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Managing the Unknown

Managing the Unknown: Essays on Environmental Ignorance

Frank Uekötter
Uwe Lübken
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Managing the Unknown
    Book Description:

    Information is crucial when it comes to the management of resources. But what if knowledge is incomplete, or biased, or otherwise deficient? How did people define patterns of proper use in the absence of cognitive certainty? Discussing this challenge for a diverse set of resources from fish to rubber, these essays show that deficient knowledge is a far more pervasive challenge in resource history than conventional readings suggest. Furthermore, environmental ignorance does not inevitably shrink with the march of scientific progress: these essays suggest more of a dialectical relationship between knowledge and ignorance that has different shapes and trajectories. With its combination of empirical case studies and theoretical reflection, the essays make a significant contribution to the interdisciplinary debate on the production and resilience of ignorance. At the same time, this volume combines insights from different continents as well as the seas in between and thus sketches outlines of an emerging global resource history.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-253-9
    Subjects: Environmental Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Uwe Lübken and Frank Uekötter
  4. INTRODUCTION. The Social Functions of Ignorance
    (pp. 1-11)
    Frank Uekötter and Uwe Lübken

    Conventional wisdom has it that mankind’s knowledge doubles every ten years. Or is it every five years? When talking about knowledge, people are usually pondering problems of plenty nowadays. The general feeling is that there is an abundance of information out there, readily available through the Internet and other media, leaving experts and decision-makers with the challenging task of keeping up to date. Of course, gaps in our knowledge remain, but those will surely disappear with some more research. Against this background, deeper thoughts about the limits of our knowledge may appear obsolete, or even risky: when Donald Rumsfeld talked...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Guayule Fever: Lost Knowledge and Struggles for a Natural Rubber Reserve in the American West
    (pp. 12-31)
    Mark R. Finlay

    Soon after the 1929 stock market collapse, U.S. President Herbert Hoover and a rubber company executive met in the White House and hatched a plan to create a vast natural and living reserve of an obscure rubber-bearing desert shrub called guayule. George Carnahan, president of the Intercontinental Rubber Company (IRC) persuaded Hoover to support his vision that vast reserves of guayule should be planted in the American West as an alternative source of natural rubber, one that could ameliorate a rubber shortage emergency caused by war or economic crisis.¹ To confirm the plan’s feasibility, the United States Army sent a...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Thinking in Cycles: Flows of Nitrogen and Sustainable Uses of the Environment
    (pp. 32-52)
    Hugh S. Gorman

    Debates over how best to manage human uses of the physical environment often focus on one portion of a much larger cycle. Whether a debate is framed in terms of allocating a resource (such as land, water, minerals, fossil fuels, or fish and game), using the environment as a sink (such as for emissions into the air or discharges into a water body), or governing the use of a commons (such as a sea, forest, aquifer, or airshed), the outcome usually has consequences that go beyond the effort to manage a particular resource, sink, or commons. Indeed, when framing debates...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Forests of Canada: Seeing the Forests for the Trees
    (pp. 53-70)
    Susan Herrington

    A sound theoretical and practical understanding of the size, type, extent, and health of Canadian forests has always been a challenge. Canada’s forests were and still are immense, covering 4,440,000 km² and representing 10 percent of all the world’s forests.¹ Moreover, significant cultural factors have also hampered knowledge of Canadian forests leading to their depletion. Prior to the twentieth century, Canada’s image as a cornucopia of natural resources with huge and seemingly endless forests exacerbated their destruction. If there was an infinite supply of trees, for construction, trade, and fuel, then there was little need to know how many trees...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Forest Law in Mandate Palestine: Colonial Conservation in a Unique Context
    (pp. 71-90)
    David B. Schorr

    The management of forests, a highly visible and seemingly knowable resource, would seem to leave very little to the realm of “the unknown.” Since the eighteenth century, foresters have counted and measured trees, calculated sustainable yields, and administrated forests in an efficient and planned manner. Yet even with this resource, managers and policymakers may be afflicted with lack of knowledge about crucial facts, unknowns which may determine the way in which forests reserves are developed, preserved, and exploited.

    Historians such as Richard Grove and Gregory Barton have emphasized the central place of “empire forestry” in the emergent environmentalism of the...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Perception and Use of Marine Biological Resources under National Socialist Autarky Policy
    (pp. 91-121)
    Ole Sparenberg

    When national socialist Germany embarked on a policy of autarky prior to World War II, intensifying the economic exploitation of the sea was one way to tackle the resulting shortages of food and raw materials. This involved not only expanding deep-sea fishery, but also Germany’s entry into modern Antarctic whaling. Marine resources were seen as a buffer in a time of chronic shortages, and their exploitation seemed to offer a growth potential, which land-based resources lacked. Whether the marine resources were able to fill the gaps in the fat and protein supply or not obviously depended on the size and...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Ignorance Is Strength: Science-based Agriculture and the Merits of Incomplete Knowledge
    (pp. 122-139)
    Frank Uekötter

    In his novel1984, George Orwell describes a system of totalitarian suppression in terrifying detail. Mass events and omnipresent television screens make for constant indoctrination, while cameras leave no part of the public and private spheres uncontrolled; a ruthless secret police weeds out dissidents for re-education, torture, and worse. But totalitarian control not only pertains to supervision and violence. At the time when the novel takes places, the rulers are about to introduce Newspeak, an artificial language that seeks to make oppositional thoughts intellectually impossible. For the moment, the system sticks to a method called Doublethink, which annihilates dissent by...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Expert Estimates of Oil-Reserves and the Transformation of “Petroknowledge” in the Western World from the 1950s to the 1970s
    (pp. 140-167)
    Rüdiger Graf

    In November 1977, the West German Körber Foundation organized its 58thconference that brought together German and international politicians, journalists, economists, social scientists, and energy experts to debate the energy crisis. After a presentation by the European Commissioner for Energy, Klaus M. Meyer-Abich, a professor of philosophy of the natural sciences, predicted there would be sufficient energy from fossil fuels until the mid 1980s. Meyer-Abich argued further that after the year 2000, all energy problems would be solved by inexhaustible sources of nuclear fusion and solar energy. Before 2000, however, he expected a serious energy problem for industrialized countries.¹ Although...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Reducing Uncertainties with Scenarios?
    (pp. 168-182)
    Cornelia Altenburg

    In the 1970s, energy became a pressing political issue in West Germany.¹ Not only the Club-of-Rome-Study, but also two oil crises made “The Limits to Growth”² manifest itself. West German society became aware of the finitude of fossil energy resources in a very practical sense with the car-free Sundays in November and December 1973.

    To substitute fossil energy with nuclear energy seemed not to be a reasonable solution. In 1974, the movement against nuclear energy arose, at times erupting in violence. Opponents of atomic energy tried to occupy several construction sites—for example in Brokdorf and Grohnde, to name but...

  13. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 183-184)
  14. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 185-194)
  15. Index
    (pp. 195-200)