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.

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

Putting the SIZZLE into Going Green

GOING Green is a bit like making love – nearly everyone likes the idea of it. Some people do it on a daily basis, some every week, others less frequently, while some individuals just do not get around to doing it at all.

GOING Green is a bit like making love – nearly everyone likes the idea of it. Some people do it on a daily basis, some every week, others less frequently, while some individuals just do not get around to doing it at all.

Back in 2007, at the peak of our eco-awareness, climate change and the carbon footprint seemed new and interesting. There was unprecedented media coverage of green issues and the public, politicians and business leaders were all developing a passion for the planet.

Prince Charles’s recently undertook a green tour of Britain on a bio-fuelled royal train. Despite green living receiving royal approval, there are signs of “green fatigue” setting in as political, public and media interest in environmental issues begins to wane. The UK’s new coalition Government’s decision to get rid of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the independent watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission, clearly signalled the downgrading of environmental issues.

This is despite David Cameron’s promise to put the environment at the heart of government. Former chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, Jonathan Porritt, described the decision as “crass, unfounded, self-defeating and ideologically-motivated”.

The climategate and glaciergate fiasco has increased public scepticism over climate change science. A recent Ipsos Mori survey of UK public attitudes to climate change found that although the majority of respondents believe that climate change is happening, levels of concern have fallen since 2005, and less than one-third of the population currently consider it to be a purely man-made phenomenon. However, most people consider that it is their responsibility to take action and feel that they personally can make a difference.

The waxing and waning of public interest in environmental issues is nothing new. In 1967, Britain experienced its first major oil disaster when the oil tanker, Torrey Canyon, struck a rock, causing the oil pollution of 120 miles of the Cornish coastline.

Dramatic environmental disasters such as this, together with key publications on the ecological limits to economic growth, increased public concern.

By 1972, environmental issues were placed on the international political agenda when nations gathered together for the first UN Earth Summit in Stockholm. It resulted in governments establishing ministries of the environment and introducing environmental legislation.

Although the 1970s’ oil price rises dampened public interest in green issues, a decade later interest was renewed by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a rise in green consumerism, ethical investment and increased activity of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. In 1992, the Rio Earth Summit ensured that world leaders embraced the idea of sustainable development and initiated action for a global convention on climate change.

When we are doing well, we are motivated to go green but during an economic downturn we tend to lose interest. It is therefore not surprising that in this new age of austerity we are starting to suffer from green fatigue.

In an economic recession consumers tighten their belts, sales figures fall and companies close down and stop producing polluting emissions. For example, in 2009, EU greenhouse gas emissions fell by seven per cent. A lower demand for energy has been linked to the economic recession as well as cheaper natural gas and increased renewable energy use.

Nowadays most people are familiar with the concept of the carbon footprint. Unfortunately, being aware of the environmental impact of our individual lifestyle choices does not necessarily mean we will change our behaviour. After all, we know that smoking can cause lung cancer, eating junk food can lead to heart disease and obesity and binge drinking is bad for the liver, but we still carry on regardless.

For too long, green campaigns have sold the threat of what would happen if we do not mend our ways. The danger of a “climate hell” has caused some people to switch off.

Back in the 1940s, US salesman, Elmer Wheeler, advised businesses on his “Don’t sell the sausage, sell the sizzle!” marketing approach. Wheeler’s big secret to successful selling was that you do not advertise the sausage itself as it is the desirable sounds and smells of the “sizzle” that make people hungry and want to buy it. There is increasing recognition that the “selling the sausage” approach to green issues is not delivering the fundamental changes required for us to stay within ecological limits.

A report by Futerra, a green communications consultancy, on “Selling the Sizzle: the new climate message” argues that in order to reinvigorate public and media interest, campaigns need to focus on a vision of a greener life that is positive and appealing to all.

Gary Haq discusses green issues with Ed Milliband
The recent election of Ed Milliband as the new leader of Labour Party, now the official opposition to the British government provides hope for many environmentalists.

Mr Milliband was the former Secretary of State for the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change and is a passionate advocate of action on climate change.

He recently reiterated his belief that “climate change is the greatest global threat facing our generation “, adding that “it should be at the very heart of our plan for a successful economy, at the centre of our foreign policy and integral to our mission to change Britain”.

Many environmentalists are hoping that Mr Milliband will now put climate change back on the political agenda after he has criticised the Coalition Government’s claim to be the ‘greenest ever’ as an empty gesture.

So far, environmentalists have failed to effectively communicate a compelling vision of a greener future. It is therefore time to stop selling the notion of a climate hell and start selling a “green heaven”. Let’s put the sizzle back in to going green and demonstrate that a transition to a low carbon society ultimately means a better quality of life for everyone.

© Gary Haq 2010

Photo credits: Shutterstock