The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment

How the United Nations Built Spaceship Earth

Perrin Selcer

Columbia University Press

The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment

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Pub Date: September 2018

ISBN: 9780231166485

400 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $65.00£50.00

Pub Date: September 2018

ISBN: 9780231548236

400 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $64.99£50.00

The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment

How the United Nations Built Spaceship Earth

Perrin Selcer

Columbia University Press

In the wake of the Second World War, internationalists identified science as both the cause of and the solution to world crisis. Unless civilization learned to control the unprecedented powers science had unleashed, global catastrophe was imminent. But the internationalists found hope in the idea of world government. In The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment, Perrin Selcer argues that the metaphor of “Spaceship Earth”—the idea of the planet as a single interconnected system—exemplifies this moment, when a mix of anxiety and hope inspired visions of world community and the proliferation of international institutions.

Selcer tells the story of how the United Nations built the international knowledge infrastructure that made the global-scale environment visible. Experts affiliated with UN agencies helped make the “global”—as in global population, global climate, and global economy—an object in need of governance. Selcer traces how UN programs such as UNESCO’s Arid Lands Project, the production of a soil map of the world, and plans for a global environmental-monitoring system fell short of utopian ambitions to cultivate world citizens but did produce an international community of experts with influential connections to national governments. He shows how events and personalities, cultures and ecologies, bureaucracies and ideologies, decolonization and the Cold War interacted to make global knowledge. A major contribution to global history, environmental history, and the history of development, this book relocates the origins of planetary environmentalism in the postwar politics of scale.
Perrin Selcer shows the persistent attempts by UN-related researchers to produce global citizenship. In the process, he shows convincingly, a global epistemic community was created. Impressively researched, The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment is highly original. An authoritative study. Alison Bashford, author of Global Population: History, Geopolitics and Life on Earth
The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment reveals the hidden history of international society’s formative ideas. Before NGOs, before a world community could have moral weight, there had to be a theory of reform that was both widely shared and planetary in scale. Selcer shows how foundational beliefs of globalism—development, conservation, world citizenship, localism, the biosphere—originated among an international community of scientists and activists seeking answers for aggression, disease, and scarcity. Along the way are vivid portraits of iconic thinkers, such as Margaret Mead, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, who often formed unexpected alliances. An absorbing, thoroughly detailed account. Nick Cullather, Indiana University, Bloomington
Selcer’s path-breaking study provides an original and thought-provoking account of the origins of global environmentalism within the world of mid-twentieth-century internationalism and its associated movements. His work brims with novel and important insights that will reshape scholarship in international history, environmental history, and the history of science. Jessica Wang, University of British Columbia
An engaging microhistory. Choice
Acknowledgments
List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Science, Global Governance, and the Environment
1. Behind the Burlap Curtain
2. Conserving the World Community
3. Men Against the Desert
4. The Soil Map of the World and the Politics of Scale
5. Locating the Global Environment
6. Spaceship Earth in the Age of Fracture
Conclusion: The View from a Utopia’s Ruins
Notes
Bibliography
Index

About the Author

Perrin Selcer (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan. He has published articles in Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences, the British Journal for the History of Science, and Current Anthropology.