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Completely ruined

Completely ruined

Studium Generale lecture and symposium on nature conservation

MAASTRICHT. Holocene, Pleistocene, Palaeocene. All well known, but have you ever heard of Anthropocene? According to Christian Schwägerl, we are in the middle of that right now. The German biologist and journalist claims that there is actually no single place on earth that has not been ‘ruined’ by man. Schwägerl will give a Studium Generale lecture on this subject in January, on the same day as the FASoS congress on the history of nature conservation.

The term Anthropocene was coined in the nineteen-eighties by an American biologist, but around the turn of the century it became well-known because of, among others, Dutch Nobel Prize winner and chemist Paul Crutzen. For about five years now it has been a “trendy term”, with which most scientists can live, says Maastricht historian Raf de Bont, originally from Belgium.

“If geologists carry out soil research in the distant future, they will discover lots of traces of human activity in our ‘geological layer’, such as emission residues and plastic particles.” For the time being, a point of discussion is the actual start of the anthropocene era: in the eighteenth century after the industrial revolution or in the twentieth century with climate change?

De Bont is carrying out research – with a Vidi subsidy – into the history of international nature conservation. That seems like a matter-of-course phenomenon but this is not the case, as will be discussed at the Maastricht conference ‘Experts and the Global Environment’ (19 January). In its present form, international ‘nature conservation’ has only existed since the First World War: the idea that nature does not just belong to one country, like the pandas in China, but to everyone. Some themes expressly required an international approach, such as whale hunting or the Alps. The idea that nature conservation would be best left to scientists also took root in the nineteen-twenties.

“At that time, a national park was set up in Congo, a kind of natural laboratory that was only accessible to researchers. The local population had to move. Roads were built and measuring stations set up on higher ground because of the comfortable temperatures. Most of the researchers were biologists, Western biologists. So international meant ‘Western’. After the independence of the colonies, the major NGOs gradually started to involve more local experts in their projects.”

At the FASoS conference, the term ‘sustainable development’ will also be scrutinised. The term emerged in the nineteen-seventies, but soon led to controversies and interpretation differences. “For the West, it was all about conservation, saving animal and plant species and preserving natural resources. Nature had to be fenced in. India and Brazil, however, turned out to have different ideas about that: poverty and the pollution resulting from this were the detrimental factors for nature. The solution was to be found more in economic development and combatting inequality. The experts who were needed first and foremost, were social scientists rather than biologists.”

An inexhaustible source for researchers is the documentation surrounding worldwide top conferences. Differences of opinion invariably surface in the correspondence and negotiations, says De Bont. Not only between countries but also between organisations. “In 1980, a World Conservation Strategy was drawn up, during the preparation of which emotions ran high. One side went on about biodiversity, maintaining species, the other side stressed socioeconomic development. Matters get quite heated during the preparations of such strategic texts. Every word is weighed. Scribbling appears in the margins, such as ‘nonsense’, or participants ask if there is any point at all in continuing the negotiations.”

A compromise text came about, but the differences of opinion lived on under the surface.

Lecture The Anthropocene Challenge, Tuesday, 19 January at 20:00hrs. Minderbroedersberg auditorium

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