Environmental historians and business historians have seldom looked to each other for inspiration. This collection hopes to change that. It grew out of a thought-provoking 2014 conference cosponsored by the Hagley Museum and Library and the German Historical Institute-DC (GHI), held at the Hagley. In the conference call for proposals, the organizers explained that they sought to provide "historical perspectives on a question of obvious relevance today: Can capitalism be green—or at least greener?" Our title—Green Capitalism?—is admittedly drawn from contemporary discourse. But we are convinced that history can provide invaluable insights into the complex and changing relationship between business and the environment.
The conference was developed in dialogue with Hartmut Berghoff, at the time director of the GHI and now director of the Institute of Economic and Social History at the University Göttingen in Germany, and Adam Rome, then Unidel Helen Gouldner Chair for the Environment and Professor of History and English at the University of Delaware. Berghoff and Rome subsequently agreed to serve as editors for this volume. About half of the papers delivered at the conference are included in this collection after considerable revision. The volume also includes essays by Berghoff and Rome as well as several chapters that they recruited from other authors.
Part I asks readers to look at the "big picture" through three wide-ranging essays posing large questions and stretching over an extensive array of scholarship. In "The Ecology of Commerce," Adam Rome investigates a provocative question: is business becoming a participant in the environmental movement? Surveying literature among business and environmental writers, he shows how the interest in "greening" capitalism so it would be sustainable has overcome resistance in many quarters such that "the sustainable-business bookshelf [now] has hundreds of manifestos." Looking at similar issues from a different vantage point in "Shades of Green," Hartmut Berghoff seeks to correct business history's long neglect of environmental factors. He explores how in fact environmental concerns among firms have a long history and how those have become more prevalent and sophisticated since the 1970s. While granting the contradictions of "ecocapitalism," his essay charts a course toward an "ecocultural" approach to business history. The final "big picture" essay, by Hugh Gorman, explores the emergence of systems of environmental governance, how "the rules that govern markets recognize the finiteness of earth systems," and the role played by business in their construction. His emphasis on the role of legal and political systems in green capitalism is a thread developed in many of the later essays; Gorman provides an overview of the literature and a review of the role of business that will allow readers to place those case studies into a larger frame.
Part II, "Conservation Before Environmentalism," pushes back the chronology to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christine Meisner Rosen revisits the movements to regulate effluent from meat processing plants and to improve air quality in the urban North with the intent of tracing the leadership role played by business interests. William D. Bryan moves readers to the American South and looks at how local boosters combined promotion of economic development with conservation of natural resources in the hope that "permanent ways of using these resources would provide the basis of a new economy." Julie Cohn then examines the countryside and the surprising synergies between utility companies and conservation advocates over electrical power and the hope that hydroelectric development could lead to a reduction in pollution from coal-fired power plants.
"Failures and Dilemmas," the volume's third part, features essays on two complex and contradictory efforts by firms to venture into green capitalism. Both authors foreground the complicated task of establishing corporate intent within the shifting terrain of environmental governance. David Kinkela takes the case of a ubiquitous item—the plastic six-pack ring—to show how its emergence and subsequent refinement lay at a nexus of corporate strategy, scientific research, and environmental awareness. Developed to alleviate a waste issue of excessive packaging, these rings created a new environmental hazard, one that the firm then sought to alleviate—at the same time as it challenged new environmental rules developed to address the unintended problem it had created. Similar themes inform the essay by Leif Fredrickson about a very different product, Ford's Ecostar van. Here again corporate initiatives and research developed in tandem with changes to governance systems, in this case California's zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate, with the objective to establish the company's authority in debates over environmental issues rather than to actually sell a "green" product. Both essays recall Gorman's stress on governance, as they draw attention to what Kinkela calls the "shifting legal terrain that shaped the marketplace" and thus influenced business initiatives.
The fourth and final part offers five cases of "Going Green." Moving away from the U.S. focus of the collection thus far, two essays discuss European countries and a third follows a comparative approach. Ann-Kristin Bergquist stresses the importance of Swedish environment policies to generate the will and technological innovation by the Boliden Company to correct the appalling pollution released by its Rönnskär copper smelting plant. Roman Köster explores how private firms moved quickly into the recycling of household waste in West Germany long before this practice became commonplace in other industrialized nations. Joseph Pratt brings in the curious case of a utility company promoting conservation through Consolidated Edison's "Save-a-Watt" campaign, provoked by the difficulties of meeting consumer demand while also complying with tougher environmental regulations. To explain the "skewed geography" of wind power, Geoffrey Jones stresses that considering "the external costs of conventional energy—such as climate change, air pollution, and water depletion"—in government policies was necessary to make wind power competitive with conventional energy sources. Governance, a theme throughout this section, is central to Brian Black's exploration of how hybrids and electric vehicles finally secured a corner of the U.S. auto market, a shift generated by the 1970s energy crisis and its impact on government policies and consumer attitudes.
This is the eleventh volume in the Hagley Perspectives on Business and Culture series that began in 1999 at Routledge, and now has a happy home at the University of Pennsylvania Press under the care of its remarkable history editor, Robert Lockhart. These collections aim to bring cutting-edge work to the attention of scholars; we hope you will find these essays stimulating and useful.