Monika Bergmeier. Umweltgeschichte der Boomjahre 1949-1973: Das Beispiel Bayern. Münster: Waxmann Verlag, 2002. 320 S. EUR 29.90 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8309-1175-3.
Reviewed by Sandra Chaney (Department of History, Erskine College)
Published on H-German (May, 2004)
Over the last fifteen years, environmental history surveys of Germany have helped to correct the assumption that the modern environmental movement emerged suddenly in the early 1970s. Monika Bergmeier's Umweltgeschichte der Boomjahre 1949-1973: das Beispiel Bayern, reinforces the view that already in the 1950s West Germans were conscious of a range of environmental problems that stemmed in large part from the country's rapid shift from an industrial to a mass consumer society. Bergmeier, however, argues that environmental conditions worsened during the so-called miracle years not only because of postwar changes in production and consumption, but largely because of repeated failures by the state to combat pollution and other problems in any substantive way. When the Bavarian government finally devoted more attention to the environment around 1969/1970, it did so primarily because officials could no longer postpone effective environmental clean-up and reform. But the numerous laws the government passed and the measures it implemented in the early 1970s, Bergmeier finds, revealed continuity with views held since the 1950s, not a bold departure in environmental politics.
The question at the heart of Bergmeier's study is not how and why a supposedly new ecological awareness emerged around 1970, but rather, what conditions enabled officials to consciously prevent existing environmental concern from being transformed into effective policies for so long. To address this central question, Bergmeier focuses on decision-making at the state government level, carefully combing through published and unpublished materials of the Bavarian chancellery, the ministries of the interior, economics, and agriculture, as well as parliamentary debates and committee deliberations. The first of the book's two core sections analyzes official statements and Landtag debates about legislation for land use and regional planning, water management, emissions control, and nature and environmental protection. Though informative, this part of the study drags somewhat as the author structures the discussion around official documents (e.g., the economics ministry's 1962 position paper on regional planning and its fourteen principles [pp. 32-36], the CSU interior minister's budget speeches between 1962 and 1966 [pp. 114-23]). The second section presents illuminating case studies that illustrate how decisions were reached in five areas of conflict: the expansion of hydropower, the settlement of industries and utility companies, the implementation of water purity measures, and the application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Bergmeier builds a compelling case for seeing continuities in environmental thought and policy between the 1950s and mid-1970s. About continuities with the period before 1950 the author has little to say. Continuity is evident in the state's approach to land use and regional planning, an activity that potentially provided a way to conserve natural resources, control pollution, and limit sprawl. But officials in the ministry of economics who oversaw planning used it to boost the economy, encouraging new industry, more highways, and the production of an abundant supply of cheap energy. Although planners, officials, and parliamentarians acknowledged that development contributed to environmental problems, they prioritized economic growth throughout the period. Consistently they viewed air, noise and water pollution as problems confined to cities and "fixable" with the latest technology. They also hoped to fight this urban blight by settling new enterprises in less economically developed areas, apparently unwilling to concede that this would extend pollution and sprawl to rural regions. In their effort to boost tourism by making Bavaria a popular travel destination, planners failed to address the tension inherent in promoting recreation in the state's scenic alpine regions on the one hand, and preserving natural beauty in those same areas on the other. Though concepts such as "environmental protection" were integrated into political discourse around 1970, this shift in rhetoric was not accompanied by a change in priorities, not even after the new environment ministry (established in 1970 as the country's first) assumed more responsibility for land use planning. Bergmeier finds that even political leaders sympathetic to conservation such as Wilhelm Hoegner (SPD) and Alfons Goppel (CSU) were willing to compromise nature and the environment if the economy stood to gain. The few exceptions to this general rule occurred when development threatened to despoil scenic areas "south of Munich" or compromise the water supply so vital to public health and industry.
Among the most important contributions of Bergmeier's study is its examination of how the law frequently hindered efforts to address environmental problems. Attempts to hold companies responsible for pollution repeatedly failed because officials and lawmakers representing all of the major parties refused to modify legal traditions inherited from the nineteenth century which placed the burden of proof of harm on the injured party--after damage had been done. In the final version of the water management law of 1962, for example, deputies defeated proposals to charge companies for using rivers and streams and to hold them liable for damages caused by their installations. By blocking the implementation of a fee for use, deputies prevented water clean-up from being included in industries' production costs and passed the expense on to taxpayers. In concluding that pollution fell into the category of "acceptable risk" where liability could not be presumed, parliamentarians failed to grapple with the vexing question of how to assign responsibility for unintended damages that could not be clearly attributed to one particular source, as is the case with pollution. Instead of confronting pollution head on, the state turned the problem over to industries, requiring only that they build installations according to the latest technology, as the vague phrasing went.
Imprecise terminology also weakened legislation, as was the case with the conservation law of 1973 which left jurists and officials with considerable latitude in determining what constituted harm to nature. Rather than incorporate an expanded understanding of conservation into the law, one that included the management of ecological systems as earlier drafts had proposed, the CSU-led government won out with a narrow definition of conservation that settled for preserving plants, animals, and landscapes, and establishing nature parks for recreation.
Though high politics is the focus of Bergmeier's study, the case studies shed light on public responses to economic development and environmental problems. Citizens opposed small and large projects when they feared risks to health, or when they suspected officials of withholding information or ignoring the public interest. When people formally complained about polluting industries or the potential risks of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, authorities were slow to respond, largely because they lacked scientific data for making detailed recommendations. In general, Bergmeier concludes, people were most likely to oppose development if it threatened private property. Private conservation organizations receive limited attention, but appear to have favored compromises with industry more often conflict. Conservation officials, who had voice in public hearings over development, were often ignored by authorities when their recommendations went beyond aesthetic considerations. Because authorities embraced a narrow definition of conservation, they referred warnings about pollution to the "appropriate" offices (which tended to favor development).
Bergmeier's work offers a unique perspective on the question of whether or not increased environmental concern around 1970 was prompted from above or spontaneously generated from below. The tendency now is to credit officials in the federal interior ministry under Hans-Dietrich Genscher (FDP) with encouraging more citizen activism initially. In the case of Bavaria, Bergmeier maintains, the state did not initiate novel reforms or actively promote citizen involvement in decision-making. Furthermore, Bavaria consistently lagged behind the federal government in environmental reform throughout the boom years. The state also trailed behind North Rhine-Westphalia and other Länder in combating air pollution, in part because officials underestimated Bavaria's emissions problem. Additional brief comparisons with other states would have been helpful, particularly because conservation and management of the water supply are matters over which the states have primary jurisdiction. Was Bavaria an exception in its delayed response to environmental problems or fairly typical for the Federal Republic? Did Bavaria lag behind other states in encouraging citizen involvement?
Bergmeier concludes that the environmental history of the boom years is a story about "a thoroughly conscious obstruction of ecologically oriented politics" (pp. 277). Some readers may question whether or not government officials and politicians were as intentional in their efforts to stall environmental measures as Bergmeier insists. Perhaps they failed most in measuring up to the author's "guiding principle" [Leitbild], sustainable development, a concept, she acknowledges, that gained currency only in the 1990s. While it is unavoidable that environmental historians will use contemporary knowledge to help them analyze the consequences of choices that people in the past have made, the predictable conclusion with relying exclusively on present-day expectations is that most of those people in the past will fall short most of the time. As Bergmeier's study makes clear, the state failed to implement significant reforms less because of willful negligence than because it prioritized economic growth and saw fit to preserve a legal tradition that safeguarded individual liberties but offered less protection for the community. Lacking definitive scientific research, officials and politicians could offer only vague recommendations in public hearings and parliamentary debates and could not reach a consensus on the gravity of environmental problems or on the best way to combat them. Competency struggles among ministries prevented the state from considering environmental problems as a whole and contributed to the tendency to underestimate their seriousness. In Bergmeier's defense, she does present readers with a vision of what one might hope for with sustainable development--if not during the boom years, then now and in the future.
Bergmeier's interesting and very useful study of Bavaria makes an important contribution to our understanding of the political and legal climate that shaped West Germany's response to environmental problems. The book poses provocative questions for future research and will be of particular interest to environmental, legal, economic, and social historians.
. Christian Pfister, ed. Das 1950er Syndrom. Der Weg in die Konsumgesellschaft (Bern, 1995). See also Pfister, "Zum Stand der Diskussion über das 1950er Syndrom," in Umweltgeschichte. Themen und Perspektiven ed. Wolfgang Siemann (Munich, 2003).
. Hans-Peter Vierhaus, Umweltbewußtsein von oben. Zum Verfassungsgebot demokratischer Willensbildung (Berlin, 1994).
. Bergmeier explains that sustainable development expects that choices about resource use and development in a particular region will be continually debated by all members of society, not just a few. It challenges the prevailing assumption that a healthy environment comes at the expense of economic growth and insists that ecological concerns be placed on equal footing with economic and social issues in deciding the future development of society. Because ecological considerations have been subordinated to economic and social ones, environmental policy continues to react to problems rather than prevent them.
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Sandra Chaney. Review of Bergmeier, Monika, Umweltgeschichte der Boomjahre 1949-1973: Das Beispiel Bayern.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.