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

Playing Games with the Global Climate

INTERNATIONAL cooperation is vital if we are to agree a new deal on climate change at the Copenhagen talks in December. But will non-cooperation be the dominant strategy adopted by world leaders?

78981INTERNATIONAL cooperation is vital if we are to agree a new deal on climate change at the Copenhagen talks in December. But will non-cooperation be the dominant strategy adopted by world leaders?

The problem with the atmosphere is that is a free resource with no ownership. As a consequence it has been overused as a dumping ground for polluting gases which have contributed to levels of atmospheric pollution and climate change. China is now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions followed by the United States.

International agreements have established an institutional structure for the global communal management of the atmosphere. The United Nation’s Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol attempts to do this with regard to taking actions to reduce greenhouse gases and the effects of global climate change.

In the 1960s Garrett Hardin developed the notion of the ‘Freedom of the Tragedy of the Commons’ where he used the analogy of a common grazing land to illustrate that sharing common resources leads to overuse. Each herdsman as a rational individual seeks to maximise his gain. By adding one more animal to the common land he will gain, however, the overgrazing caused by the additional one will be shared by all herdsmen.

eth_29947 The rational herdsman concludes that he would benefit from adding another animal to the common land. However, this is the conclusion of all the herdsmen which ultimately leads to the ‘tragedy’ as each herdsmen is locked into a system which compels him to increase his herd without limit.

Hardin uses the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ to explain the problem of pollution, which results in emitting polluting emissions into the natural environment. The polluter as a ‘rational man’ will come to the same conclusion as the herdsmen, that the cost of polluting can be less than the treatment or abatement of polluting emissions.

Hardin concludes that “Freedom on the commons brings ruin to all” and that “… we are locked into a system of “fouling our own nest” so long as we behave as independent rational, free-enterprises”. His solution was “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”.

Hardin’s analogy has been criticised as being a false analogy because it ignores the powerful sense of community obligation which could exist and act as a deterrent for abuse of such a common grazing land.

Communal management can be effective if there is an agreement to cooperate to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the case of climate change. However, there is a risk that one nation will ‘free ride’ and not fulfil its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

International negotiations can be viewed as a game which results in a “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.
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The Prisoner’s Dilemma
2nd 100 yrs digTwo suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?
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In the case of climate change the developed and developing nations are the prisoners. If each co-operate then we would be spared from runaway climate change and global temperatures exceeding 2 degrees centigrade. However, non-cooperation gives one nation a greater payoff.

For non-cooperation would result in one of the nations saving investing billion of dollars in technology to reduce emissions. In this case the nation that does not cooperate would be a free-rider and enjoy any benefits from the other nations which reduce GHGs without having to bear the cost. The dominant strategy for each nation would be one of non-cooperation.

Unlike the Prisoners Dilemma, the climate crisis will means that in the long-term there will be no winners. Europe Is attempting to reassert its international leadership by offering to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95% by 2050 and by 30% by 2020 if a climate change pact is agreed in Copenhagen. However, US, China, and India have yet to unveil targets or specific figures for a new deal on climate change.

We are already perilously close to the brink of climate catastrophe and developing nations have little room to grow out of poverty. If we fail to produce a new deal climate deal then it will truly be a tragedy of the commons.

© Gary Haq 2009
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