Stephen Macekura on Environmentalism and Development


macekuraStephen Macekura is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Indiana University. His first book, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global ‘Sustainable Development’ in the Twentieth Centuryis based on his dissertation and will be published by Cambridge University Press in September 2015.

What drew your attention to this topic and whose work encouraged you?

I came to this topic as a historian of U.S. foreign relations and international development. Over the past two decades, historians such as Nick Cullather, Amy Staples, Nils Gilman, David Engerman, David Ekbladh, Michael Latham, and many others have been writing about the idea of ‘development’—the notion that societies progress, in a linear fashion, through different stages of social/cultural, economic, and political order – and the way development shaped American elites’ thoughts about the world. Much of this literature focuses on how U.S. intellectuals and policymakers sought to “modernize” the Third World countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the early part of the Cold War. Mel Leffler, a historian of U.S. foreign relations, advised me throughout graduate school and greatly encouraged my explorations into these topics. My early graduate work focused on the origins of international development in the United States, and I eventually published on President Truman’s “Point Four” program and many other aspects of U.S. foreign aid and development.

Though I set off to study the United States and international development, early during my graduate career Ed Russell introduced me to global environmental history. I started to explore the ecological consequences—pollution, deforestation, erosion, land and wildlife loss, and much else—of this global push for development. In particular, I became fascinated by how elite environmental activists from the United States and Europe criticized the dominant approaches to development that reigned at mid-century and how they sought to reform the ways that people in Third World nations thought about and pursued development. I was also intrigued by the raging international controversies that environmentalism provoked in development circles. In the 1960s, many countries of the Global South balked at environmental activists and environmental protection more broadly, claiming that environmentalism was a “rich man’s game” and that it was a cruel attempt by the wealthy, industrialized countries to hinder the Global South’s ability to pursue economic growth.

So I decided to pursue a dissertation that would explore how those tensions came about, how environmentalists tried to reconcile them, and how environmental activists sought to remake development policy in the United States. Mel and Ed both supported the many half-formed ideas and inklings I had, and so I went away to the archives excited at the thought of bringing together the history of the United States and the world, the history of development, and environmental history.

What steps did you take after deciding on this topic to begin to explore your topic?

I realized very early in my research that I would need to focus on a few key individuals to help tell this wide-ranging story. It also became clear that a major component of my story was the rise of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), or why environmentalists employed this new form of organizational technology to pursue their interests in a world dominated by nation-states and a few fledgling international organizations. So I set out to identify many key activists who also had major roles in leading NGOs, people such as Great Britain’s Julian Huxley and Barbara Ward and Americans such as Russell Train and Hal Coolidge. Research into their personal papers proved to be a boon. They had been concerned about the environment-development dilemma long before I had anticipated, and they provided me with many other avenues to pursue.

Can you describe your archival sources, and any new insights or drawbacks you experienced while doing research?

One of the joys of doing international history is having the opportunity to travel abroad and make transnational connections between different actors and institutions. The papers of Julian Huxley, for instance, are held at Rice University. Though I found incredible materials there, he would allude to certain decisions made by United Nations agencies or NGOs such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF). I realized I needed to follow the story into their archives, as well. I had the immense fortune of receiving multiple fellowships that allowed me to travel abroad. I spent months in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and East Africa combing through records of NGOs, governments, and international organizations, all of which allowed me to tie together many loose ends. Stitching together stories based on a wide range of archival materials—from memos in Huxley’s papers to corresponding documents in Geneva and Nairobi—was very exciting. This archival research really impressed upon me the essentially transnational character of mid-century environmentalism. Much like Huxley, many activists took the entire globe as the object of their activism; they crossed borders freely in the pursuit of environmental protection; they justified interventions into sovereign states to protect wild flora and fauna by using global environmental imperatives. This transnational activism really struck me, and my multinational source base was critical to that realization.

One of the greatest difficulties for me, though, was that many NGOs simply did not have the funding or capability to keep many of their records. Saving all those old papers was easier for big groups like the IUCN and WWF; for many smaller groups I visited, I had to sit in small cubicles in their offices and peruse through poorly organized materials stored offsite in old boxes. And some didn’t have any materials saved at all. In those cases, I would have to interview activists to get their recollections and try to piece together stories based on available published materials, such as annual reports or internal newsletters.

What future directions do you see for this work? What other questions need to be asked about this topic?

Writing the history of environmental criticisms of the global push for economic growth inspired to me explore the historical origins of the “growth” paradigm itself. In a new book project, I’m exploring how the idea of “economic growth” has been defined, measured, implemented, and challenged by various reformers around the world. In particular, I reveal how and why U.S. economists, statisticians, and other experts promoted the concept of “economic growth” as a policy goal worldwide after World War II. I examine how their definition of economic growth and the numbers used to give it meaning— particularly Gross National Product (GNP)—defined development strategies, sparked social transformations, reshaped popular expectations of government, and generated deleterious environmental changes from rapid deforestation to increasing climate change. I also highlight major reform movements that critiqued how officials relied on GNP and reductive models used for quantifying and pursuing economic growth since the 1960s. I am especially interested in environmental critics of growth, particularly those who have sought to “green” GNP and other accounting metrics by pricing nature; the “humanitarian” critics who have sought to replace aggregate economic metrics with distributional and social indicators such as the Human Development Index; and the recent social-psychological efforts to place “happiness” as the goal of social change. These—the environmental, humanitarian, and happiness critiques—will be the focus of my study.

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations?

Reach out to historians working on similar topics. I’ve developed great working relationships with many other young historians working on similar issues. I’ve found that many have been very open about discussing ideas, forming conference panels, sharing documents, and much else. Writing a dissertation can be a lonely process, and it can lead one to the fallacious conclusion that it is a solitary endeavor. But that’s not true. Many of my biggest breakthroughs came when discussing ideas with colleagues, presenting work-in-progress at conferences, or working through poorly written drafts with my advisors. That’s my main advice: reach out to others early and often.

What would someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

I hope they would come away with a rich perspective on the history of environmentalism, a better understanding of the centrality of development thought and practice to twentieth century history, and better informed of the long-standing political contests between North and South over global environmental agreements such as climate change. On this last point, debates over financing environmental protection in the Global South will be a major issue in the December climate negotiations in Paris. I hope that my dissertation convinces people that these concerns are not new, and that any meaningful global agreement over climate change will require that the wealthy countries come to terms with these decades-old political and economic disputes over development and foreign aid.


Share your thoughts