form and will be in our first batch of ‘online first’ papers in January 2018.

The emergence of modern environmentalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s ranks among the most seminal topics of environmental historians. However, outside the field of environmental history these eventful years are not typically known as ‘the ecological turn’, ‘the ecological moment’ or ‘the age of ecology’. If there was indeed a momentous change in society at large during this period, few historians without the environmental prefix seem to have noticed.[1] In a forthcoming article in Environment and History I suggest that one way to redress the situation is for environmental historians to engage with the burgeoning field of the history of knowledge and one of its key analytical concepts: circulation.

The history of knowledge has emerged as a scholarly field in the twenty-first century. It remains a young and far from coherent field; there is no uncontested definition of what it encompasses, there is no established canon of texts. German-speaking scholars have led the way by proclaiming that Wissensgeschichte (the history of knowledge) is something different than Wissenschaftsgeschichte (the history of science) and in the 2010s the field has started to attract considerable attention in other countries and contexts too.[2] One distinguishing mark of this new scholarly endeavour is that practitioners direct their analytical interest towards when, how, why, and with what consequences something circulates as knowledge. Specific attention is given to historical periods where new forms of knowledge emerge in the public consciousness. Hence, for historians of knowledge, the emergence of post-war environmentalism is an intriguing topic to delve into.

Over the last few years, I have collaborated closely with a group of Nordic historians seeking to explore and develop the history of knowledge further. In 2016 we launched a Nordic network and in early 2018 our first joint volume will be published: Circulation of Knowledge: Explorations into the History of Knowledge (Nordic Academic Press). The analytical concept of circulation has been at the centre of our work. Even though we do not have a common definition or understanding of the concept, we have a shared conviction that the concept has the potential to transform historical research. My own take on circulation is that the concept is particularly well suited to employ in studies of societal discoveries of knowledge. The guiding principle of my empirical research has been to focus on how knowledge become part of the taken for granted understanding of wide groups of people. Hence, in my research I do not analyse intellectual underpinnings, scientific discoveries, and origins of knowledge – but rather the historical processes in which public discoveries occur.

In the forthcoming article in Environment and History, I seek to demonstrate the practical implications of this approach by analysing a formative moment in Swedish environmental history: the autumn of 1967. During this historical moment, knowledge of an ongoing environmental crisis began to circulate in Swedish society with an unprecedented intensity. Residing at the very core of this historical process was the chemist Hans Palmstierna who in October 1967 released a short paperback book entitled Plundring, Svält, Förgiftning [Looting, Starvation, Poisoning]. The book was to become a major environmental bestseller in Scandinavia and propelled Palmstierna to the status of pioneering environmentalist. When he passed away in 1975 he was widely regarded as the person who had awoken the environmental consciousness in Sweden.

Hans Palmstierna and Plundring, Svält, Förgiftning

The content of Palmstierna’s book was by no means original or novel. Warnings of an impending environmental crisis had been put forth much earlier and in greater detail. Moreover, in the autumn of 1967, Palmstierna was not the only Swedish scientist who raised the alarm. In another debate book, Människans villkor [The Predicament of Man], a number of well-known scientists voiced their concerns over the dangerous situation at hand. The editor, Karl-Erik Fichtelius, wrote that man had entered a new era, a historically unique situation of grave peril. Confronting this reality, perceptive scientists could no longer remain silent. They, and their indispensable knowledge, had to enter the public fray.

The cover of Människans villkor

The deeply concerned Swedish scientists were part of a broader trend in the history of science, a drift towards increased societal visibility and political activism. In the Swedish context, they acted as national representatives for a new kind of scientific expertise – the globally oriented meta-specialist who saw a dire future approaching fast. Paul Warde and Sverker Sörlin have recently argued that the concept of ‘the environment’ was produced in tandem with such expertise, and that the concept was thus from the outset infused with an orientation towards the future. Thereby, to study how this knowledge circulated, one must also be attentive to the entangled circulation of future-oriented scientific expertise.[3]

My study demonstrates that over the course of the autumn of 1967 Hans Palmstierna came to embody this kind of future-oriented knowledge in the public sphere of Sweden. In parallel the public understanding of environmental degradation was transformed. Up until then, proverbial environmental hazards, such as biocides, mercury poisoning and sulphur emissions, had predominantly been regarded as isolated problems. During the autumn of 1967 they increasingly became seen as part of a complex and interrelated web of environmental degradation which constituted a serious threat to the survival of man. In Sweden at the time this novel public understanding was intrinsically linked to Palmstierna’s public expertise. While other scientists at the same time encountered controversy and harsh critique, Palmstierna was widely lauded as an exceptional example of reason and pragmatism.

To explain this development one must be attentive to not only what Palmstierna did, said, and wrote, but also to who he was at the time. In addition to being employed as a researcher he was affiliated with the reigning Social Democratic Party. The party had been the dominant force in Swedish politics and public life ever since the 1930s, in the elections of 1968 they received 50.1 % of the votes. Moreover, Palmstierna had since 1965 been a regular contributor to the most prestigious Swedish newspaper, the liberally oriented Dagens Nyheter. His combination of scientific, political, and cultural capital was, by any account, exceptional.

The historical process outlined in this short blog post, further expanded in the article, shows the benefits of exploring the ecological turn from the vantage point of the history of knowledge. By closely mapping how knowledge and expertise circulate in public, environmental historians can provide a new basis for writing an enlarged history of the process. If we succeed in this endeavour we will not only strengthen our understanding of the emergence of environmentalism, but also have strong arguments for incorporating environmentalism into the general history of the post-war period.




[1] Adam Rome, ‘”Give Earth a Chance”: The Environmental Movement and the Sixties’, The Journal of American History 90 (2003): 525–527; Frank Uekötter, ‘Consigning Environmentalism to History? Remarks on the Place of the Environmental Movement in Modern History’, RCC Perspectives 7 (2011).

[2] For a brief overview and further references. Johan Östling and David Larsson Heidenblad, ‘From Cultural History to the History of Knowledge’, History of Knowledge, 8 June 2017,

[3] Paul Warde and Sverker Sörlin, ‘Expertise for the Future: The Emergence of Environmental Predicition, c. 1920–1970’, in Jenny Andersson and Eglė Rindzevičiūtė (eds) The Struggle for the Long-Term in Transnational Science and Politics, pp.49–50 (New York: Routledge, 2015).

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