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