'Expertise for the Future': histories of environmental prediction and policy

This project was initiated in 2009 by Libby Robin (Australian National University), Sverker Sörlin (Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm) and Paul Warde (Centre for History and Economics). Its focus is on the development of environmental prediction, and the reception of predictions optimistic and pessimistic since the sixteenth century, ranging from personal observation to interpretation of longitudinal data trends (prices, demographic data, meteorological records) and the increased importance of statistical modelling. These issues will be explored in a series of workshops addressing histories of resource use and fears of scarcity; demography and epidemiology; climate science; conservation; deforestation; and the international exchange of ideas and technology.

The rise of environmental prediction is commonly associated with the ‘ecological revolution’ of the 1960s, that saw the development of Environmental Protection Agencies, and the interventions of non-governmental activists from the scientific and wider community, in the publishing of landmark reports whether on a formal institutionalised basis or not (such as the ‘Club of Rome’ or the Brundtland Commission), and political responses to the perceived potential or actuality of environmental degradation. This is often represented as the colonisation of policymaking by ‘expert’ opinion bringing the increased authority of the environmental sciences into the political domain. There are parallels to developments in other policy areas (finance, labour markets, military, foreign relations etc.), but in environment policy (under that very name) the influence of expert opinion has been less challenged by popular or established common views, and scientific expertise has conferred greater popular legitimacy.

Yet the wider social and political role of environmental prediction has a far longer history. Narratives of potential degradation (for example, in relation to wood supplies) have played a prominent role in government action in Europe since the fifteenth century. Interventions at first appealed to ‘commonsensical’ and general observations for legitimacy, and a significant development over time has been the displacement of ‘intuitive’ methods by the analysis of longitudinal data trends and statistical modelling that are remote from everyday experience. There has been little analysis of this succession and whether it was actually rooted in successful prediction itself, or in the inherent greater plausibility of the data. Sociologists including Ulrich Beck have drawn attention to the paradox that the legitimacy of political action increasingly rests upon scientific authority at a time when scientific practice has moved towards an increasingly reflexive and probabilistic sensibility in the interpretation of complex models.

This project will thus examine the long-term history of environmental prediction, seeking to bring together perspectives from the history of science, sociological and communication studies, and the social, cultural and political history of the ‘environment’. It will examine how authoritative narratives and specific claims developed in the context of scientific discourse, fieldwork, and methodologies; how environmental objects of study were constructed and valued; how particular trajectories were adopted by ‘experts’, disciplinary communities, policymakers, activists and a wider public in relation to their explanatory power, their social and political resonance, their degree of verifiability, and their insertion into observable historical trends. How was the prominence given to particular approaches related to their spatial scale of observation (from field sites to conservation zones to planetary systems) or forms of data (such as instrumental measurements, resource prices, local knowledge, and human memory)? How important were institutional structures, geopolitical competition, funding, aesthetic or sentimental attachment to the framing, development and analysis of environmental ‘problems’ and proffered solutions?

The first project meeting took place on 22-23 July 2009 at the University of East Anglia.

The second project meeting was held at the Centre for the Environment, Harvard University on 16-17 November 2009.

The project displayed and discussed a poster at the American Society for Environmental History conference in Portland, Oregon, on 12-14th March 2010.

The third project meeting was held at the Australian National University in Cambera, Australia, on 7th May 2010.

The fourth project meeting was held at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, on 1 December 2010.

Libby Robin, Sverker Sörlin and Paul Warde presented papers drawing on the project at the American Society for Environmental History Conference at Phoenix, Arizona, in April 2011, and the European Society for Environmental History conference held at Türku, Finland, in June 2011.


Paul Warde and Sverker Sörlin will also be giving a paper, ‘Expertise for the Future: the Emergence of ‘Relevant Knowledgein Environmental Predictions and Global Change, c.1920-1970’, in the session ‘Towards a history of the future? Historicizing anticipation, future knowledge, and expertise’, at the European Social Science and History Conference, to be held in Glasgow in April 2012:

What characterizes an expert in the field of ‘environmental futures’? This paper considers why certain scientific methods have been favored historically, and especially in the breakthrough moment for the modern concept of ‘environment’ in the post-war years. One important point of departure for the paper is the idea that the emergence of the environment implied new demarcations for what counted as expertise, often transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries, and closely related to the practice and expectation of prediction. Another is point of departure is the increasing extent to which expertise relied on quantification, numeric assessments and iterative methods which had previously been developed as parts of various sciences but reemerge with new institutional and political implications when attached to environmental futures. The predictions that concern us here have clear similarities with the (self-)proclaimed expertise used in projecting futures in financial, economic, demographic and other areas, and their legitimization. Relevant knowledge, especially of integrative techniques such as mathematical modeling is often construed as transcending these, thus establishing new specific realms of expertise which in recent decades have coalesced into phenomena such as ‘global change’ and ‘environmental issues’. This paper will focus a number of issues in surveying the emergence of global change thinking: climate, energy, population, and biodiversity.