Between Work and the Environment: Social Democracy and Ecology, 1969 – 1998

Employees (IfZ):  Dr. des. Felix Lieb

A discussion came about within the SPD during the 1970s on the environmental compatibility of economic growth, the dangers of atomic energy, and the best ways to deal with the rise of the environmental movement and the Greens. This all began with discussions on the “limits of growth” and was boosted by the broad protests against the use of atomic energy during the decade. This “ecologization” of the SPD emerged between the traditional social democratic core value of “work” and its new value of the “environment”, with the main issue in social democratic environmental thought being how the conservation of our natural foundations of life can be reconciled with a labor-friendly economic policy. This all also unfolded between the organizational models of “party” and “movement”, as one of the aims of a genuine social democratic  environmental policy entailed distancing the party from the environmental movement and its grassroots understanding of politics. It was unclear for a long time how much voters and members of the Greens could be integrated into the party or even if coalitions could be formed with the new Green Party. The balance between environmental protection and growth policy remained contradictory in the Social Democratic political understanding too.

This dissertation project will address the following questions: What characterized genuine social democratic environmental and energy policies? What sorts of attempts were made to integrate the “environment” into the traditional canon of fundamental social democratic values? How did the environmental positioning of the party connect with its changing course in terms of economic and employment policy? And what role did alternative views of politics and (grassroots) democracy play with regard to the relationship with the Greens and their electoral base?

The study will address the overarching question of whether renewal and modernization was possible – as well in terms of the party programs as in political  structures –  for major political parties such as the SPD in the face of the emergence of the environmental movement and environmental policies since the 1970s. As part of an expansion of political history aiming to include perspectives of cultural and social history, this involves an examination of German social democratic in terms of symptoms of “political change” in the era “after the boom”.

This dissertation is associated with the Leibniz Association’s cooperative project Geschichte der Nachhaltigkeit(en): Diskurse und Praktiken seit den 1970er Jahren (“History of Sustainability: Discourses and Practices since the 1970s”).


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