Course Outline: History of the Future

My most enjoyable classroom experiences seem to come in Level 3 courses. Perhaps it has something to do with being able to move out of the survey and engage with some more nuanced and complicated material, all while sharing it with a diverse student group (McMaster’s History Department restricts entry into our Level 4 seminars to Honours History students). Also, the topics are fun. This semester, I have returned to my “History of the Future” class. I shared the last iteration of the syllabus here. This version is markedly different, and I may try to share some of the lectures here in due course.


The course examines how past societies imagined the future, working on the premise that historians can fruitfully be interested in what pasts didn’t happen. In principle, I try to stress the relationship between technology and historical imaginations of the future and the influential feedback loop between them. The class slowly works its way through utopian and dystopian visions of machines, cities, fiction, and the vocabulary of futurism, before turning its attention to environmental futures—and how modelling, predicting, and fearing environmental crisis has a rich and important history worth exploring.

On Scientific Literacy

Directly and indirectly, I spend a lot of time thinking about scientific literacy. My work on Barry Commoner, for example, treated this topic extensively, as Commoner sought to develop a method of communicating a vernacular science to the public so they could participate in pressing environmental debates. And, more recently, I’m revisiting similar themes when it comes to the relationship between science and policy and expertise and public interests while broaching the history of mercury pollution.

Not so long ago, while looking for something else, I stumbled across this really interesting talk by Alice Bell, which does an excellent job of summing up the nature of scientific literacy and the difference or tensions between an informed public and scientists as effective communicators. It’s well worth a listen, and you can link to it here.

My interest in the history of knowledge communication has a great deal to do with the contemporary problem of scientific literacy, especially as these relate to the environment. I’m reminded of the conclusion to Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, where they write:

Our present-day problems of defining our knowledge, our society, and the relationships between them centre on … dichotomies between the public and the private, [and] between authority and expertise. … We regard our scientific knowledge as open and accessible in principle, but the public does not understand it.  Scientific journals are in our public libraries, but they are written in a language alien to the citizenry.  We say that our laboratories constitute some of our most open professional spaces, yet the public does not enter them.  Our society is said to be democratic, but the public cannot call to account what they cannot comprehend.  A form of knowledge that is the most open in principle has become the most closed in practice.

Outline of a Plan for an Approach to a Book Proposal

New year. Among my resolutions is to write more. The blog counts, but I can feel the backlog of writing projects starting to pile up on my psyche. This is compounded by the discovery of ever new projects that pique my curiosity. The following is one of them. This is more half-baked, but it is inspired by an interest in the economists who engaged with the question of sustainable development after the Stockholm conference (I’ve written briefly about that here and here). But I think there’s a fascinating and overlooked human-interest story in the “gurus” whose activities coalesced in UNEP, the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, and the International Foundation for Another Development. These “usual suspects” played a critical and under appreciated role in the development of contemporary environment thought and policy.

Before Sustainable Development

Forged as a compromise between Northern environmental interests and Southern development needs, sustainable development persists as a universal buzzword charged with bringing international parties with competing priorities to the same table. But as a praxis for reducing global environmental deterioration while encouraging economic growth, sustainable development has failed.  As environmental pollution and resource scarcity issues intensify and global poverty expands, modeling global survival around sustainability seems a hard sell. There remains, however, a kernel of value in sustainable development’s inception that warrants careful historical attention.

This project explores the intellectual and economic thought—and, more directly, the network behind it—that fostered the global environmental governance trend towards sustainable development. On the eve of the seminal 1972 United Nations Conference on Humans and the Environment, which met in Stockholm, Conference director Maurice Strong gathered together a diverse and international group of development economists in an informal meeting outside of Geneva. Their task was to rationalize the traditional tensions between environmental protection and economic growth, especially as it pertained to the developing world. Strong called this network of experts his gurus; in addition to Strong, and his co-organizers Barbara Ward, Mahbub ul Haq, and Gamani Corea, the list of attendees included Ignacy Sachs, Samir Amin, Enrique Iglesias, Felipe Herrera, William Kapp, Miguel Ozorio de Almeida, Pitambar Pant, Jan Tinbergen, and Shigeto Tsuru. The group’s composition covered the economic and political spectrum, ranging from liberal to communist sensibilities. But all actors—coming from all over the planet—shared a genuine and apolitical commitment to the search for non-partisan solutions to the global environmental crisis while also looking forward to an environmentally and economically robust future. The subsequent Founex Report called for the integration of environment and development strategies and stressed that while concern over the state of the environment was galvanized by production and consumption patterns in the industrialized world, the global environmental crisis was just as much a result of underdevelopment and poverty. This last-minute report was an important factor in persuading many developing countries to attend the Stockholm Conference, but it also served to highlight the conference’s global emphasis.

A second Founex meeting was held in 1974 under the auspices of the newly created United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and concentrated on problems relating to shelter, nutrition, education, health, and integrated rural development. To the members of the meeting, these were environmental issues and international attention to them as environmental concerns was critical. At the second meeting, participants also deliberated on coining a new term for the reconciliation between environmental and economic imperatives. Their term, “eco-development,” articulated the need to harmonize economic and ecological factors while also assuring local sovereignty, all of which disappeared under the evolution of sustainable development (which came later) from concept to globalizing practice.

This network’s influence stretched well beyond UNEP and these two Founex meetings. The same usual suspects were instrumental in guiding the Third World Forum’s development initiatives at the same time, and most were centrally involved in later projects with the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and the International Foundation for Another Development. Indeed, tracing the history and interactions within this network is an exercise in unraveling the economic and intellectual politics of 1970s development praxis, dominant currents of which persist.

I mean to investigate the historical impulse, interaction, and idealism behind the network’s concept of eco-development, while situating its actors and ideas in proper global historical context. As defined by those who coined it, eco-development was never practiced but its premise is not lost to history. Neither, too, is the altruistic sentiment that motivated the specialists who worked to realize a global green future.

Sustainable development has become a praxis whose definition has shifted over time and place. Its history indicates that its goals are increasingly obscured by short-term political compromising, international economic pressures, and diffusion. While the vagaries of the idea are appealing insofar as they can bring wildly disparate parties together and breed a superficial consensus, the fact that sustainability means different things to different people has resulted in little substantive change in terms of lasting efforts and successes in curbing the global environmental crisis. To make matters worse, just as sustainability and sustainable development have crashed into the popular imagination, they have continued to evolve without a clear notion of what the goal of global environmental politics should be.

“Sustainable development” was introduced in the 1987 Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future; its definition—”sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”—stands as the pivotal interpretation of how 21st-century economists, politicians, and citizens have come to think about the relationship between sustainability and development. Our Common Future is a remarkable document and one that requires special consideration, especially for its emphasis on social equity and its relationship to ecological prudence. Historians tend to overlook the text’s significance and, indeed, the discussion therein. In short, the report has been synthesized and reduced to the definition above, which overlooks the text’s critical reading of globalizing economic growth, which has nevertheless come to typify “sustainable development.”

My research aims to complicate our understanding of sustainable development’s intentions by looking for its origins in the global environmental diplomacy of the early 1970s. In so doing, I explore four broader themes that will help to inform my analysis and contribute to communicating its resonance to a number of academic disciplines.

  • Examine and communicate the complex and altruistic intentions behind the ideas that ultimately manifested themselves as sustainable development. I am especially interested in historicizing the term “eco-development,” which serves as an important precedent to the global language of sustainability.
  • Trace the fascinating network of development actors who shaped the rhetoric and mentality of the global movement toward sustainable development. I am as intrigued with the human story within this network as I am with their successes and failures in dictating global praxis.
  • Explore the historical relationships between radical and liberal environmental paradigms as they manifested themselves in global discourse.
  • The years between 1968 and 1978 constitute the most receptive period to global environmental concern and awareness; I seek to explain this phenomenon by situating its actors within a broader historical analysis.
  • Consider the heretofore under-examined relationship between environmental history and development studies.

Much of my recent work on the science of understanding global environmental pollutants has engaged environmental policy and UN environmental initiatives. This project investigates parallel elements of that work, drawing on the interests of social scientists and their contributions to arresting environmental decline. Histories of the environmental crisis have typically maintained regional or national points of focus, but it seems that an international or global lens allows for a richer avenue of inquiry into efforts to curb environmental problems. That global perspective invites a multiplicity of new and different voices into the environmental discourse.

Inspired by loose ends in my earlier project on the history of sustainability, this project is very much in its incipient stages. I do, however, think there is a book project here—and, more importantly, research materials and oral histories with key actors that can be conducted while I also pursue my interests in the toxic century. I anticipate that I will be able to complete an outline for the project and have a clean draft of a manuscript by the end of the seven-year period (this in addition to shorter publications).