A conference has just ended in Prague that proves that not all historians are detached from reality in their ivory towers. Several hundred historians from over 20 different countries converged on the city for a week to discuss their research on one of the burning issues of today, the environment and how it is treated. You only had to look at the subjects of some of the presentations - for example looking at the history of the way Central Europeans have dealt with floods, to see that such research is of more than passing interest to today's society. David Vaughan was at the conference.
Here in the Czech Republic, one of the most fascinating questions is how the communist era affected both the environment and the way we look at it now. The Czech historian, Petr Pavlinek, has come to the surprising conclusion that the myth that the communist regime did nothing for the environment is far from true:
"I would say that the environmental crisis in the former Czechoslovakia culminated in the early 1980s and that the regime actually realized in the early 1980s the danger that the environmental disaster could pose for its long-term survival. So actually in about the mid-1980s the regime decided to spend a lot of money to improve the environment, and if you look at the scientific data about air pollution, for example, the level of pollution started to decline in the second half of the 1980s. And I would also argue that some of the successes in the environmental clean-up that we saw in the early 1990s were based on the policies that were initiated by the communist government."
And how would you say that the traces of what was going on then in the 1980s are to be felt today in the way that politicians approach the environment or the public sees the environment in dealing with problems of the environment?
"The way we think about the environment today was formed largely before 1989, so some politicians would think about the environment as a luxury we can afford only after we successfully rebuild the economy. In a way this is the same way the communist politicians thought about the environment, as a luxury after we build a strong economy, after we catch up and overtake the capitalist countries."
Studies like the research being carried out by Petr Pavlinek are in many ways pioneering, but as the American environmental historian John McNeill points out, it is still hard to get an overall picture:
"It's possible to get an increasingly detailed sense of the environmental history of communist Europe, but it has never been synthesized, nobody has pulled it together and provided the level of analysis and interpretation that would make it accessible either to historians in general or to the public at large. There's a great opportunity actually for a scholar or even a journalist with the right skills and interests to pull it all together."
We are reminded of the old regime's environmental legacy almost daily, not least in the tense relations between the Czech Republic and Austria over nuclear power. By coincidence the conference's main organizer, Verena Winiwarter, teaches at the University of Vienna, so before I left, I asked her whether this tension is also felt among historians.
"I think that my Czech colleagues and myself are on the same side of the discussion in both our countries. We're not so much concerned about the trans-boundary pollution, we're concerned about pollution in a much more general sense. So there has never been any kind of tension in any way because of the political situation."
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