Verena Winiwarter
Verena Winiwarter wants to find as many ways as possible to implement the knowledge of scientists in society. Thus promotion of the youngsters is as important as the public according to the scientist. © Heribert Corn

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that emits toxic fumes even at room temperature. The effects of these mercury fumes were reported way back in the 16th century. “The fumes of mercury and the smoke of lamps are so dense that the Indios have almost no air to breathe and nearly become unconscious,” is how the priest Pedro Múniz describes working conditions in the mercury mines von Huancavelica in 1603.

Intoxication taken for granted

In the colonial regency of Peru, the Spanish had just “discovered” the largest deposits of mercury in South America – close to the city of Huancavelica, just 200 km south-east of Lima. The mercury mined and melted there was being transported to silver mines since 1563 – mainly to the mine of Potosí, now in Bolivia. With mercury one was able to obtain silver much more profitably and rapidly by the then newly introduced technique of amalgamation. As a result, the production of silver increased significantly from 1573 onward. The silver from the colonies was a precursor of transatlantic triangular trade during which – from the end of the 17th century onward – weapons, slaves and colonial products were traded profitably between Europe, West Africa and the American colonies. This was very significant for the economic and political development of Europe. The fact that it meant disease and death for hundreds of thousands of Indios - who were poisoned by the mercury fumes - was taken for granted during this explosive rise in production. The symptoms of chronic mercury intoxication were well known – they had been described in detail in reports to the Spanish court – because of rising concerns about the loss of cheap labor.

How long it takes!

“If you consider,” says Verena Winiwarter, speaking of the period from the start of the European modern period to the present time, “how long the acute toxicity of mercury was a known fact! Yet the world community decided as late as in 2013 – at the Minamata Convention – to quit the business of mercury. The environmental historian regards time as the scarcest commodity we have at the moment, because processes of democratic decision-making, in the course of which combined actions and measures are developed, need time – as the Kyoto protocol has shown.

Basic and applied research

Verena Winiwarter is the first and only professor of environmental history in Austria. Her academic home is the Alpen-Adria University of Klagenfurt, at its location in Vienna. She investigates the effects and undesirable effects of man’s actions on Nature. Political and social logic, in her view, are inseparably interrelated in Man’s dealings with Nature. “Hence, through Man’s relationship with Nature we can make a very important contribution to the research of human history.” It is exactly here that the scientist sees the innermost jurisdiction of environmental history: the analysis of the side effects of human action. “My specialty is as much a subject of basic research as it is a very significant contribution to sustainability research,” says Winiwarter.

The greatest environmental problems

“The greatest problems are those that create long-term commitments for us, occur on a global level, and cannot be eliminated by a single person.” She mentions the example of nuclear technology. “Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. In other words, even after this time a half of the dangerous material is still around.

“It has never been possible to resolve a problem at its tail end. One has to address the causes.” Verena Winiwarter

You have to visualize it as a communication system that persists for 250,000 years. One hundred thousand years ago, human beings sharpened their first bows and produced their first arrow tips. How do we envisage society in 250,000 years and how do we tell them about it? A decision in favor of nuclear technology would limit the scope of action for future generations in a dramatic way,” says Winiwarter. A question that prevails in the scientist’s mind when analyzing the side effects of human action is: How many levels of freedom does society still have at its disposal? Aren’t we getting into an entirely new kind of self-commitment? As an example she mentions the automobile society. “By constructing more roads we do not merely create more traffic all the time, we also have to constantly repair the infrastructure we’ve created. The mere maintenance of the existing structures would keep the construction industry of Austria going at its current level.” What the scientist clearly concludes from 3,000 years of human history is: “It has never been possible to resolve a problem at its tail end. One has to address the causes.” The causes are to be found in the growth logic of the capitalist system. Therefore she thinks it is irrelevant whether more oil shale deposits exist or not. “We should not use them because if we do, we will overstrain the degradation capacity of the atmosphere,” she warns.

Environmental history versus future research

With all our knowledge of the errors of the past, the question of the future arises. What should we change? The environmental historian emphasizes: “I am no futurologist! I can only tell you where we’ve come from, not where we’re going to. Most prognoses of the past have one thing in common: they were all wrong.

“Better err on the safe side than on the over-optimistic side.” Verena Winiwarter

Man’s prognostic ability is very limited.” She suggests a change of tactics. “Our new maxim should be: Better err on the safe side than on the over-optimistic side.” Her unequivocal core statement from environmental history is: Caution pays! Caution is related to foresight and prudence. Winiwarter cites an example: “Limnologists may tell us how a lake tips over from one day to the next. Phosphate and nitrogen flow into it for a long time, yet nothing happens. Then suddenly the lake is full of algae, light is unable to penetrate its darkness, and the fish die. One should take care not to reach such tipping points.” Dealing carefully with fragile Nature is the smartest thing to do, she says. We know three things from environmental research, says the scientist: side effects are normal, irreversibilities are common, and successful strategies in the short term have catastrophic effects in the long term. Nevertheless she emphasizes, “I am no pessimist!” Because we still need to acquire an important dimension: confidence. “Because otherwise we wouldn’t take our options for action seriously. We need to be confident about the fact that we can be smarter. I suspect,” she says with a smile, “that we need to get drastically smarter.”

Socially effective science

One more thing the scientist considers very crucial: “I’m counting on the fact that we’ll have to find as many ways as possible to implement our knowledge – the knowledge of scientists – in society.” Therefore, the scientist feels it is important to explain her research in a comprehensible way. This, according to her, is ensured by the interdisciplinary character of her research report. The actual productive innovative force within the research system definitely lies in interdisciplinary groups, she says. “Our task as researchers is to produce knowledge that functions best in an interdisciplinary manner and acts best in a transdisciplinary manner!” she summarizes. “Research with human beings and not about them. We conceive our own scientific questions in a way that they can be answered. The stimulation created by working with people outside the science system – that is productive.” In her specialty Winiwarter’s attention is focused on the long-term perspective. Therefore she is very frustrated about the short-term nature of research promotion policies. “At the individual project level the perspective is two or three years. We need long-term monitoring,” she says, “because some questions cannot be shortened to such an extent that they can be researched during such a short period of time.” And finally, we need concepts for a post-growth society that regards the environment market as the investment market. Because – and here the historian reiterates her confidence – “We have to make decisions in an environment of uncertainty. But a different world is possible!”

Verena Winiwarter is a Professor of Environmental History and Head of the Centre of Environmental History at the Vienna location of the Alpen-Adria University of Klagenfurt. After training as an engineer of technical chemistry she studied history and journalism. In the course of an FWF sponsorship as part of the Hertha Firnberg Programme, she completed her habilitation in 2003. Winiwarter is a corresponding member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. A mother of two adult children, she was honoured as the “Scientist of the Year” in 2013.