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Tracing the roots of sustainability to a less-than-glorious past

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Readers will no doubt remember the disturbance caused in heritage circles last year by Stephen Games' revelation of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner's Nazi sympathies. Best known for his epic Buildings of England series, Pevsner as a young man was a pronationalist German Jewish academic who was fired from his teaching post when Adolf Hitler came to power. Fleeing to England, his enthusiasm for totalitarianism disappeared during the Second World War when - like the rocket engineer Werner von Braun in the US - he contrived to find roots in an alien culture, received a knighthood and became more English than the English.

Because any association with Nazism is certain death in historical circles, it may be that truckloads of remaindered Buildings of England have been heading for landfill ever since. Even so, this episode has ramifications. Where, for example, does it leave the burgeoning number of experts on sustainability, who unwittingly advocate environmental measures that were highly developed in Hitler's Germany?

Surely only lack of historical knowledge saves these advocates of sustainability from being recognised for the Nazi fellow travellers they are.

In the first half of the 20th century, Germany was the epicentre of sustainability. It possessed the most advanced chemical industry in the world, capable of liquefying air and turning it into a raw material for industry and agriculture. Nitrate fertilisers were just the beginning.Germany could also convert coal into petroleum and make synthetic rubber from a distillate of oil. Despite having no ore-bearing regions, German foundries could not only extract high-quality iron from imported lowgrade ores, but also employ new processes to extract rare metals present in trace quantities.

This pattern of innovation and substitution achieved an extraordinary level of independence for German heavy industry - but there was more.

Under Hitler, the achievement of national autarky became a national preoccupation. In the field of energy the Germans pioneered hydroelectric schemes using pumped storage, and explored 60,000 kilowatt triple rotor wind generators using electrolytically produced hydrogen as the storage medium. One scheme, the most ambitious hydroelectric scheme of the Nazi years, proposed building enormous dams across the Straits of Gibraltar, the Straits of Tunis and the Straits of Messina to generate vast quantities of electricity, dividing the Mediterranean sea in two and lowering its surface level by 200 metres to provide more land area for Germany's allies, Italy and Spain.

To achieve this level of economic autarky, it was not only necessary to have the science and technology required but also to have a mobilised population prepared to commit itself to the task, unpaid, as a national duty to conserve resources. As a result, the obedient Germans remained surprisingly dependent on horses for transport, invading Russia in 1941 with more horses than Napoleon. In cities they used electric delivery vans and steam-powered trams, and in the countryside farmers used wood or coal-burning tractors. Rationing discouraged car ownership and nearly all heavy trucks were diesel or steam-powered. At the consumer level, there were regular governmentsponsored reclamation schemes for waste materials, ranging from used lubricating oil, waste paper, rubber, gramophone records, photographic film, kitchen scraps, pips and stones from fruit, coffee grounds (to make oils and waxes), pine cones, nettles (special strains were cultivated for their fibre content), seaweed, acorns and horse chestnuts, to cork and linoleum, electrical contacts, pen nibs, bones, bottles, foreign coins, old clothing and rags.

Unlike the US today, the Nazis made no attempt to mechanise resource recovery at the consumer level or develop a market for waste.

Like sustainability, conservation was an act of faith.

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