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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds The historian Mark Cioc has called the Rhine Europe’s world river. It links Europe to the world through its mouth at Rotterdam, the world’s largest ocean harbor with a throughput of some 450 million tons of cargo per year. Though it’s not a particularly long river, only 1,200 kilometers in length, it connects to numerous tributaries and makes inland cities in Germany, France, and Switzerland into ports. The Rhine’s economic role extends far beyond shipping. It’s also used as a source of cooling water for power plants, and even as a waste receptacle for chemical producers and other factories. Nonetheless, the Rhine is well known for its natural beauty. The Lorelei Cliffs near Sankt Goarshausen are the subject of a famous poem by Heinrich Heine.

Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds Early 19th century romantic landscapes by painters like John Gardner featured the river. The Rhine, therefore, offers an interesting opportunity to debate whether or not efforts to protect the environment are part of modernity, or a hearkening back to the romantic age of Heine and Gardner. In fact, debates over the Rhine show us that it isn’t so easy to separate development and environmental protection, and that both are quite modern. One of the most important battles over the Rhine came in the 1970s when planners in France, Switzerland, and West Germany sought to nuclearize the river by building numerous reactors along the stretch known as the Upper Rhine between Basel and Strasbourg.

Skip to 1 minute and 35 seconds Local farmers, vintners, and fisherman were worried that discharging cooling water from these proposed reactors either directly into the river as hot water or by burning it of as steam, would threaten their fishing holes and crops. One shipping company even expressed concerns that discharging hot water into the river would impede navigation by creating fog. Planners, meanwhile, made the case that nuclear energy development would be required to keep the lights on by the early 1980s, and that the voluminous Rhine provided the best source of necessary cooling water. They argued that the Rhine Valley ought to be set aside as a site for industrial development, while other functions like living and recreation could be moved into the hills.

Skip to 2 minutes and 19 seconds Thus, the 1970s debate about nuclearization did not hinge primarily on whether the romantic Rhine ought to be preserved, as Heine described it, but rather on how the Rhine valley should best be used by humans in the present. In fact, given the small European continents high population density, European environmental debates almost always have to do with the interactions between humans and nature. Since the Upper Rhine’s course had been straightened or rectified under the direction of the engineer Johann Gottfried Tulla in the 19th century, 20th century fights over the Rhine could not be about preserving primordial nature, but rather about a landscape that had been adapted by humans for their own uses.

Skip to 3 minutes and 2 seconds Rather than a hearkening back to some distant past or movement of Luddites intent on destroying technological progress, therefore, environmentalism ought to be seen as a different approach to modernity, one that directs technological progress towards new ends. It’s hardly surprising then that the Upper Rhine became a center for solar energy production amidst the fight over nuclear power. More recently, the nearby university town of Freiburg became known as a center for green innovation, powering its soccer stadium with renewable energy and attracting firms with plans for passive houses.

Skip to 3 minutes and 36 seconds Such projects and developments do not preclude other visions of nature protection, but they do show that environmentalism can be a modern undertaking, particularly in long settled densely populated parts of Europe, like the banks of the Rhine. It’s hard to imagine it as anything else.

Environmentalism and modernity

In the previous steps, we have looked at representations of nature in European literature. Now, we will look at environmentalism as a particularly modern movement.

Dr Steve Milder takes the Rhine, running from Switzerland through France, Germany and the Netherlands to the North Sea, as his example. The Rhine is an important river: one of the world’s largest harbours is located at its mouth at Rotterdam, for example. It also provides cooling water to power plants further upstream and fresh water to many farmers and fishermen.

Therefore, any change to the Rhine’s built environment has immediate and profound consequences for the people living around it and the various demands they place upon the river. In debates concerning those changes, the environmental movement should not be seen as anti-modern, but as directing technological progress towards new ends.

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