By expanding the geographical scope of the history of violence and war, this volume challenges both Western and state-centric narratives of the decline of violence and its relationship to modernity. It highlights instead similarities across early modernity in terms of representations, legitimations, applications of, and motivations for violence. It seeks to integrate methodologies of the study of violence into the history of war, thereby extending the historical significance of both fields of research. Thirteen case studies outline the myriad ways in which large-scale violence was understood and used by states and non-state actors throughout the early modern period across Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Atlantic, and Europe, demonstrating that it was far more complex than would be suggested by simple narratives of conquest and resistance. Moreover, key features of imperial violence apply equally to large-scale violence within societies. As the authors argue, violence was a continuum, ranging from small-scale, local actions to full-blown war. The latter was privileged legally and increasingly associated with states during early modernity, but its legitimacy was frequently contested and many of its violent forms, such as raiding and destruction of buildings and crops, could be found in activities not officially classed as war.
On 1 September 1971, the international environmental trade fair ‘Luften, larmet och vi’ [The air, the alarm, and us] opened in Jönköping in the province of Småland. It drew crowds from far and near. The local press reported the presence of about eighty Japanese visitors and told readers that German and English ‘were buzzing busily’ among the participants.1 Despite this foreign element, the inaugural speaker, Axel Iveroth, managing director of the Federation of Swedish Industries, gave his speech in Swedish. He explicitly addressed a national audience. ‘It is no exaggeration’, he said, ‘to assert that our people are now animated by a colossal environmental ambition.’ Perhaps it was even ‘the biggest popular movement ever in the field of environmental protection’.2
Iveroth emphasized that commitment to the environment in Sweden encompassed both the external and the internal environment. The former involved the air, water, forests, and land; the latter concerned the working environment. This distinction was typical of the time, and it reflected an ongoing political struggle over the direction of the environmental debate. The Social Democrats argued that occupational-safety issues should be considered as important as nature-protection issues. This stance constituted an attempt to advance the battle lines within the environmental debate and also to gain support for the party’s environmental policy from the trade-union movement. Unlike mercury-riddled pike, toxins on the factory floor were an issue behind which the labour movement could mobilize.3
In his speech, Iveroth commented on this development and said that the external environment had long been at the forefront of the environmental debate. In recent months, however, occupational-safety matters had attracted increasing interest. In his view, the debate on that topic was characterized by intensity and emotions rather than by expertise. He singled out ‘the latest outburst from one of our so-called environmental celebrities’. That celebrity was Hans Palmstierna. On behalf of the Swedish Factory Workers’ Union, he had led an investigation into health risks in the Swedish chemical industry. His report had been presented at the Union’s congress in Stockholm on 20 August 1971.
Speaking from the rostrum, Palmstierna had attacked both industry in general and the scientific community, accusing them all of not taking work-environment issues seriously. He also sharply criticized the fact that university-employed researchers conducted consultancy work for industry. An infected debate flared up in the press and Palmstierna was attacked from many directions, not least by researchers. In his own speech, Iveroth said that Palmstierna was no longer an alarm clock: he had lost the ringing tone he once had. ‘He has nothing more to say, when, in order to get attention, he feels it necessary to use such crude expressions as those in his speech at the Factory Workers’ Congress’.4
Iveroth’s stand also caused much media commotion. On Dagens Nyheter’s front page, it was described as ‘one of the most magnificent personal attacks in the Swedish debate in a very long time’.5 Palmstierna chose not to reply directly. He told Svenska Dagbladet that he was sad and disappointed and felt that he had been misunderstood.6 Writing privately, though, his tone was different. He described Iveroth’s attack as ‘politically daft’. He would let it stand on its own ‘in all its shining, revealing glory’. Actually, Palmstierna maintained, Iveroth had done the labour movement a favour, because his speech had shown that the era of the class struggle was not over.7
The media storm around Palmstierna and Iveroth illustrates how fundamentally the dynamics of the Swedish environmental debate had changed within the space of a few years. In the late summer of 1971, environmental issues were politicized – something they had not been during the breakthrough in the autumn of 1967. At that time, Palmstierna had referred to the need for information and enlightenment rather than speaking of a class struggle. But what were the consequences of this altered climate of debate? How was the circulation of knowledge and expertise affected? Was it still possible in the early 1970s for a scientist who sounded the alarm to become a unifying figure in the environmental debate? Or were the lines of conflict already drawn up and the positions locked?
In the late summer of 1971, this might have seemed to be the case. The conflict between Palmstierna and Iveroth ran very deep indeed. But the environmental debate at that time encompassed more actors, and also more topics, than the internal and external environments. The growing interest in the major global issues of the future was particularly significant. Where was humanity heading? Were humans becoming too many? How long would the natural resources last?
These types of question had been very present in the environmental debate in the autumn of 1967, not least thanks to Hans Palmstierna. In the autumn of 1971, though, other actors were tackling the survival issues. The person who came to have the greatest impact was Gösta Ehrensvärd, professor of biochemistry at Lund University and – like Palmstierna (whom he outranked, being a count whereas Palmstierna was a baron) – a member of the Swedish nobility. In the 1960s, he had gained a reputation as a popular-science writer; but his really big public breakthrough came in 1971 with the paperback Före – Efter: En diagnos [Before – after: a diagnosis]. Released in October, it quickly became a great commercial success, topping the bookstores’ sales lists in the 1971 Christmas-shopping season.8
In his book, Ehrensvärd argued that the hyperindustrialized society of the 1970s would become a historical parenthesis. His calculations showed that the depletion of the Earth’s limited resources, combined with accelerating population growth, would lead to a global crisis in about 2050. He predicted that there would then be centuries of famine and anarchy before a much smaller human race would return to living in an agrarian society at the level of eighteenth-century Sweden, with the addition of a few technological and chemical industries. By Western standards of the 1970s, the future standard of living would be low; but it would at least be stable in the long term. Industrial civilization’s days were numbered – but not those of humanity.9
Ehrensvärd’s prediction led to an intense debate about the future of humankind. The spark was ignited by nuclear physicist Tor Ragnar Gerholm’s counterblast, Futurum exaktum, published in February 1972. However, the debate between and around Ehrensvärd and Gerholm was not coloured by any personal or party-political conflict. It focused on knowledge and its limits. What could scientists really say about the future? What validity did calculations, forecasts, and scenarios possess? These questions were particularly highly charged just before the imminent United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which was to be held in Stockholm in June 1972.
The debates about the environment and the future were intimately intertwined. Futures research was on the rise both in Sweden and internationally. Many politicians, business leaders, scientists, and intellectuals had high hopes of the field. Others worried about the direction it would take. In May 1971, Prime Minister Olof Palme appointed a commission of enquiry to examine the possibilities of conducting futures studies in Sweden. The commission was led by Alva Myrdal, and her group included Martin Fehrm and Birgitta Odén. The group’s report, Att välja framtid [English title: To Choose a Future], was submitted in the late summer of 1972 and led to the establishment of the Secretariat for Future Studies.10
The international debate about the future also made an impression in Sweden. Many international bestsellers, such as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) and Gordon Rattray Taylor’s The Doomsday Book (1970), were quickly translated into Swedish. But the most important publication was the Club of Rome’s report Limits to Growth (1972). Published in March 1972, it was immediately cited in the Swedish debate about the future. What was special about the Club of Rome’s predictions for the future was that they were based on computer simulations. Researchers used these to try to understand how variables such as raw-material resources, population growth, and environmental destruction interacted within a dynamic world system. The group’s conclusion was that continued economic growth would lead to a global collapse.11
In the Swedish debate, however, the focus lay not on the Club of Rome’s report but rather on Gösta Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis. Later in this chapter I will therefore map out and analyse how that diagnosis circulated in the public sphere, from when Före – Efter was first published in October 1971 until the Stockholm Conference began in June 1972. First, though, I will examine the media storm around Hans Palmstierna in the late summer of 1971. What did he say that caused such an uproar? What were the reactions? And what position was Axel Iveroth really advocating?
Hans Palmstierna’s speech
At 10 a.m. on 20 August, Hans Palmstierna was welcomed onto the podium at the Swedish Factory Workers’ Union congress. It was held at Folkets Hus in Stockholm, and many journalists were present. Palmstierna was well prepared and had carefully orchestrated his own appearance. He had sent a transcript of his speech in advance to the editorial department of the social democrat daily newspaper Arbetet in Malmö, which told its readers what he would say at the congress.12 Besides, he had published a cultural article in Dagens Nyheter three days before, about factory work and working-environment problems. It was grotesque, he wrote, that after nine years of schooling, young people were made to stand beside a conveyor belt to perform ‘man-eating hard graft at high speed’. What made things even worse was that factory environments were noisy, mechanically risky, and often toxic. Such conditions could not be allowed to continue in a rich and highly developed country like Sweden.13
Palmstierna began his speech by emphasizing that it would be ‘very personally coloured’. It started out from a trip he had made that summer to an unnamed factory workshop club in central Sweden. There he had been told that the workplace had major problems with ‘something called epoxy resins’. The workers developed eczema, skin damage, and eye problems. One man had become disabled and been forced to retire early. ‘What happened at this workplace is nothing remarkable’, Palmstierna asserted. Precisely the same problem had existed for a long time at the large company Asea’s workshop in Västerås. ‘In the end, Swedish workers refused to take these jobs and let foreigners have them’, he said. But why did the companies not share their experiences among themselves? How did the Federation of Swedish Industries function? Did it not issue any warnings to its members? ‘This sort of thing should not be happening’, thundered Palmstierna.14
From epoxy resins Palmstierna moved on to PCBs, a group of environmentally hazardous substances which were the focus of much attention in the Swedish environmental debate in the early 1970s. Among other things, the National Environment Protection Board published a report showing that high levels of PCBs were present in all Baltic Sea fish. This was affecting sex hormones and risked causing sterility in both animals and humans. Palmstierna emphasized that ‘the people who are working on the factory floor and standing in the PCB fumes’ were the most vulnerable. The dangers had been known since the 1890s, yet it was not until 1971 that the Riksdag had passed a law restricting PCB usage. The new law had been prompted by the damage seen in the external environment, a damage which was perceived as an immediate menace. ‘It was not passed to protect the workers – we must be aware of that’, Palmstierna pointed out.15
Staying with this perspective, Palmstierna asked: Why was not more value placed on people’s lives and well-being? Why were toxic substances not banned in workplaces? Did serious damage have to happen to fish and birds before society would intervene with any degree of strength? These questions had been behind his investigative work for the Factory Workers’ Union; but his research had also raised new ones, including the question of who was responsible for the current situation. It was profoundly problematic, Palmstierna felt, that the duty of investigating health hazards in industry had fallen on the unions. Ought it not to be the employers’ ‘self-evident obligation to ascertain the risks associated with plastics and all sorts of things before adding such components to the manufacturing process?’ He informed the congress delegates that a requirement to this effect had now been added to the Social Democrats’ environmental programme.16
Another issue that his investigation had raised for Palmstierna was industry’s relationship with the world of research. Initially, he said, the process of extracting data from some researchers had been ‘surprisingly sluggish’. Upon examining them more closely, he had realized that not all of them were ‘independent experts’. Indeed, a number of the ‘sluggish information providers’ were consultants for companies within the relevant industry. He particularly singled out the industrial development company Incentive. It was owned by the Wallenberg family, the dominant power group in the world of Swedish business. Founded in the early 1960s, Incentive had built up a strong and wide-ranging network of contacts within the research world. The fact that for some years now Swedish researchers had not been obliged to report consultancy work to their universities made it difficult to know who could be trusted. ‘If I find that an expert’s statement contradicts common sense or is evasive’, Palmstierna said, ‘I have become used to trying to find out where this expert’s true home base is, and what it is that he’s defending.’17
Palmstierna also attacked consultancy work for being an expression of growing class differences. It proved that people were accepting such work on the basis of their own interests rather than in the national interest. This situation made it harder for worker-protection measures to function, because as long as it was the companies that were paying the researchers, union interests would hardly be prioritized. Palmstierna called on the government to invest large resources in occupational-safety measures. However, he was careful to emphasize that such a move should not take place at the expense of protection for the external environment; ‘[y]ou can cut funding for roads or whatever, but not from that which protects human beings and their environment’. Palmstierna envisioned a national supervisory testing laboratory which would ensure that companies provided correct information about various hazards and kept one another informed. The supervisory laboratory would be run by independent researchers who did no consulting work.18
Palmstierna concluded his speech by highlighting additional class aspects of the problem. He stressed that the risks associated with new chemical substances were unevenly distributed. The people who were most affected were workers on low wages. What made matters even worse was that such individuals could not afford to eat food that was as expensive and high in protein as high-income people could. The protection that a good diet could provide hence did not help those who were most at risk. ‘So there is an ugly class-differentiating mechanism in this area which we must combat’, he said. Nonetheless, Palmstierna was still hopeful about the future. He was particularly pleased that many young researchers came from working-class families, and he hoped they would retain a sense of solidarity with the working class throughout their working lives. In the long run, this solidarity would enable society to remedy the dangers in the internal environment.19
The media storm around Hans Palmstierna
Palmstierna’s speech on 20 August at the Swedish Factory Workers’ Union congress immediately became national news. Television and radio reported on it and interviewed him. The summary of his speech sent out by the news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå had a particular impact. The newswire said that Palmstierna had accused Swedish scientists of being ‘corrupt’. He had not in fact said so in his speech, but variants of the newswire were reproduced all over the country, especially in the local press.20 Journalists at the major newspapers immediately began contacting researchers and industry representatives for comment.
On 21 August all the major newspapers featured articles about Palmstierna’s speech. Svenska Dagbladet reported that the government’s environmental protection expert had claimed that Swedish researchers ‘were often bought by industry’. The consultants tended to sweep ‘discoveries about health risks at workplaces’ under the carpet. The researchers contacted by the newspaper had reacted strongly to the attack. It was ‘frivolous, unpleasant, and ridiculous!’ proclaimed the front-page headline. Professor Axel Ahlmark emphasized that ‘a person in Palmstierna’s position should avoid making such an undifferentiated and misleading attack’. Associate Professor Åke Swenson stated that ‘no serious researcher wants to appear in public in order to gain big headlines before possessing reliable evidence for his information’.21 The main editorial criticized Palmstierna for ‘flailing about’ and attacking an entire profession. It did not benefit environmental efforts and was scarcely apt to increase confidence in the government-appointed Environmental Advisory Council, said the anonymous writer.22
Dagens Nyheter also focused on Palmstierna’s attack on the world of research. ‘Can the general public and colleagues trust a university researcher who does extra work for industry?’ wondered the reporter. ‘Are Hans Palmstierna’s allegations fair?’ Professor Sune Bergström, rector of the Karolinska Institute and chairman of Incentive, felt it was ‘shocking to treat an issue that is of such importance to the country’s economy in this manner’. A small country like Sweden, he said, was completely dependent on its few experts helping industry to develop new products. Did Palmstierna want to clip the wings of Sweden’s entire industrial base? Other representatives of Incentive expressed similar arguments. Its CEO, Sten Gustavsson, stated that the company was not ashamed of its contacts with researchers. On the contrary, it was in the interest of all of society to bridge the gap between industry and academia. By contrast, Associate Professor Stig Tejning in Lund expressed a diverging opinion. He certainly did not believe that industry-linked researchers had any malicious intent when they withheld information. ‘Usually it boils down to a simple lack of understanding’, he said. ‘They are not involved in environmental protection but instead regard production as the only important thing. An outdated view, quite simply.’ Personally, he could not imagine doing any consulting work for industry.23
However, several other researchers at Lund University were sharply critical of Palmstierna. The Lund vice-chancellor, Professor Sven Johansson, argued that the accusation of corruption was an absurd exaggeration. Sydsvenska Dagbladet reported that several professors ‘were yet again able to state that Palmstierna is not a witness for the truth’ and that he dealt ‘carelessly with facts’.24 In Kvällsposten, Professor Maths Berlin, himself a consulting researcher, said he refused to believe ‘that someone knowingly and deliberately conceals scientific information’. Hans Gullberg, secretary of an ongoing government enquiry into the work environment, denied that the enquiry had difficulty obtaining information. He could hypothetically imagine that the problem might exist; but he pointed out that researchers could sometimes have good reasons to withhold information, such as a desire not to create unnecessary panic.25
Still, Kvällsposten did speak with one researcher who fully agreed with Hans Palmstierna’s ‘roundhouse punches’: Björn Gillberg. He was reported to have jumped for joy at Palmstierna’s manoeuvre. ‘It’s terrific that we agree’, remarked Gillberg, ‘now Valfrid Paulsson at the National Environment Protection Board must think we’re both crazy…’. He informed the reporter that Palmstierna was absolutely correct in his suspicions, singling out the National Board for Technical Development as a particularly flagrant example. Most of the professors who sat on that research board and handed out public resources were consultants for various Wallenberg companies. There were also many professors with divided loyalties at the National Environment Protection Board. ‘I, at least, regard such things as bordering on corruption’, said Gillberg.26
Palmstierna’s standpoint was also supported by Aftonbladet, probably as part of an orchestrated media strategy. As early as 21 August, the newspaper published an in-depth report on how governmental research funds were being distributed. The object of the attack was the above-mentioned National Board for Technical Development (STU). The journalist Thomas Danielsson had analysed which professors sat on the board, what ties they had to industry, and what proportion of the allocated grants went to members of the board. The report showed that the majority of the board’s members were linked to the Wallenberg sphere. One of them was Carl-Göran Hedén, professor of bacteriology at the Karolinska Institute. The autumn of 1967 had seen him in hot water because of his chapter in Människans villkor, where he argued that scientists should be given greater influence over political decision-making. Aftonbladet’s report revealed that, in both 1970 and 1971, Hedén and his research team had received about half of the grants that STU had to distribute. The reporter found this behaviour – as well as the ties to Incentive – to be severely compromising.
Aftonbladet announced that it had spoken with many researchers who underlined STU’s great power. The board members were the ones who decided what would be researched in the biotechnology field and who would do it. One anonymous researcher said that ‘a researcher who publicly criticizes or sounds the alarm can quite quickly count on reprisals from STU’. These might occur in the form of reduced or no grants, which meant that the researcher would be forced to apply for a new job. ‘This effectively silences you’, said the anonymous researcher.27 It is no wild guess that the person the reporter spoke to was Björn Gillberg.
Clearly, then, the immediate press reactions adhered to ideologically predictable lines. Palmstierna was supported by the working-class press, whereas the non-socialist press rallied behind industry and the research community. This pattern becomes even more apparent from a review of the local press. For example, the social democratic newspaper Värmlands folkblad rejoiced that someone of Palmstierna’s calibre had finally banged his fist on the table. ‘When he sounds the alarm, people usually listen.’28 In contrast, the conservative Norrbottenskuriren was more sceptical: ‘You have to be a very distrustful Socialist to have such a poor opinion of your fellow human beings’, wrote the newspaper. ‘Compared to the government, industry is probably fairly innocent when it comes to environmental issues and how expertise is used.’29
The counterattack on Hans Palmstierna
The media storm around Hans Palmstierna entered a new phase on 25 August, when the tabloid Expressen published a long article entitled ‘Vår miljövårds väckelsepredikant’ [The environmental revivalist preacher of our time]. It was a direct counterattack on Palmstierna. What did his own loyalty ties look like? Why had he acted the way he did? The anonymous writer began with an account of Palmstierna’s sweeping criticism of his ‘corrupt and morally reprehensible’ colleagues. He had alleged that researchers who did consultancy work for industry were driven by personal greed and would not ‘lift a finger to help workers escape from an unhealthy environment’. However, Palmstierna had not presented any concrete evidence that this was so. Yet the writer felt there was something ‘a bit sweet’ about the agitated attack. In a follow-up TV interview, Palmstierna had shown that he understood the situation of the denounced researchers. ‘Of course, a person is not eager to attack someone who gives them a large proportion of the honey on their slice of bread.’
In Expressen, this statement was turned against Palmstierna himself. The course of his life was outlined with quick strokes of the pen. He had been a Social Democrat for a long time, and in the 1960s he had become ‘a minor celebrity in the party’. But he had been considered as being ‘outside the mainstream and a little hard to place’. His political career had never gained any real momentum. ‘But in 1967 he became a big celebrity when he published the little manifesto Plundring, svält, förgiftning.’ It had launched the environmental debate and made Palmstierna one of the country’s most sought-after speakers. ‘Because he belonged to the right party’, the writer pointed out acidly, ‘of course he became an expert in government circles.’ In subsequent years Palmstierna’s name had been on Social Democratic lists for Riksdag members, but never in a really electable place. It was rumoured that he was now eyeing a ministerial post. ‘In such circumstances, it is naturally reasonable that a person would try to express himself in the right way when giving a speech at the Factory Workers’ Union’s congress.’ It could not hurt to keep well in with those who buttered your bread.
The counterattack on Palmstierna did not stop there. The writer also questioned his view of humanity. Did Palmstierna really believe that researchers with a working-class background displayed greater solidarity and were more ethical than others? Was this not, in fact, an expression of the ‘social-group mystique’ that had dominated the ‘old swamp-like class society’? That society had believed that the children of ‘better folk’ commanded greater intellectual and ethical powers than others. According to such a view, the best thing working-class children could do was not to throw their weight about. ‘That way, everyone would remain in their appointed role and society would continue to prosper.’ It was all ‘quite cynical’ and ‘of course completely preposterous’. But now, in 1971, here comes Palmstierna and says the same thing as those self-satisfied upper-class bigwigs of the 1890s – except in reverse.
And who was Palmstierna to make such claims? Was he not himself from ‘an old prestigious noble family that had been promoted to baronial status back in the time of King Fredrik I of blessed memory [that is, in the eighteenth century]?’ Nor could his living conditions be characterized as basic. It was said that he lived in a detached house in a Stockholm suburb and had a reported income that was about four times as high as what ‘an ethically honourable working-class family has to manage on’. What was more, he drove a car to work instead of travelling by public transport. Should he be doing that? Cars spread toxic exhaust fumes. Were cars not more dangerous to the environment than the occasional associate professor doing a bit of work on the side for industry?30
This caustic onslaught on Palmstierna in Expressen was not an isolated phenomenon. That same day, the liberal paper Göteborgs-Posten characterized him as a ‘sideways-promoted combatant’. The anonymous editorial writer said that Palmstierna’s rise through the Social Democratic ranks had not left a single mark on the government’s environmental policy. On the contrary, a series of political decisions had ‘directly contradicted the ideas that Hans Palmstierna had championed before his elevation’. True, the Social Democrats’ environmental programme was imbued with fine words and big ambitions – but they were hardly being translated into action. At the environmental policy level, Palmstierna was now on track to ‘amass as many defeats as he had for a while amassed victories’.31
In the popular weekly magazine Se, hard-hitting journalist Rune Moberg made a sneering personal attack in the spirit of Expressen. He said he felt a bit sorry for ‘upper-class types who want to help fight for the workers’ cause’. They had problems finding the right tone and often exerted themselves so much that their voices cracked. ‘Recently we saw a real live baron talking with burning intensity about the forgotten men on the workshop floor.’ Did Palmstierna want to emulate Olof Palme in more than just having a similar name? What was this ‘scientist from the high nobility’ really thinking when he accused his research colleagues of withholding information ‘for the sake of filthy lucre’?32
The media hullabaloo reached a climax with Axel Iveroth’s speech in Jönköping on 1 September. The chairman of the Federation of Swedish Industries found it most remarkable that Palmstierna sought to ‘clothe environmental-protection work in outdated terms of class struggle’. His attack on scientists with industry links was ‘sickening’ and ‘malicious’. It proved that Palmstierna was no longer an environmental alarm clock. With him as secretary of the Environmental Advisory Council, there were no guarantees that a healthy climate of cooperation could evolve. Such a climate, Iveroth stressed, was necessary in order to deal with the problems.33
Iveroth added that it was difficult ‘to appear as a representative of industry in today’s environmental debate’. It was a deeply thankless role because ‘irate critics’ wanted to create conflicts almost daily. ‘They seek to gain publicity and believe they are reaping political laurels through dogmatic, clamorous, and inexpert attacks on industry and its environmental work.’ Nor did they offer any concrete alternatives. Such critics made it ‘indecently easy’ for themselves by keeping silent about the consequences that various measures would have on employment, living standards, and material prosperity in the country. At the same time, industry had reason to be proud of its history. ‘There is no doubt’, Iveroth asserted, ‘that industry’s environmental-protection ambitions awoke earlier than the general environmental awareness.’ Companies had been seeking to identify and solve problems affecting both the internal and the external environment for decades. In actual fact, said Iveroth, industry had become aware of the environmental problems ‘decades before the politicians and responsible authorities – let alone the press – had begun to realize the scope and importance of the field’.34
Iveroth pointed out that the water-management committee of the Swedish Forest Industries Federation would soon be thirty years old, and that the Swedish cement industry’s investments in air protection had totalled many millions of kronor long before the Environmental Protection Act had come into force. He emphasized that in the early 1960s the Federation of Swedish Industries had initiated the founding of a semi-public-, semi-private-sector institute for research into water and air protection.35 The institute had been set up at a point in time when there was no government counterpart to negotiate with. Furthermore, said Iveroth, Swedish industry’s total emission volumes ‘are in fact steadily declining already’. He underlined that ‘companies everywhere are pursuing solutions that are both acceptable from an environmental point of view and financially reasonable’. Many major companies – such as the mining company Boliden and the food company Felix – were working hard to reduce and minimize their environmental impact. They were not waiting for political decisions and new environmental legislation. Indeed, business companies were leading the way.36
The politicization of environmental issues
What is clear from Axel Iveroth’s speech, as well as from the personal attacks on Hans Palmstierna in the press, is that in the early 1970s it was not only the Social Democrats who were trying to advance their positions and turn the environmental debate in a new direction. Swedish industry and the non-socialist press were attempting to mobilize, too. Iveroth and Palmstierna applied contradictory approaches. Nature and Youth Sweden and other environmental movements were offering further options. The established party that best succeeded in capturing the growing environmental commitment was the Centre Party. In the 1970 election, the party received 19.9 per cent of the vote. In 1973 it achieved 25.1 per cent. The Centre Party’s version of the environmental debate focused on regional policies and on strengthening local communities.37
Consequently, the politicization of environmental issues was a process that was both conflict-filled and multifaceted. It was also intimately connected with an important stage in the media history of the sciences.38 Around 1970, new forms of scientific activism gained ground. Many researchers spoke out in the media in ways that contrasted with the traditional ideal of researchers as distant and apolitical beings. True, public-speaking and politically committed scientists were not a new phenomenon; but during this period their numbers grew considerably. Many of them also collaborated closely with the new social movements. A direct consequence of this was that scientific controversies were increasingly often conducted in public.39
Many members of the world of research were sceptical about this development. This scepticism comes out not least in the reactions to Hans Palmstierna’s speech. In the words of Associate Professor Åke Swenson, Palmstierna did not act like ‘a serious researcher’. After all, such a person would not use the media to gain political or career benefits. Biologist Ingvar Wiberger asserted that Sweden had begun ‘to teem with playboy researchers’, and he singled out ‘the environmental gods’ Hans Palmstierna and Björn Gillberg for special mention. ‘It is ridiculously easy to climb the career ladder as an “environmental yeller” today’, he said. ‘It’s much harder to do it as a meticulous researcher.’40
One high-profile figure who agreed with the critics was Professor Gunnar Hambraeus, president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. On 22 October 1971, he gave an inaugural speech at an environmental trade fair in Gothenburg. His speech attacked ‘the doomsday prophets’ Hans Palmstierna and Björn Gillberg. Hambraeus said that their sole achievement was to have created hysteria and frightened people. ‘Before, people were afraid of hell. Now we’re afraid for the environment. That is a regrettable result of about 100 years of industrialization efforts.’41
However, the debate among researchers was not completely polarized: some attempted to assume a mediating and reasoning position. One of those was Birgitta Odén, who felt that the debate about the researchers’ loyalties had been distorted in an unfortunate manner. ‘Palmstierna’s demagogic simplifications from the rostrum have warped what is fundamentally a social problem into an ethical problem about individuals’, she wrote. In addition, it was obvious that Palmstierna’s attack on the research world and on industry constituted an ‘impermissible generalization’. But the generalization offered by the other side was no more reasonable. In her experience, researchers were neither more nor less ethical than other groups. She felt that the really interesting question was what the research structure in Swedish society should in fact look like.
Odén stressed that she had no objections in principle to doing research on contract. In a small country like Sweden, with very limited human resources, contacts between industry and academia could not be dispensed with. Nor was industry the sole beneficiary from such contacts. Doing contract work stimulated university researchers to find new research proposals and areas of application. However, there was an immediate danger that industrial researchers would merely be used to develop new products. That was certainly important, but it was not the only thing that qualified researchers should devote their time to. It was equally important that there should be researchers working to solve the undesired problems that arose from modern industrial society. Seen from this point of view, contract research did pose an indirect threat. ‘Society’s resources for utilizing the top expertise for problem-orientated research’, Odén wrote, ‘appear very small in comparison with those of industry.’ She called for another type of contract research: one that sought to create a better world for everyone. In this context, the client was neither industry nor the trade-union movement. It was ‘the anonymous fellow human being’ who should be given a ‘totally different and more recognized place in our research structure’.42
Odén’s vision of problem-orientated and socially beneficial research had been developing for a long time. She had been promoting it in scholarly contexts since the late 1960s.43 In the autumn of 1971, however, she seized the opportunity and went public. Just over a week after her first article she developed her thoughts further, beginning with the almost unanimous condemnation with which the world of research had greeted Hans Palmstierna’s speech. Odén felt that it was an illustrative example of how the world of research exercised control over dissent. There were three deadly sins in the world of research, she said: being political, being wrong, and demonstrating poor judgement. Palmstierna had committed all of them. His actions directly contradicted the research world’s fundamental values – and that was why he had been rejected as a matter of instinct.
Birgitta Odén pointed out that, as a historian, she had no opinion about Palmstierna’s qualities as a scientist. However, she was personally convinced that he was a ‘politically deeply committed individual’. Clearly he had sometimes been wrong and at other times demonstrated a lack of judgement. ‘No one who has shouldered tasks of the format chosen by Hans Palmstierna can avoid falling into the research world’s three deadly sins’, she asserted. But did that make it self-evident that his warnings should be rejected?
In her view it did not. She argued that the world of research, ‘made wise by the many transgressions against dissidents committed in the history of science’, should think twice. Should not someone like Hans Palmstierna who, despite his personal shortcomings, had previously shown himself ‘to be so fundamentally right’ be worth listening to extra carefully? Perhaps he was ‘fundamentally right about’ something this time too, despite the ‘demagogic simplifications’? Odén argued that the fear of being excommunicated by the world of research was dangerous. It threatened to undermine the critical social role of research. Because who would wake society up if the scientific alarm clocks were silenced? ‘The Federation of Swedish Industries?’44
Odén’s contribution to the debate did not make much of an impression, even though Arbetet’s editor repeatedly contacted Hans Palmstierna asking for a reply.45 But her argument was supported by the group, led by Alva Myrdal, which was investigating the possibilities of Swedish future studies. The group’s express ambition was that significant public research resources should be invested in tackling society’s major challenges. Later in the 1970s, ambitious interdisciplinary projects were launched in order to study the future energy supply and security situation.46 When Linköping University was founded in 1975, problem-orientated, socially beneficial research was a guiding principle for its activities. The level of conflict in the public debate was one thing; practical research policy was another.
Yet the two spheres were connected. As we have seen, many actors – such as Hans Palmstierna, Birgitta Odén, Valfrid Paulsson, and Carl-Göran Hedén – moved between them. There were also actors who, without appearing in the public eye themselves, sought to advance the debate. One of them was Daniel Hjorth, head of publishing at Aldus. The publishing firm was owned by Bonniers, the dominant media group of companies in Sweden, and had been publishing popular-science paperbacks since the early 1960s.47 On 3 September 1971, Daniel Hjorth wrote to Hans Palmstierna asking if he would like to develop his thoughts about researchers’ dependence on industry in a debate book.48 Indeed, Palmstierna would have liked to, but he was already under contract. In December 1972, the book Besinning [approx. Coming to our senses] was released by another publisher.49 By that time, though, Aldus had already achieved other successes. They began with the publication in October 1971 of Gösta Ehrensvärd’s Före – Efter: En diagnos [Before – after: a diagnosis], whose circulation in the public sphere will now be examined in some detail.50
The diagnosis emerges
Swedish media began to report on Ehrensvärd’s predictions for the future in mid-November 1971. At that time, media interest was solely manifested in the form of reports and reviews, which often simply described the content of the book.51 The writers consistently emphasized that the author’s vision of the future was no unsupported fantasy but was based on hard facts and mathematical calculations. However, Svenska Dagbladet’s Tom Selander stressed that much of Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis could not be ‘other than qualified guesses’, albeit ‘based on facts’.52 Eva Moberg made a similar reservation in her review, writing: ‘Although the prediction does not appear at all unreasonable, it is still in some way unrealistic not to leave any room for the unpredictable. We do know that the unpredictable will happen, even though we do not know what it is.’53 There were no more critical comments than these in 1971, and reviewers did not doubt that Ehrensvärd’s vision of the future constituted new and urgently necessary knowledge. An editorial by the monthly cultural magazine Vi, founded by the Swedish Cooperative Union in 1913, said it was ‘one of the autumn’s most important books’,54 and in Norrköpings Tidningar, a local newspaper with a non-socialist orientation, Bengt Sjönander wrote that it was a ‘deeply shocking book that every single person should read a bit of every day for years’.55
It was also telling that Bengt Hubendick, one of the most prominent environmental voices in Sweden in the years around 1970 and a frequent contributor to the Gothenburg-based and liberal-orientated broadsheet Göteborgs handels- och sjöfartstidning, highlighted Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis early on in order to reinforce his own message about the unsustainability of modern industrial civilization. In his review, Hubendick wrote that the present age was ‘an anomaly, an abnormal situation, a degenerate episode in human history. Our direction of development is heading towards an abyss. Yet we are constantly told that development must run its course. Nonetheless, we are rushing, even racing, one another towards the abyss.’56 Hubendick’s scathing critique of society foreshadowed the polarized debate about the future that would flare up in February 1972.
Another article from 1971 that was a harbinger of the future was Lars Gyllensten’s review of the book in Dagens Nyheter. Gyllensten, a famous author and a member of the Swedish Academy, began with a historical review of doomsday prophecies and singled out the legend of the Tower of Babel as ‘one of the foremost archetypes in our mythological equipment with which we and our ancestors have tried to interpret our destinies and adventures’. According to Gyllensten, the historical experience of unfulfilled doomsday prophecies was a dilemma for modern people because ‘this circumstance in itself has a soporific effect – it is easy for us to shrug our shoulders when new ominous signs are cited about what will happen: we have heard similar prophets before, and things often turned out better than the fears predicted’. Against this background, he was careful to emphasize Ehrensvärd’s ‘high credibility’ and ‘solid calculations’.57 It is clear from his review that Gyllensten himself took Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis seriously while being well aware that a historical critique of it would be an obvious first rejoinder.
In a later phase of the book’s circulation in the public sphere, Gyllensten’s dilemma would arise on a broad front; but in 1971, no exchanges of opinion about Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis occurred. Nor were there any interviews with its author, at least none that have been preserved for posterity.58 Ehrensvärd’s forecast was thus circulating in the media during this initial phase, but it had not yet become a focus of public debate.
It is worth noting that towards the end of 1971, environmental issues were manifested in popular cultural form in the film Äppelkriget [The Apple War] by comedy duo Hasse Alfredson and Tage Danielsson. It depicted how foreign exploiters and unscrupulous politicians threatened a rural idyll. The film’s theme song, ‘Änglamark’ [approx. A soil blessed by angels], was written by Evert Taube, a Swedish composer of songs and a troubadour with national-treasure status (he is depicted on the current 50-SEK banknote). Both the film and the song became classics, and today they are both closely associated with the environmental engagement of the 1970s. There and then, however, other historical actors made the biggest impact in the public sphere.
The breakthrough of the diagnosis
At the beginning of January 1972, media interest in Gösta Ehrensvärd’s book intensified when several of the country’s editorial pages used it as a discussion point to begin the new year.59 The broadsheet Skånska Dagbladet, a Centre Party newspaper widely read in Skåne, especially in its rural parts, wrote that the book gave a ‘frightening and shocking picture of what awaits human beings on earth’, maintaining that ‘the feeling that we are living in a manner that is hostile to human life in the long term’ was spreading.60 Social democrat broadsheet Arbetet stressed that ‘what is happening now cannot be compared with anything that has happened before in human history’,61 and the middlebrow weekly magazine Vecko-Journalen described the book as ‘dreadful in the true sense of the word – worthy of provoking dread’.62 At this time, the media also began to comment on the growing interest in Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis, and the social democratic tabloid Aftonbladet published the first in-depth critique of the book.
The author of the critique was the writer on cultural matters Mario Grut, who placed Ehrensvärd’s prediction within a long tradition of doctrines of doom, such as the Book of Revelation and Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918–1922). Arguing that this tradition was ‘more philosophical than scientific’, Grut focused on Ehrensvärd’s ideological and political foundations. Grut labelled the Lund professor a reactionary for hoping that in the centuries following the great collapse of society, the technological expertise of the current period could be preserved in small scientific enclaves: ‘Friedrich Nietzsche, the German Superman philosopher, would have smiled in recognition’, Grut wrote, and he went on to criticize Ehrensvärd for his not only elitist but also Eurocentric points of departure.63
A related critique was expressed a few days later by the philosopher Paul Lindblom in Arbetet. He maintained that research into the future was currently fashionable, but that the interesting thing about it was not the predictions themselves – ‘they won’t come true’ – but rather the examination of the underlying values. ‘These values are often hidden’, Lindblom wrote; ‘people assume, for example, that American capitalism has given rise to a way of life that should be preserved without directly accounting for this dubious premise. But this value governs the prognoses to some extent.’64 Lindblom thus assumed a sceptical attitude to Ehrensvärd’s failure (in his view) to be open about his own ideological premises, arguing that this failure had consequences for Ehrensvärd’s credibility as a scientist. Grut’s review said that Ehrensvärd had ‘moved into politics through the back door’, a situation that called for stringent ideological analysis.65 It is, however, important to observe that these two critical articles from the political left were not countered by Ehrensvärd personally, nor were they picked up by other debaters to any noticeable extent.66 Nor did other writers follow suit. Left-wing criticism did not gain a foothold in the media circulation around the book.
The rapidly growing interest in Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis was most clearly expressed on Sunday 9 January, when the front page of Dagens Nyheter ran a full-length picture of him. Under the headline ‘Goodbye to prosperity, now we trust in the sun’, it was said that humanity would never again be able ‘to experience such prosperity as in the 1960s and 1970s’. Inside the newspaper was the first interview with Ehrensvärd in the Swedish media. The reporter stressed that for anyone who trusted his predictions, it was ‘madness to keep increasing production and consumption’. The article gave considerable space to how Ehrensvärd himself believed the situation should be handled, highlighting his belief that the UN should ‘place the whole world in a state of emergency’. At the national level, he thought that politicians should call a halt to production and introduce ration cards. Regretting that the serious situation required such ‘dictatorial methods’, Ehrensvärd emphasized that ‘now, or definitely in the 21st century, the crisis programme will in any case be necessary in some way’.67 The interview’s hands-on orientation indicated that Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis was moving ever closer to the sphere of current politics. A week later, Dagens Nyheter followed up the article by interviewing Prime Minister Olof Palme and the Liberal [People’s] Party leader Gunnar Helén about how they regarded Ehrensvärd’s vision of the future.
The attitude of the two politicians was summarized on the paper’s front page by the headline ‘We do not believe in doom’. The lead paragraph stated that humanity’s standard of living could continue to rise, and no one needed to ‘fear that we are currently wasting so much that there will be nothing left for our children and grandchildren’. Palme and Helén possessed ‘a strong belief in continued technological progress’ and asserted that ‘when coal and oil run out, we will find new energy solutions’. This was contrasted with Gösta Ehrensvärd’s predictions of ‘the rapid downfall of Western society in a severe supply disaster’. The front-page presentation was highly polarized and had apocalyptic overtones. However, the longer interviews inside the newspaper presented a different picture.
Palme asserted that theorists of the future could be sorted into two schools: ‘One is the happy technocrats – of whom I feel very distrustful – and the other is the one that keeps talking about the catastrophe. The danger with the latter is that we could become desensitized. That must not happen.’ Instead, the prime minister argued that there were great possibilities of remedying the serious situation by political means: ‘I do not believe, as Ehrensvärd does, that the catastrophe will come, but I fully share his demands for political action.’
The interview with Gunnar Helén also differed in character from the front-page headline and lead paragraph. The Liberal leader said that it was ‘possible that we are heading for a disaster’, and that the next few decades will be ‘a race against time for democracy as a system, for a solution to the population issue, for the supply of food and energy’. He underlined that Ehrensvärd’s theories were ‘within the bounds of possibility’, and he reacted strongly when the reporter asserted that humanity had coped with prophesied disasters before: ‘What has happened can never be proof of what will happen. So that line of reasoning is of no interest’, he said. Helén thus did not distance himself from Ehrensvärd; if anything, he tended to side with him. However, he and Palme did stress that they believed there were political solutions that could be implemented within the prevailing democratic system.68 Nevertheless, the polarized headlines – which magnified the dividing lines between Ehrensvärd and the politicians – are interesting in themselves and show how the media seized on conflicts and disagreements. That orientation on the part of the media was to be particularly characteristic of the third phase in the circulation of Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis.
In January 1972 the Swedish debate about the future was still in its infancy, even though the media attention surrounding Gösta Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis was both extensive and growing. Informative reviews and descriptions of the book continued to be published69 as well as interviews with and about Ehrensvärd.70 Skånska Dagbladet described him as a ‘pessimistic professor’;71 and in a double-page spread in the popular financial magazine Veckans affärer, his diagnosis was referred to as ‘a new doomsday prophecy’. The magazine also asked Ehrensvärd straight out if he was a pessimist about the future. He replied rhetorically: ‘Is it pessimism to look forward to an agrarian society after years of want and decay, a society with an admittedly low but still secure standard? Is a simplified life so frightening to industrialized human beings with all their social prestige?’72 Ehrensvärd was clearly not comfortable about having begun to be depicted as a doomsday prophet, and a few weeks later he sharply criticized the media image of him as ‘somewhat vulgar propaganda’.73 It was also clear from the introduction to Före – Efter that Ehrensvärd believed he was ‘doing a balancing act between optimism and pessimism’. He asserted that he was ‘deeply pessimistic about the short-term perspective’, but said that he was simultaneously nourishing an ‘unquenchable optimism about human tenacity and resilience in trying circumstances, far into the future’.74 Ehrensvärd took pains to convey this complex picture in interview situations, but the media coverage – especially at the headline and lead-paragraph levels – allowed no room for such nuances.
Towards the end of January 1972, it was also obvious that Ehrensvärd’s book had become a bestseller: it had sold 30,000 copies and now appeared in a fifth edition. The book topped Vecko-Journalen’s list of bestselling books nationwide. Daniel Hjorth at Aldus commented on the phenomenon in Sydsvenska Dagbladet: ‘In Aldus’s history, we have never had a book that was such a swiftly accelerating success. It is selling better now than before Christmas, and demand is only growing.’75 What Hjorth probably also suspected at that point was that the attention being paid to the book and its forecast would soon increase even further.
The diagnosis is challenged
On 4 February, Aldus published a new book about the future: nuclear physicist Tor Ragnar Gerholm’s Futurum exaktum: Fortsatt teknisk utveckling? Spekulationer om problem som måste lösas före år 2000 [The ‘future perfect’: continued technological development? Speculations about problems that must be solved before the year 2000] (1972). Gerholm argued that the debate about the future had derailed because constructive confidence had been overshadowed by pitch-black cultural pessimism. He especially attacked radical, ecologically orientated criticism of society and the contemporary world: ‘We are now told that the blessing of industrialization is nothing but hollow lies. It is confidently proclaimed that the welfare society’s glimpse of prosperity is a crazy episode in the history of humanity. We will soon have emptied the Earth’s storehouse of natural resources, and therefore we will be forced back into agrarian society’s grey drabness and threadbare destitution.’76 Gerholm argued that this gloomy vision of the future was to a great extent unjustified and also dangerous, because it could lead to a social ‘paralysis precluding action, a paralysis that turns pessimism into a self-fulfilling prophecy’.77 He believed that the answer to the challenges facing humanity was not to slow down development but rather to strive for new technological, scientific, and economic gains. If that happened, there was ‘good reason to hope for a completely natural and undramatic stabilization of the world’s population at a high material standard’.78
The physics professor’s bright vision of the future was expressly launched as a counterweight to Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis, and Gerholm himself received a lot of press coverage even before his book had reached the market. ‘Finally – a prophet who does not preach the destruction of the world’, proclaimed Expressen, and in Dagens Nyheter he was presented as an ‘optimist about the future’ and an alternative to the widespread ‘doom-romanticism’.79 With Gerholm’s entry into the public arena, the media also began to pit Ehrensvärd and Gerholm against each other in explicit terms. Vecko-Journalen began an ambitiously proportioned article about the future in the following way: ‘Which future do you choose? Professor Ehrensvärd’s or Professor Gerholm’s? With Ehrensvärd – take three steps backwards, scrap the car, pedal a bicycle, [and] relish the quiet charms of agrarian society. With Gerholm – continue forwards, believe in technology; but don’t waste things, and ignore the doomsday prophets’.80
A lighthearted tone was also used by Expressen, which managed to set Ehrensvärd and Gerholm at each other. The meeting between the professors was featured in a double-spread article as ‘the optimist versus the pessimist’ and was presented as a duel in front of the blackboard. The discussion focused on four problem areas – population growth, food, water, and raw materials – but began with the professors having to mark their respective positions on a sliding scale from ultra-optimist to ultra-pessimist. ‘With regard to industrial development I am a restrained optimist, whereas I place you as an ultra-pessimist’, said Gerholm. Ehrensvärd agreed, but once more stressed his optimism in a long-term perspective.81 However, Ehrensvärd’s repeated attempts to modify his image continued to have difficulty taking hold in the press. It is telling that in early February Aftonbladet published a caricature of him in which he was described as ‘the professor who became a celebrity on the basis of our downfall’.82 Gerholm’s persistent optimism about development both reinforced and clarified this media image.
Tor Ragnar Gerholm was not the only researcher to speak out against Ehrensvärd. Another was the economist Hugo Hegeland, whose debate column entitled ‘Olyckskorpars låt’ [The song of the ravens of doom] initiated an intense debate about the future in Göteborgs handels- och sjöfartstidning. Hegeland claimed that Ehrensvärd, like all other doomsday prophets throughout history, based his preaching on faith rather than on knowledge. Hegeland had been annoyed by the interview with Ehrensvärd in Veckans affärer in which the latter claimed to know how fast the Earth’s resources were being consumed. Hegeland argued that nobody could possibly know this, because resources in the economic sense were constantly changing owing to technological development. Hegeland said that Ehrensvärd was indulging in ‘mathematical exercises unconnected to reality’.83 Reactions were not long in coming. One annoyed reader wrote: ‘Of course, while awaiting disaster, we can stick our heads in the sand like Prof Hegeland and wait for miracles. Everything will work out fine! Sure, we might make it. But our children and grandchildren???’84 The economist Harald Dickson felt that Hegeland was being naive in assuming that all future surprises would be favourable for humanity.85 Hegeland responded by saying that history shows that ‘when the unexpected happens, humans choose from the new possibilities those that lead to better living conditions and not to worse ones, even though we sometimes make obvious mistakes. So far, this quest has defeated the tendency towards resignation in the face of growing difficulties, as economic development overwhelmingly confirms.’86 In the battle over the future, Hegeland – like Gerholm – believed he had history on his side. Lars Gyllensten’s dilemma had arisen again.
The debate in Göteborgs Handels- och Psjöfartstidning gained new momentum on 10 February when Ehrensvärd responded to the criticism. He characterized Hegeland’s contribution as an ‘irresponsible lark song about the future’ and said, as Dickson had done the day before, that it was naive to believe that the future would mainly consist of welcome surprises. This was ‘not optimism but grave irresponsibility. It is simply impossible to use idle talk in explaining away the fact that we are facing major problems about humanity’s development in a world of shrinking resources.’ Here, and in several other places in his response, Ehrensvärd turned against the way in which optimism and pessimism were being used as paired concepts in the public debate. His most detailed piece of reasoning ran as follows:
Planning to clean up the Earth’s affairs in the long term is realism, not pessimism. No, humanity is not on its way to hell, as people love to interpret realistic warnings against unwarranted optimism. We do not at all have to anticipate any catastrophe (a much-loved expression) – but if matters belonging within the Western world’s industrial-economic programme are allowed to run their unrestrained course, we may encounter unforeseen unpleasantnesses. We must therefore guard against overexploitation of the Earth’s resources and take measures against overpopulation and natural destruction, preferably right now. A simple safety measure, nothing more. Predicting the effects of current trends is, of course, difficult in some cases, but it is not impossible to do.87
This passage reveals that Ehrensvärd perceived much of the ongoing debate about the future as marked by exaggerations and misunderstandings. In his view, his diagnosis was no doomsday prophecy or apocalyptic theory. It was a realistic warning that advocated taking precautions. Almost identical thoughts were expressed in Bengt Hubendick’s review of Futurum exaktum, which was published on the same day as Ehrensvärd’s reply to Hegeland. Hubendick argued that Gerholm took it for granted that future technological advances would enable humanity to finally liberate itself from its dependence on the environment. Gerholm’s position, said Hubendick, would certainly be reasonable if humanity exercised control over fusion power and photosynthesis. The problem was that technological development could not be guaranteed, and its consequences could not be seen. He therefore concluded his review with ‘a so-called doomsday prophet’s simple question’ if it would not be better to try ‘to steer development towards human goals instead of advancing technological and economic development for its own sake’.88 Gerholm did not respond to Hubendick’s review.
Nor was Hubendick’s piece answered by Hugo Hegeland in the latter’s final contribution to the debate about the future. Instead, Hegeland addressed himself directly to Ehrensvärd and repeated his criticism of Ehrensvärd’s – and other pessimists’ – method of calculation. Hegeland said it was impossible, and therefore pointless, to try to predict what the world would look like in a hundred years’ time. Referring to history and to the way things had turned out for other gloomy predictors of the future, he once more expressed great confidence in humanity’s abilities to solve the challenges it faced. Hegeland pointed out that ‘ever since the dawn of industrialization, the ravens of doom have cawed’; but time and time again, incredibly rapid economic development had exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations. He therefore firmly believed that humans – as long as they were optimistic about the future – could cope with whatever awaited them. He concluded by saying, ‘[i]t is my conviction that this healthy attitude will also rule among people in the future. Hence my irrepressible optimism!’89 As these excerpts demonstrate, Hegeland vigorously confirmed the portrayal of himself as an optimist and equally consistently referred to Ehrensvärd and other ‘ravens of doom’ as pessimists. In other words, the polarization of the debate about the future was something that one side rejected but the other side encouraged. From the perspective of the circulation of knowledge, Ehrensvärd and Hubendick’s attempts to change the parameters of the discussion had no effect.
What was plain in mid-February 1972 was thus that two clearly distinguished camps had been established in the Swedish public sphere with regard to the issue of the future: optimists and pessimists. Consequently, knowledge about an impending social collapse had been equipped with stronger reservations than before, because there were now high-profile scientists in the public arena who advocated totally different diagnoses about the future. One person who was concerned about this situation was Svenska Dagbladet’s Tom Selander, who argued that Gerholm and his ilk gave politicians who did not want to deal with the global problems an easy way out: ‘They now get a chance to think like this: terrific, finally experts are saying that everything will work out just fine. We can calmly restrict the geographical horizon to our own constituency and the time horizon to the next election.’90 Writing in Dagens Nyheter, Sven Fagerberg agreed: ‘It is a damaging book that Gerholm has written. He wants to break down the responsibility that is being built up.’91 At a later stage of the debate Fagerberg was even more censorious, arguing that Futurum exaktum was ‘a lightly masked partisan contribution, intended to support the established industrial interests’.92 The futurist Eskil Block also hinted that Gerholm was actually ‘Wallenberg’s contact man’.93
The debaters’ suspicions regarding Gerholm recall the research by historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway into how a group of American scientists with strong ties to industry deliberately worked to create social uncertainty about scientific issues involving topics such as smoking and climate change from the 1970s onwards. The strategy depicted by Oreskes and Conway is that these researchers used their scientific authority to initiate media debates and thereby create a perception that two equal interpretations of reality opposed each other. By hinting at scientific controversies and sowing doubt about the risks to society, active measures and political interventions were hence repeatedly postponed.94 My own research is not of such a nature that I am able to draw a conclusion about Gerholm’s activities along such lines; but from a circulation perspective, it is clear that Futurum exaktum created – or, at least, gave a voice to – a fundamentally sceptical attitude to futures research, particularly when forecasters argued that freedom for industry and trade as well as economic growth should be curtailed. One telling example of the effects of this mode of action is found in a letter to the editor published in Göteborgs-Tidningen. The writer stated: ‘Professors, researchers, and other scholars contradict one another when they talk about the future of the world. Some argue that the Earth will perish, others that humanity really does have a future. Who should a person believe? It is hard to decide for those of us who are less than knowledgeable.’95
The diagnosis as a cultural reference point
The polemical Swedish debate about the future did not end in February 1972; but after the initial exchanges in Göteborgs handels- och sjöfartstidning, it focused mainly on Gerholm’s Futurum exaktum plus international agenda-setters such as Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968, Swedish translation 1972), Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle (1972), and the Club of Rome’s report Limits to Growth (1972).96 In this context Gösta Ehrensvärd’s diagnosis was repeatedly cited, but the Lund professor himself did not participate in the debate. However, his diagnosis continued to circulate in other ways; and in retrospect, Tuesday 7 March 1972 emerges as something of a turning point.
On that day Ehrensvärd had been invited to the Social Democrats’ conference about the future entitled ‘Är framtiden möjlig?’ [Is the future possible?] in order to talk about his diagnosis and discuss the available political choices. The conference was a symbolic demonstration that the Social Democrats were taking environmental and future issues very seriously indeed, and Ehrensvärd’s participation showed that his diagnosis had been deemed to possess political significance. Several of the conference participants gathered on the Tuesday evening in TV2’s current affairs programme Kvällsöppet, which was hosted by Bo Holmström, one of Sweden’s best-known heavyweights in journalism. In addition to Ehrensvärd, participants in the live broadcast on 7 March included former prime minister Tage Erlander, Valfrid Paulsson of the National Environment Protection Board, and the three environmental debaters Hans Palmstierna, Björn Gillberg, and Nils-Erik Landell.
The programme’s theme was environmental and future issues, and Ehrensvärd was given considerable time to talk about the energy supply of the future. Bo Holmström asked him: ‘What happens to our civilization as we know it if oil and coal run out?’ Ehrensvärd replied ‘[w]e can manage’ and proceeded to outline the technological possibilities of developing nuclear breeder reactors. Even so, he emphasized that some restrictions on our material standard might be required. ‘Some restrictions’, Holmström wondered, ‘there’s talk that we’d have to go back to an agricultural environment from around the eighteenth century.’ Ehrensvärd said that that might be an option if we were not to have energy from uranium: ‘If we only have solar energy shining on the fields and the forest, then we will have an agrarian society again.’ He then went into detail about the scientific possibilities of solving the mystery of fusion energy, claiming to be fairly optimistic about the future. Still, he did stress that it would be a different future from what we were used to. On the horizon he did not see ‘the science-fiction type of a highly industrialized society’, but rather a rural existence dominated by agriculture.
These remarks were followed by a conversation between Gösta Ehrensvärd and Tage Erlander about the risk of high-level political complications in the international arena. The degree of agreement between the two men was striking, and together they warned of future monopolies forming in the global energy-supply chain. For that reason, they said, research on uranium and on fusion energy should be internationalized. The debate then moved on to quality of life as a concept. Ehrensvärd argued that ‘we should strive for quality instead of quantity. And quality for humans. The qualitatively living human. Not the quantity human.’ At this point a sorely provoked Nils-Erik Landell interrupted and pointed out that what Ehrensvärd was talking about required far-reaching social changes, something he believed the political establishment was nowhere near trying to implement. Ehrensvärd agreed, adding that there would have to be ‘a radical reorientation of our entire way of thinking. But why not? The time is ripe.’97
The above glimpses of Ehrensvärd’s television appearance show that this context was fundamentally different from the polemical press debate that had raged around him a few weeks earlier. In the medium of television, his diagnosis once again circulated as important knowledge about the future. The professor from Lund came across as a credible and thought-provoking figure of authority, respected by both the political establishment and radical environmental debaters. His optimism about the future in the fields of technology and politics was considerable.
Towards the end of March, Sydsvenska Dagbladet launched the reportage series ‘Dina barnbarns värld’ [Your grandchildren’s world]. It gave a leading role to Ehrensvärd, describing Före – Efter: En diagnos as the starting shot for the Swedish debate about the future of humanity. Inside the newspaper, a lengthy article featured an interview with the Lund professor. The first question the reporter asked him was whether he was a doomsday prophet. Ehrensvärd said ‘no’, maintaining that on the contrary there was hope for humanity if austerity measures were adopted and research made progress. The reporter persisted, however, asking him to explain why his book had been labelled a doomsday prophecy. Ehrensvärd replied that status gadgets and modern comforts seemed to have become more important to humans than their continued existence. ‘People today must become generationally aware in a totally different way’, he claimed, adding that we should ‘take the opportunity to apologize to our grandchildren for the situation in which we have placed humanity. If we can make the necessary political changes in time, then we can say that at least we realized our mistakes and changed them. Otherwise we will find it hard to look our grandchildren in the eye.’98 The austere and gloomy picture conveyed by the interview is recognizable from previous stages of the circulation of the diagnosis, illustrating how difficult, not to say impossible, it was for Ehrensvärd to shake off the doomsday prophet epithet. Despite his persistent attempts to modify his image, he had increasingly come to personify the concept during the winter and spring of 1972. His name and his diagnosis had become cultural reference points in the social circulation of knowledge.
A telling example of this situation may be drawn from a later part of the reportage series ‘Your grandchildren’s world’, a part which dealt with the American Amish people, who lived a pre-industrial agrarian existence for religious reasons. The journalistic angle was ‘societies like the one Gösta Ehrensvärd predicts exist today!’99 Another example was when the farming-orientated magazine Land reported that the EEC’s minister for agriculture, Sicco Mansholt, had joined the debate about the future and revealed himself to be ‘a regular Ehrensvärd type’.100 A third may be taken from the cultural magazine Ord & Bild, which published a long essay on ‘Framtidens historia: Från Jules Verne till Ehrensvärd’ [The history of the future: from Jules Verne to Ehrensvärd] in the late spring of 1972.101 The broad impact of the Lund professor’s diagnosis was impossible to miss. Towards the end of May, Land reflected on the fears felt at the beginning of the year that politicians and builders of society would not want to concern themselves with Ehrensvärd’s predictions. However, the editorial writer willingly acknowledged that Land had worried unnecessarily: ‘A hugely extensive debate has been going on all spring about the issues made topical by Ehrensvärd. The newspapers have been full of articles. Radio and TV have done their part. And, most gratifying of all: the politicians have been paying serious attention.’102
Clearly, then, the ground had been well prepared for the upcoming Stockholm conference. In Vecko-Journalen’s big environmental issue, the magazine had not only managed to persuade Tage Erlander to lie down in the grass with two dandelions in his hand, it also boasted a specially written column by Gösta Ehrensvärd. This was the first time since 10 February that he had personally held the pen, and he used it to ask big and difficult questions from the perspective of global justice. Ehrensvärd argued that the problems required ‘an array of technological expertise, wisdom, humanity, and foresight’ and wondered if humankind really possessed it. The UN conference in Stockholm would supply the answer to how far we had come.103 From my point of view, that conference was the culmination of the social breakthrough of environmental knowledge in Sweden.