Our Green History

oday environmentalism influences the language and decisions of government, corporations and individuals to an extent that was not possible a century ago.

The belief that the environment should be protected has become widely held throughout society as the global speed and scale of resource use and environmental destruction has been recognised and understood.

As western standards of living have increased, basic material needs have been met, and people have demanded higher standards of environmental quality. But beyond the basic belief that the environment should be protected, there is no agreement on why this is important or how this should be done. There is no unifying set of environmental ideas that society subscribes to nor a single environmental movement united behind a shared cause.

Environmentalism has evolved in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to span conservative, reformist and radical ideas about what the world should look like, as well as how change should be brought about. Each strand of modern environmental thinking brings its own set of ideas about how humanity should organise itself and interact with its environment.

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Today environmentalism influences the language and decisions of government, corporations and individuals to an extent that was not possible a century ago.

The belief that the environment should be protected has become widely held throughout society as the global speed and scale of resource use and environmental destruction has been recognised and understood.

As western standards of living have increased, basic material needs have been met, and people have demanded higher standards of environmental quality. But beyond the basic belief that the environment should be protected, there is no agreement on why this is important or how this should be done. There is no unifying set of environmental ideas that society subscribes to nor a single environmental movement united behind a shared cause.

Environmentalism has evolved in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to span conservative, reformist and radical ideas about what the world should look like, as well as how change should be brought about. Each strand of modern environmental thinking brings its own set of ideas about how humanity should organise itself and interact with its environment.

Over the last 60 years these have evolved with each new environmental cause from nuclear power and pesticide use in the 1960s, to acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer in the 1970s and 1980s and biodiversity loss and climate change in the 1990s and 2000s. Often these causes have taken hold in different countries at different times, each prompted by particular historical circumstances. For this reason environmentalism has been taken up in many forms across generations and the continents of the world.

The explosion of environmental activity in the 1960s did not represent the creation of an entirely new set of ideas. In 1885 German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote: “It would never occur to me to regard the enjoyment of nature as the invention of the modern age.” The same can be said for modern day interest in the environment.

The fact that modern environmental concern spread following atomic bomb tests and to the backdrop of the Vietnam War is a point much referred to by historians and environmentalists. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) was amongst the first to link the dangers of the atomic bomb to the misuse of pesticides, emphasising humanity’s capacity to destroy nature and itself.

Over the next ten years a number of publications followed suit, Tragedy of the Commons (1968), and Limits to Growth (1972), raised wider anxieties about the future of the planet, whilst Blueprint for Survival (1972), and Small is Beautiful (1973) sketched out green alternatives. Almost half a century later the anxieties expressed in each of these books are still at the centre of many environmental concerns today.

Media coverage of dramatic pollution events has been instrumental in raising environmental concerns over the last half century.The first major oil spill in Britain occurred when the super tanker Torrey Canyon struck a reef between the UK mainland and the Isles of Scilly in March 1967.

The resulting oil slick covered 120 miles of Cornish coast, killing tens of thousands of birds. Two years later an explosion on the Union Oil Company oil platform, six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara in California, resulted in the release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil.

These highly visible examples of humanity’s impact on the environment occurred as the age of colour television began and broadcasters discovered that major pollution events made visually dramatic news stories. Each decade since has witnessed at least one massive oil spill from a super tanker or oil platform, these serve as timely reminders that environmental issues have not gone away.

The history of contemporary environmentalism has been marked by the establishment of new institutions. Campaigns on issues such as pesticide use and nuclear testing led to the development of a new breed of professional campaign groups which have become the public face of environmentalism.

At the same time governments have responded to public concerns about the environment by establishing environmental institutions of their own. Agencies, scientific programmes, international agreements, laws and regulations have been established to support environmental goals.

All this has helped give environmentalism a permanence that has transcended the decades.

This article is based on the book Environmentalism Since 1945 by Gary Haq and Alistair Paul, published by Routledge in September 2011.

© Gary Haq 2011

The Health Cost of Our Techo-industrial Age

OUR techno-industrial development has provided greater productivity, choice and higher living standards. However, despite scientific and technological advancements we still fail to understand the full health and environmental impact of our actions.

oilpollutionmaskOUR techno-industrial development has provided greater productivity, choice and higher living standards. However, despite scientific and technological advancements we still fail to understand the full health and environmental impact of our actions.

Human societies have had an affect on the environment since time immemorial. However, the rate and scale at which we have degraded our environment has increased significantly with industrialisation. In the 1960s Rachel Carson’s the Silent Spring documented the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment and has been credited with helping launch the environmental movement. Since then we have see many products and industrial processes which have had unknown effects on our health and environment from lead additives, radioactive waste, dioxins, persistent organic pollutants, tobacco smoke to CFCs and greenhouse gases.

A recent US study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that children whose mothers encountered a large amount of air pollution during pregnancy may end up with lower IQs. The study found that those babies whose mothers were exposed to high levels of vehicle pollution from heavy car, truck and bus traffic had IQ scores four to five points below those whose expecting mothers had breathed less polluted air. The results add to growing evidence of how low-dose exposure to every day pollutants can have an impact on developing children.

112053099_8471013d5dIn Corby, Northamptonshire (UK) sixteen families have successfully proved a link between their children’s deformities and exposure to poisonous waste caused by the clean-up of a steelworks site which had closed in the 1980s. To reclaim the site the local council demolished old buildings and removed waste, steel dust and slag to a quarry. The dirty and dusty operation exposed 18 pregnant mothers to harmful toxins. This resulted in the children being deformed and having missing fingers. The families may now finally be able to claim compensation for having to suffer the unexpected cost of environmental pollution.

_45748842_jex_354946_de27-1While we have used technology to reduce our the impact of our activities on our health and environment (e.g. catalytic converters to reduce vehicle pollution, desulphurisation units to reduce sulphorus emissions from power stations that cause acid rain) we still have a limited understanding of the health effects of certain production processes and chemicals. There is much to learn about the impact of chemicals in cosmetics, cleaning fluids and plastic products. For example, concern over “toxic toys” produced in China resulted in toy producers recalling their products.

Those products which we intuitively think are good for are also sometimes questionable. A report by the UK Food Standards Agency concluded that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventional produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.

Our lack of understanding of the effect of artificial chemicals and substances on complex systems such as nature and the human body requires us to adopt the precautionary principle and to be fully informed about the risks we are taking. Even then there is no guarantee we will get it right.

As we make further developments in nanotechnology, genetically modified organisms and create new chemicals and drugs we need to be mindful of the complexity of the issues we are dealing with and should be guided by nature and natural processes. If we had done this at the beginning of our industrial age then perhaps we would have avoided the pain, suffering and death of thousands of people who were sacrificed for the sake of economic and technological progress.

© Gary Haq 2009