"Nature and Power" is not for the faint of heart, it is very dense, both in terms of the amount of text per page and in its conceptualizations. Throughout the text Radkau spends significant amounts of time discussing the historiography of environmental history and the intellectual history of environmentalism. The first chapter in particular says virtually nothing of substance (e.g. changing water levels in Denmark or rate of deforestation), but rather deals entirely with how we think about environmentalism. While I found it mind numbing, someone else might really appreciate it. But there is plenty of substance to be had.
One problem Radkau faces is that he tends to avoid the apocalyptic predictions of environmentalists, instead offering a balanced, nuanced view that can easily be lost in translation (so to speak, this is after all a literal translation as well, and a good one at that) -- but his environmentalist peers do not appreciate this nuance, and the anti-environmentalists are too prone to claim his as their own. Towards the end of the book Radkau tells about how a radio show used his book to claim that there are no environmental problems to be overly worried about. This clearly is not the case. Radkau simply points out that struggles with sustainability are not new, and that apocalyptic predictions tend to fall short (thankfully). As problems become manifest, human attention is diverted to them. It is environmental problems that are masked that cause the most trouble.
Humanity appears to have begun its history with wasteful use of resources. Slash and burn agriculture, where forests are burned down, and the ash used as a short term fertilizer, was the norm for many years. When humans were few and land was plenty that was generally fine. When Americans first came to America, and through the 19th century, land was so plentiful that it was often cheaper to use the land and then move on rather than fertilize and replenish it. Mining, fishing, and other activities have all variously caused ecological pressure. This is a recurring theme: while we view conservation as a contemporary issue, it is not.
Which raises the issue: what to conserve? Radkau raises some thorny issues. Why is it that larger, cuter animals like seals or elephants are more popular than salmon or insects. And why is it that goats should be valued over the forests that they can overgraze if not watched? Why is one life more valuable than another? And in helping one, ecological damage can occur elsewhere. Radkau notes that planting trees is a popular "green" thing to do. But the importation of the Australian Eucalyptis to Portugal has exasperated water shortages due to its high water use. Dams avoided the use of fossil fuels, but damaged fish stocks and killed rivers. Wind farms kill birds, pitting bird conservationists against alternative fuel proponents. As Radkau notes, environmental movements have expended a great deal of energy in internal controversies, but it is not hard to see why.
While environmentalists often tote the "natural," what is natural also seems a relevant question to Radkau. One of the sections of his books deals with husbandry and gardening - both largely ignored in environmental history. According to Radkau, domestication was one of the great acts of conservation. Instead of hunting and depleting stocks, domestication allowed for sustainable protein. But a lamb is no less alive than a faun. Gardens, too, represent a conservation of a kind - and are at least worth conserving. Radkau does not address this, but man-made lakes such as the Salton Sea at the end of the Colorado River are now the locus of conservation efforts - created during the New Deal when they diverted the Colorado River for a time to do hydraulic work on the river, it is now an important stopping spot for migratory fowl. But it is man-made. Does the fact that man made it rather than a beaver make it less natural? Nature adapts and changes itself as well.
Who is best to do the conserving? Some argue for the state. The Soviet State, with all its power, drained the Aral sea and caused massive desertification in central Asia. By contrast, the United States federal government, beginning with the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, initiated massive land conservation. But FDR radically altered the landscape through the Tennessee River Valley authority (which did have many beneficial effects, and pulled the south from poverty), and under the new deal dams were put up all over the country at an alarming rate. Many rivers were forever changed.
Small holders, too, have a mixed record. In Germany (Radkau's homeland), forests were best preserved when they were utilized for grazing acorns (from Oak). Across Europe this was the case - the peasants depended on the forests, so they preserved them, and pruned out coniferous trees in favor of deciduous trees. In the Aegean island of Greece, the forests that survived best were the ones that were needed for their ships: fine wood of the right size and shape were essential. Usage creates the need to preserve.
Organizations do not solve problems, people do. Organizations that are full of people who don't care about the environment, or have different goals, will have different outcomes from organizations full of people that do care. The type of organization appears to matter quite a bit less. Radkau does point out, though, that heavy handed intervention that alienates locals will generally fail. As he notes several times, an old German saying says "you can't have a policeman by every tree." In some cases governments have antagonized locals, and made locals hate the environmental movement by removing traditional rights, that as noted above actually go a long ways towards conservation. Radkau points out that rich western environmentalists advocate against tropical rainforest clearing, but don't say anything when temperate forests are cut down for development. Radkau advocates for simple rules and against excessive regulatory regimes for maximum effect.
Overall this is an impressive work, but I kept wishing for more detail, more nuts and bolts so to speak, and a lot less theorizing and conceptualizing. The same amount of time spent elsewhere would yield more useful information about the natural world. At the same time, this is an impressively broad work;Radkau seems eminently reasonable, and he raises fascinating questions. 3.5 stars.
If you read one work on environmental issues, I strongly recommend Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (Global Century Series) as you will learn a lot more, with more enjoyment and in less time. If you want to learn about water issues, I recommend the extremely readable book Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It. Still, this book is worth a read if you will read several books on the subject.