"Nature Incorporated": Business History and Environmental Change

Oct 01, 2008

GHI sponsored panel at the 47. Deutscher Historikertag | Conveners: Hartmut Berghoff (GHI) and Mathias Mutz (Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Environmental History, University of Göttingen). Participants: Manfred Grieger (Wolfsburg), Tyler Priest (Houston), Christine Meisner Rosen (Berkeley)

When environmental historians come together, discussion often turns to how little attention this subdiscipline receives at universities. This year's Historikertag in Dresden, the annual conference of the German Historical Association, likewise, only devoted one session to this field. This session, organized by Hartmut Berghoff and Mathias Mutz, forged a bridge between environmental and business history.

As HARTMUT BERGHOFF and MATHIAS MUTZ explained in their introduction, "The Missing Link? Business History and Environmental Change," environmental and business history have hardly taken notice of one another until now, even though they overlap in a variety of ways and their perspectives could meaningfully complement each other. Research in environmental history tends to portray industry as a villain while it focuses on efforts at state regulation. However, the internal perspective of businesses - how they view their options and make decisions - for the most part remains hidden. On the other hand, business historians have hardly looked at environmental concerns, even though the environment matters to businesses in several respects: More recently, it has come to affect a company's image (key words here are "eco-marketing" and "green-washing"), and companies risk having to pay significant compensatory damages when accidents occur; but the environment has always played a role, hiding behind the production factors of land and natural resources - making businesses directly dependent on it. Businesses, Berghoff and Mutz argued, are essential agents of ecological change, and, at the same time, the environment requires businesses to adapt.

The first presentation by CHRISTINE MEISNER ROSEN, "Business Leadership and Environmental Reform in the Late Nineteenth-Century US," stemmed from a larger project on industrial water and air pollution and the corresponding countermeasures in the US from the 1840s to the 1930s. According to Meisner Rosen, even against the backdrop of current experiences, industry is typically seen as opposed to any kind of emission controls. Within the time frame of the study, this was largely true. However, she did discover, surprisingly, that some "reform-minded businessmen" took leadership roles in movements that attempted to solve the problems of water and air pollution. This finding runs counter to the traditional understanding of roles in environmental history writing, where agents like women's organizations are labeled "good," "selfless," and "progressive," while industrialists are called "egotistical" and "short-sighted." Meisner Rosen concluded her presentation with a broad question: how can we incorporate this kind of activism on the part of businessmen into a history of environmental pollution without simply resorting to the statement that the relationship between businessmen and environmental protection is complicated?

In his presentation, "Managing Resources: Water and Wood in the German Pulp and Paper Industry, 1870-1930," MATHIAS MUTZ described the integration of the spatial and material aspects of the environment into business as a decisive point in business development. This is especially true, Mutz claimed, if one adheres to Alfred D. Chandler's view of business history as a process of growth and differentiation. Although Chandler never dealt with environmental issues, his approach can be used to describe the trend toward a vertical integration of environmental factors in businesses. As businesses transitioned to mass production, their use of natural resources called for new methods of dealing with distributors, with the state administration, and with competing users. Assuring the supply of raw materials and disposal of waste products, as well as managing the conflicts arising from these practices, became key requirements for business growth and success. Mutz exemplified this using the paper industry, which converted its raw material supply from rags to wood in the middle of the nineteenth century. Since then, its growing need for wood has significantly impacted forestry; at the same time, however, the paper industry has had to adapt to the new material in its selection of sites and in its business strategies. Water is the second most important resource for the paper industry, which places heavy demands on it as a source of energy and in the production process. The considerable contamination of rivers caused by the industry's effluents has been a source of conflict since the 1870s, resulting in state regulations. Therefore, on account of the industry's heavy dependence on the resources of wood and water, environmental issues became a decisive factor in its actions early on. Further, Mutz described four strategies businesses used in reaction to conflicts over effluent and state regulations: hesitation and deception, denial and opposition, partial adherence to the regulations, as well as internalization of the costs.

The third presentation of the session, "Who destroyed the Marsh? The Oil Industry's Role in Transforming the Environment of the Northern Gulf of Mexico since 1949" by TYLER PRIEST, thematized the oil industry's responsibility for the loss of an ecologically valuable landscape. The setting for the conflict was the wetlands on the coast of Louisiana, the largest such area in the US. These wetlands comprise the habitat of many kinds of animals and also provide protection against flooding. But off the coast, there is a large number of oil platforms that produce 25 percent of the oil America consumes. In the twentieth century, large sections of these marshes were lost to the ocean with alarming speed - a loss of land that became significant in American environmental debates. That most of the loss occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s, when oil drilling rapidly expanded, suggests that the two developments were related. Canals, in particular, which were built through the marshes to lay pipelines and to make them navigable, were soon considered the cause. The extraction of gas and oil may also have contributed to it. In the 1990s, the oil industry's responsibility for the shrinking wetlands came to be accepted in the general public, although the facts continue to be debated because both society and the oil industry have a great deal at stake. With respect to the core issue of the conflict, Priest sees a parallel to current debates about climate change: the question of the extent to which change can be attributed primarily to anthropogenic or natural causes is central in both cases. Recent research has actually found evidence that the sinking land and, along with it, the loss of the marshes, should not primarily be traced back to the activities of the oil industry. Priest concluded that a new view of nature arises together with this new assessment: nature is no longer seen as something that humans destroy with their own power and can then "repair"; rather, the whole idea that nature can be controlled is on the decline.

With his paper, "The Disposal of PVC and Plastic at Volkswagen AG between Industrial Incineration and Landfilling, 1955-1980," MANFRED GRIEGER presented a case study of a single company. Grieger cast doubt on the master narrative in environmental history that always portrays companies as villains, scientists as heroes, and the state as the problem solver, which non-governmental organizations, in turn, keep a critical eye on. The history of waste disposal at the VW factory in Wolfsburg that Grieger presented diverges from this model. In this case, progress in environmental technology was not forced upon a company from outside because of a heightened ecological awareness among the public; rather, it resulted from the logic of the company and from technical engineering considerations. Grieger began by describing the introduction of plastic to automotive engineering in the 1950s. The use of plastic increased during the oil crisis because it weighs less and can be utilized more efficiently. As a result, however, the portion of synthetics in the factory's waste products grew as well, so that the trash no longer decayed quickly in landfills, nor could it be burned when necessary in open pits. In 1958, Volkswagen reacted by installing its first waste incineration plant that not only disposed of waste but also provided the factory with energy, thus fitting the engineers' ideal of efficiency. At the end of the 1960s, new laws for the prevention of air pollution and state regulations that basically forced companies to use landfills made Volkswagen return to this outdated method of waste disposal again after all. Only after a series of conflicts, however, did it succeed in creating appropriate sites for disposing of its factory's waste. Since the late 1990s, however, the situation has come full circle since state regulations now require a combination of recycling and incinerating.

The goal of the session, as expressed in the introduction and the discussions, was not to "green-wash" industry or individual companies. Rather, it was to outline a promising and presently neglected field of research. The session made it clear that, in light of companies' dependence on natural resources and the importance of ecological questions to politics and the public, many business histories require an ecological dimension. Conversely, environmental history can no longer conceive of businesses as "black boxes" rigidly tied to a particular pattern of behavior without taking into account their internal logic and their diverse options and motives. The theme of the session gave rise to a further question: Are businesses really exceptional in relation to environmental questions, or do other social agents behave in similar ways? In any case, there is good reason to examine businesses and their interaction with the natural environment more closely.

Ole Sparenberg / Hartmut Berghoff