Skip to main content Accessibility help

‘The world after all was one’: The International Environmental Network of UNESCO and IUPN, 1945–1950


The pursuit of nature conservation was central to the scientific section of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from the outset. In order to build a network of expertise and practice, UNESCO supported the establishment of a non-governmental organisation, the fledgling International Union for the Protection of Nature (IUPN). This small core of non-governmental actors found itself thrown into the arena of global politics and was forced out of its conservation niche. In August 1949, UNESCO and IUPN jointly convened a global conference on ecology and education. The genesis and progress of this conference highlighted the growing prominence of environmental issues and the increasing reciprocity between these issues and questions of nutrition, development and health in the immediate post-war era.

La section scientifique des Nations Unies (UNESCO) met dès le début la conservation de la nature au centre de ses préoccupations. Afin de créer un réseau d'expertise et de savoir-faire, l'UNESCO parraine une nouvelle organisation non-gouvernementale, l'Union Internationale pour la Protection de la Nature (UIPN). Cette petite bande d'acteurs se retrouve tout d'un coup dans l'arène de la politique globale et dans la nécessité d'abandonner la petite niche qui jusque-là avait abrité les apôtres de la conservation internationale. Déjà en 1949, l'UNESCO, comme l'UIPN, appelle à la constitution d'un premier Congrès mondial pour l'écologie et l'éducation. L'histoire de ce congrès et de ses conséquences souligne l'importance toujours croissante des questions environnementales et l'apparition d'interconnections avec les problèmes d'alimentation, de développement et de santé tels qu'ils se présentaient dans le monde de l'après-guerre.

Von Beginn an verstand die Bildungsorganisation der Vereinten Nationen (UNESCO) Naturschutz als zentrale Aufgabe. Um ein Netzwerk für Experten- und Praxiswissen aufzubauen unterstützte die Organisation die Gründung einer korrespondierenden Nichtregierungsorganisation, der Internationalen Union für Naturschutz (IUPN). Der kleine Zirkel dieser Akteure fand sich plötzlich in der Arena globaler Politik wieder und war gezwungen, die Nische, in der sich internationaler Naturschutz bis dahin entwickelt hatte, zu verlassen. Bereits im August 1949 berief die UNESCO gemeinsam mit der IUPN eine erste Weltkonferenz ein, die sich mit Ökologie und Bildung beschäftigte. Die Geschichte dieser Konferenz und deren Verlauf spiegeln die steigende Bedeutung umweltpolitischer Fragen und deren wachsenden Wechselbeziehungen mit Ernährungs-, Entwicklungs- und Gesundheitsfragen in der unmittelbaren Nachkriegszeit wider.

Hide All

1 The Conference took place in Lake Success, 22–29 Aug. 1949. The manuscript of the proceedings can be found in the UNESCO Archives, Paris. A revised version was published: International Union for the Protection of Nature, ed., International Technical Conference on the Protection of Nature, Lake Success, 22–29 Aug. 1949. Proceedings and Papers (Paris, Bruxelles: UNESCO 1950) [hereafter cited as IUPN, 1950]. Also available at: (last visited 17 April 2011).

2 In 1956 IUPN was renamed IUCN – The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Over time, the last three words disappeared from current use (see, last visited 12 May 2011).

3 IUPN, 1950, vii.

4 While most of the literature concerning the genesis of international and global environmental governance ignores it completely, some works relating to environmental law and international environmental policy mention the conference, see for instance Lausche, Barbara J., Weaving a Web of Environmental Law (Bonn: IUCN/ECL 2008), 14. Caldwell, Lynton K., International Environmental Policy: From the Twentieth to the Twenty-First Century, 3d edn with Paul S. Weiland (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 54; McCormick, John, The Global Environmental Movement, 2nd edn (Chichester et al.: John Wiley and Sons, 1995), 40–2. The only more detailed account of the political dimension of the conference in times of population anxiety is given by Linnér, Björn-Ola, The Return of Malthus: Environmentalism and Post-war Population-Resource Crises (Isles of Harris: The White Horse Press, 2003); Martin Holdgate refers to the conferences as ‘the first landmark in IUPN's history’: Holdgate, Martin, The Green Web: A Union for World Conservation (London: Earthscan, 1999), 41–2. In his latest book on the world history of the environmental movement, Joachim Radkau pays tribute to the role IUPN/IUCN played in the immediate post-war years. Radkau, Joachim: Die Ära der Ökologie: Eine Weltgeschichte (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2011), 104–17.

5 McNeill, John R.: ‘The Environment, Environmentalism, and International Society in the Long 1970s’, in Ferguson, Niall, Maier, Charles S., Manela, Erez and Sargent, Daniel J., eds, The Shock of the Global (Cambridge, MA, London: Belknap, 2010), 263–80.

6 Global environmental governance is understood as the sum of the many ways, international organisations and businesses, individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common environmental affairs. See Speth, James Gustave and Haas, Peter, eds, Global Environmental Governance (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006), 13; Swart, Lydia and Perry, Estelle, eds, Global Environmental Governance: Perspectives on the Current Debate (New York: Centre for UN Reform Education, 2007); Chasek, Pamela S., Downie, David L. and Brown, Janet Welsh, eds, Global Environmental Politics, 5th edn (Boulder, New York: Westview Press, 2010).

7 Sluga, Glenda: ‘UNESCO and the (One) World of Julian Huxley’, Journal of World History, 21, 3 (2010), 393418, see 393.

8 Amrith, Sunil and Sluga, Glenda, ‘New Histories of the United Nations’, Journal of World History, 19, 3 (2008), 250–74; Maurel, Chloé, Histoire de l'Unesco – Les trente premières années: 1945–1974 (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2010).

9 See Robin, Libby: ‘Conservation and preservation’, in Iriye, Akira and Saunier, Pierre, eds, The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009), 191–4.

10 Adams, William, Against Extinction: The Story of Conservation (London: Earthscan, 2004); Cioc, Mark, The Game of Conservation: International Treaties to Protect the World's Migratory Animals (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009); Dorsey, Kurk, The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy. US-Canadian Wildlife Protection Treaties in the Progressive Era (Seattle, London: University of Washington Press, 1998).

11 Chester, Charles C., Conservation Across Borders: Biodiversity in an Interdependent World (Washington: Island Press, 2006), 1722.

12 Bernhard Gissibl, Sabine Höhler and Patrick Kupper, eds, Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective (forthcoming).

13 Sarasin, Paul: Weltnaturschutz (Basel: Schweizerische Naturforschende Versammlung, 1910).

14 On the ambivalent aspects of Sarasin's concept of protecting natives see Wöbse, Anna-Katharina, ‘Paul Sarasins “anthropologischer Naturschutz”: Zur “Größe” Mensch im frühen internationalen Naturschutz’, in Gröning, Gert and Wolschke-Buhlman, Joachim, eds, Naturschutz und Demokratie?! (Munich: Meidenbauer, 2006) 207–14.

15 Recueil des procès-verbaux de la Conférence Internationale pour la Protection de la Nature (Berne: Wyss 1913). For the political dimension of the conference see Herren, Madeleine, Hintertüren zur Macht: Internationalismus und modernisierungsorientierte Außenpolitik in Belgien, der Schweiz und den USA 1865–1914 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2000).

16 Wöbse, Anna-Katharina, Weltnaturschutz: Umweltdiplomatie in Völkerbund und Vereinten Nationen, 1920–1960. (Frankfurt/Main, New York: Campus, 2011); Juda, Lawrence, International Law and Ocean Use Management (London, New York: Routledge, 1996).

17 Unesco Archives, G.XIX.1 Protection du paysage et des beautés naturelles, 1930–1931; Sarah Titchen: ‘The construction of outstanding universal value: UNESCO's World Heritage Convention’ (Ph.D. thesis, the Australian National University, Canberra, 1995).

18 Holdgate, Martin, The Green Web: A Union for World Conservation (London: Earthscan, 1999), 12.

19 The object of IOPN was ‘to work internationally for the progress of nature protection by centralising, classifying, by publishing and by distributing to governments, institutions and persons interested in nature protection, documents, legislative texts, scientific studies, information and data of any kind regarding nature protection and especially the preservation of fauna, flora and natural scenery in a primitive state’: The International Office for the Protection of Nature, Brochure 1936, 9. Bundesarchiv Koblenz [German Federal Archives, BAK], 245/201.

20 On the building of the pre and inter-war networks, see Jepson, Paul and Whittacker, Robert, ‘Histories of Protected Areas: Internationalisation of Conservationist Values and their adoption in the Netherlands Indies (Indonesia)’, Environment and History, 8 (2002), 129–72.

21 Robin, Libby, ‘Ecology: A Science of Empire?’, in Griffiths, Tom and Robin, Libby, eds, Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies (Edinburgh: Keele University Press, 1997), 6375; Anker, Peder, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895 – 1945 (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2001); Tilley, Helen: ‘African Environments and Environmental Sciences: The African Research Survey, Ecological Paradigms, and British Colonial Development, 1920–1940’, in Beinart, William and McGregor, JoAnn, eds, Social History and African Environments (Oxford: Heinemann/James Currey Press, 2003).

22 Together with his colleague Waléry Goetel he had approached William Hornaday to gain advice regarding similar projects along the border between Canada and the USA. Hornaday in return promoted the binational endeavour as did the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire. See Hornaday's foreword to Goetel, Waléry: ‘The great programme of Poland and Czechoslovakia for National Parks’, Zoological Society Bulletin (published by the New York Zoological Society), 27, 2 (1925), 2736.

23 Mayr, Ernst, ‘In Memoriam: Jean (Theodore) Delacour’, The Auk, 103 (1986), 603–5.

24 One of the results of this initiative was the creation of the Albert (later Virunga) National Park in 1925 in which van Straelen incorporated the world's first gorilla sanctuary. Hindle, Edward, ‘Obituary Victor van Straelen, Nature, 202 (13 June 1964), 1058–9.

25 See ‘Harold Jefferson Coolidge’, in Sterling, Keir Brooks, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists (Westport, London: Greenwood Press, 1997); Holdgate, Web, 14.

26 IOPN, Biennial Report 1935–1937, BAK 245/201.

27 McCormick, John, The Global Environmental Movement, 2nd edn (Chichester et al.: John Wiley and Sons, 1995), 28.

28 It seems to be characteristic for such male environmental networks that they depended on versed female secretaries – in this case the Norwegian Tordis Graim, who actually ran the office.

29 In the reports of the IOPN Julian Huxley was listed as member of the General Council of the Office. See IOPN Biennial Report 1935–1937. BAK B 245/201.

30 Anker, Ecology.

31 Hoggart, Richard, An Idea and its Servants: UNESCO From Within (London: Chatto and Windus, 1978), 137.

32 Anker, Ecology, 87–92.

33 Tilley, ‘African Environments’, 109–30.

34 Huxley, Julian: Memories II (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 11.

35 Julian Huxley: UNESCO: Its Purpose and its Philosophy, 1946. (last visited 17 April 2011)

36 Toye, John and Toye, Richard: ‘Brave New Organization: Julian Huxley's philosophy’, in UNESCO, ed., Sixty Years of Science at UNESCO 1945–2005 (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 2006), 43.

37 Huxley, UNESCO, 59.

38 Huxley, UNESCO, 8.

39 On the paradox inherent to Huxley's and UNESCO's ideas of cosmopolitan, see Sluga, ‘UNESCO.

40 Huxley, UNESCO, 44–5.

41 Huxley, Memories, 46.

42 Sewell, James P., UNESCO and World Politics: Engaging in International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 110.

43 Nicholson, Max, The Environmental Revolution: A Guide for the New Masters of the Earth (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970), 195.

44 On the colonial take-over of IUPN, see Neumann, Roderick P.: ‘The Post-War Conservation Boom in British Colonial Africa’, Environmental History, 7, 1 (2002), 2247, see 37–40.

45 A Swiss, Charles Bernard, was elected to presidency, but the three vice-presidents (the French Roger Heim, Hal Coolidge of the USA and Henry G. Maurice of the UK) represented imperial preservationism. The old grand seigneurs of pre and inter-war nature protection, the Dutch van Tienhoven and the Belgian van Straelen, declined nomination. The latter's protégé, Jean-Paul Harroy, was elected secretary-general. Holdgate, Web, 35–6.

46 Holdgate, Web, 30.

47 See the description of the first conference in Fontainebleau by Rothschild, Miriam, ‘I remember. . .’, World Conservation, Anniversary Issue, 3/4 (1998), 7. While many of the European activists were occupied with rebuilding their scientific infrastructure, American protagonists such as William Vogt were optimistic. When talking to the latter, Rothschild ‘felt the future of the rhinoceros and the skylark depended on energetic visionaries, not reasonable men who discussed the basic question of our meagre resources’. Again, it was Julian Huxley who emphasised the emotional motivation the activists shared. He expressed, according to Rothschild, what the ‘delegates present all felt in their bones – the love and fascination of life other than our own, which must be protected’.

48 Nicholson, Max, The New Environmental Age (Cambridge et al: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 105.

49 Some of the European members had managed to emigrate while other prominent members of the IOPN did not survive the aggression of Nazi Germany, such as Jean Marie Derscheid, first secretary of the Office, who had been murdered by the Gestapo in 1944 (‘Obituary Jean-Marie Derscheid’, The Auk, 63, 1 [1946], 126). The Polish biologists Michal Siedlecki and his colleague Jerzy Smolenski, both representatives of various international initiatives concerning nature protection, and members of IOPN, had died in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. See August, Jochen, ed., ‘Sonderaktion Krakau’: Die Verhaftung Krakauer Wissenschaftler am 6. November 1939 (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1997), 785. Roger Heim, a renowned mycologist who was soon to become one of the key figures of the IUPN, survived the concentration camps in Buchenwald and Mauthausen. See Heim, Roger: La sombre route (Souvenir des Camps de Concentration Nazis) (Paris: Corti, 1947).

50 IUPN: Prepatory Documents to the International Technical Conference on the Protection of Nature. (Paris, Brussels, Unesco, 1949), thereafter IUPN, 1949; UNESCO Archives NS/UNR/1 (10 Nov. 1948). (last visited 16 April 2011).

51 Linnér, Björn-Ola, The Return of Malthus: Environmentalism and Post-war Population-Resource Crises (Isles of Harris: The White Horse Press, 2003), 23.

52 Unesco Archives 502.7 A 06 (73) ‘49’, Undated memorandum by Chu-Pei (ca. beginning of 1947).

53 Patrick Petitjean, ‘Blazing the Trail: Needham and UNESCO: Perspectives and Realizations’, in UNESCO, Sixty years, 46.

54 See (last visited 12 April 2011)

55 Unesco Archives 502.7 A 06 (73) ‘49’, Preliminary report by J. G. Crowther on the UNSCCUR (NSC D.682), undated.

56 Unesco Archives 502.7 A 06 (73) ‘49’, Conference on Protection of Nature – USA. – 1949. Internal Secretariat Committee for UNSCCUR, Summary Report, 12 April 1948, 3.

57 Anker, Ecology, 2–4; Tilley, African Environments, 122–4; Weiner, Douglas, Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000). Egerton, Frank N., History of American Ecology (New York: Arno Press, 1977); Trepl, Ludwig, Geschichte der Ökologie: Vom 17. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart (Frankfurt/Main: Athenäum, 1987).

58 Comment Victor van Straelen: IUPN, 1949, 19f.

59 Introduction by Jean-Paul Harroy, in IUPN/UNESCO, 1950, vii.

60 United Nations, eds, Proceedings of the United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources (New York: United Nations Publications, 1950). Among others Allan Gille of UNESCO's Division of Fundamental Education talked on ‘environmental education’ (Vol. I, 256–62), Harroy and van Straelen talked on the environmental dimension of ‘Wildlife and Fish Resources’ (Vol. VII, 222–8).

61 On the Indian-American transmission of ecological knowledge, see Lewis, Michael, Inventing Global Ecology: Tracking the Biodiversity Ideal in India, 1947–1997 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004).

62 Introduction by Jean-Paul Harroy, in IUPN, 1950, xi.

63 Staples, Amy L., The Birth of Development: How the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Health Organization Changed the World, 1945–1965 (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2006).

64 Ibid., 177–9.

65 Statement on behalf of FAO by S. B. Show, in UNESCO/IUPN, 1950, 167.

66 Resolutions in IUPN, 1950, 177–89.

67 Wood, Alan, The Groundnut Affair (London: Bodley Head, 1950).

68 Comment by Jean-Paul Harroy, in IUPN, 1950, 73.

69 Their scepticism was to be proved right. The Labour government cancelled the project in January 1951. The total cost over the years had risen to £49 million and the land had been ruined in the process, leaving it an unusable dust-bowl. Wood, Groundnut; Listowel, Judith, The Making of Tanganyika (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965) 142–55; Iliffe, John, A Modern History of Tanganyika (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 436–43.

70 Comment by Mr. O. J. Murie, in IUPN, 1950, 71.

71 Comment by Mr. Lyle F. Watts, in IUPN, 1950, 71.

72 On the desiderata concerning UNESCO's involvement in drafting the Groundnut scheme see Sluga, ‘UNESCO, 410–2.

73 ‘Nur aus der Rückschau erkennt man, wie der internationale Naturschutz doch – zunächst unmerklich – aus der Nische hervorgelangte und wie dieses imaginäre Gebilde langsam, aber sicher materielle Substanz ansetzte’. Radkau, Ökologie, 116.

I am grateful to Dr. Mieke Roscher for comments on drafts of this article, and to the two anonymous reviewers.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Contemporary European History
  • ISSN: 0960-7773
  • EISSN: 1469-2171
  • URL: /core/journals/contemporary-european-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed