A brief History of Environmentalism by Andy Reynolds [Note from Prof. Schmidt

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A Brief History of Environmentalism
by Andy Reynolds

[Note from Prof. Schmidt: This material has been adapted from a briefing page “microsite” for schools and teachers by E4 – Channel. This is British thus the spelling!]

Between 1730 and 1850, the Industrial Revolution sparked an unparalleled wave of mining, forest clearance, and land drainage. It was also a period of the building of great factories. Jobs and economic development ruled. The oceans and rivers seemed unlimited in size and were the sewers of the world.

Reacting to this onslaught, a few scattered individuals began to speak out. But it took 150 years for environmentalism to mature into the public movement we know today. The focus of environmental concerns has changed over the decades, but one debate has barely altered – what is the reason for protecting the planet? For some it's for the benefit of humans, for others it's because nature, like a work of art, has its own value. Still, the movement has become a force to be reckoned with since the days of those pioneers, one and a half centuries ago.

1850-1900 – Environmentalists find their tongue

By 1850, nature writers were evoking the power of the land and talking in terms of a respect for nature. American Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) published his classic book Walden in 1848. It told of Thoreau's two-year living experiment in woods near Walden Pond, Massachusetts, USA. He spent his time walking, reading and growing food. His intention was to sense then describe the harmony that humans can experience when living with nature.

The idea of a harmonious philosophy was taken up by early conservationists such as naturalist and writer John Muir (1838-1914). This Scottish-born visionary founded the US conservation organization the Sierra Club in 1892. Through the Club, he successfully used his literary gifts to encourage the US government to protect some of the great wildernesses of the country.

Wilderness lovers like Muir and the hikers that enjoyed the land wanted large areas simply left alone. But they met with opposition from the outset. Those with economic interests, like timber companies and politicians, agreed that large areas should be reserved, but only as a future resource of timber, oil, minerals, coal and water. Muir recognized the need to use natural resources and accepted that some forests would have to be sacrificed for their timber. But for him, wildernesses were spiritual places. So loss of wilderness meant a spiritual loss to humanity.

Thus arose a division of beliefs that continues today. One claiming the only considerations are economic, the other arguing that there are other values to consider, such as spiritual value.

Inspired by visionaries like Thoreau and Muir, environmental awareness began to spread through the western world. At about this time, national parks were created in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And Britain began to establish its first conservation-based organisations, like the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in 1893 and the National Trust in 1894.

1900-1950s – The growing awareness

In 1914, Martha, the world's only living passenger pigeon, died in Cincinnati Zoo. The species was once the most populous bird on the planet, but it had been hunted to extinction in just 50 years. The plight of this and other decimated species, like the North American buffalo, prompted William Hornaday (1854-1937) to write Our Vanishing Wildlife (1913). Hornaday was one of the first conservationists to draw attention to the plight of endangered wildlife.

Then, in 1949, Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) published A Sand County Almanac – often regarded as the most influential book on conservation ever written. Leopold, a former US Forestry Service official and University of Wisconsin and Iowa State University professor, eloquently and passionately wrote of our duty to protect the balance of nature. He believed humans should extend to nature the same ethical sense of responsibility that we extend to each other. Whether we can or should expand the ethical circle to encompass nature is a subject of continuing debate. (From Prof. Schmidt: We have the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University where I have been a Prof for the past 36 years and we still push his ideals!]

In 1951, somewhat behind the US, Britain designated 10 national parks. Not exactly the wilderness areas that constitute America's parks (in Britain wildernesses had long since disappeared), but the British parks afforded protection from further development.

1960s – The movement is born

Within 100 years a small number of concerned people had done much to raise awareness of environmental destruction. But it wasn't until the 1960s that concern for the environment was galvanized into an organized force. Many would agree that the milestone marking the birth of the environmental movement was Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring.

Carson, a nature lover and former marine biologist, told of how chemicals like pesticides and insecticides, used on farms, forests and gardens, were contaminating the environment. Wildlife was being poisoned, she said. The insect life was dying (and not just the pest species) which meant no food for the birds. No birds, no bird song = a silent spring. People were in grave danger too. She described in detail how the chemicals, like the insecticide DDT, enter the food chain and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals, humans included, resulting in higher risks cancer.

Despite media criticism and attempts by the chemical industry to ban the book, many reputable scientists backed her up and her work was validated. President John F Kennedy ordered an investigation into the issues highlighted in the book. Carson was found to be correct – DDT was banned, and the effects of other chemicals were scrutinised.

But the real legacy of Silent Spring was a new public awareness that the environment was being damaged by humans. Previously, degradation of the planet had been the concern of just a few people – those that were bothered by the loss of wilderness. But the news had now spread that our own lives were at risk and the issues could no longer be ignored. The necessity to regulate our behaviour in order to protect the environment became a widely debated notion. Modern environmentalism was born.

1970s – International co-operation

Environmental pressure groups Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were both established in 1971. They introduced flagship campaigns for threatened species like pandas and tigers and they informed the world of the trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn and seal fur.

The year 1972 saw the first of the 10-yearly Earth Summits. Held in Stockholm, Sweden, it is generally considered to be the primary defining event of international environmentalism. The Earth Summit (officially called the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment) was initiated by the developed world to address the environmental effects of industrialization (113 nations attended). Sweden was concerned about acid rain. Japan was concerned about the industrial poisoning of their seas. Oil tankers spilling their cargoes were a concern worldwide.

The conference produced some successes, including the 26 principles of the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, an Action Plan for the Human Environment and an Environment Fund. Another significant outcome was the establishment of UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), designed to promote environmental practices across the globe. UNEP has coordinated the subsequent Earth Summits.

But the summit exposed a rift between the developed (First World) and the developing (Third) world. The issue that caused this was that supposedly the developed world's exploitation of natural resources in a way that not only degraded the environment, but also perpetuated the unequal distribution of wealth. This social (economic) divide remains in place today and has arguably widened.

During the 1970s, philosophers joined the debate and a new branch of ethics was born – environmental philosophy. Up till now, barring the scribblings of a few maverick writers, it was taken as read that we were concerned about caring for the Earth for self-interested purposes. What's bad for the Earth was bad for us too. But now, some philosophers were calling for other values in nature to be recognised. Yes, they said, a healthy planet is good for humans, but wildlife has its own value too – a value that exists independently of its value to humans. This ethical conundrum surfaces with almost every environmental decision we face. Do we protect nature for our sake or for its sake?

1980s – Small steps

The year 1982 was Earth Summit time again. But the Cold War was at its height, the world was distracted, and the meeting, held in Nairobi, Kenya, was considered ineffective.

But the problems didn't stop accumulating. And more voices had joined the clamour. Astronomers complained of light pollution, making it difficult to observe the night sky. Surfers protested against raw sewage being piped into the seas they played in. Marine biologist talked about the noise pollution threat from motor craft to the sonar navigation of whales and dolphins.

Many of these concerns had an effect only on a minority, and hence were easier to ignore. However, when we heard of the hole in the ozone layer, and how we were all going to die from skin cancer we promptly stopped using CFCs in our deodorants and other canister sprays.

In 1983, the UN General Assembly created the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. It appointed Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first woman prime minister of Norway, as chairperson. Four years later, she published the Brundtland Report, and coined the term 'sustainable development'. The Report combines environmental and economic considerations, and famously defines sustainability as: 'Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. “Sustainability” became the buzzword.

1990s – The warming planet

This decade's Earth Summit occurred in Rio, Brazil, in 1992. It emphasised how the planet's environmental problems are linked to the economy and to social justice issues. The world leaders agreed to combat global warming, protect biodiversity and stop using dangerous poisons.

But Global warming was the major issue at Rio. Carbon dioxide gas, released from burning fossil fuels like petrol (gasoline and diesel), coal, oil and gas, was causing the planet to heat up. The resulting melting ice caps and rising sea levels threatened the whole world. The Kyoto Protocol, introduced at Rio, required signatories to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5% between 2008 and 2012. Many nations signed up to it, but some developed countries were putting their short-term interests first. Countries with an economy that rests on the oil trade, like the US and Saudi Arabia, were concerned how the agreement would cost them. The US, in particular, refused to commit to anything too binding on the carbon emissions front. Moreover, developing countries like China and India were exempted from most of the Kyoto deadlines and yet they are growing at exceptional rates, using dirty coal and cow dung as fuel, and are now the fastest growing consumers of fossil fuels as prosperity brings automobiles on the scene.

Meanwhile, lack of landfill space in which to bury our rubbish and a need to conserve resources meant that, during the 90s, slowly but surely, recycling bins began to appear in our towns and backyards. Simultaneously, green products grew in number and range on the supermarket shelves. We could feel green as we wash with eco-friendly soaps, write on recycled paper, and eat 'dolphin-friendly' tuna.

Ecotourism was being proposed as a great new way to save the world. The potential being high – in 2006 close to 1 billion people travelled to another country (one tenth of the world's population). But some argued that the damage done by tourism outweigh the benefits. They encourage the development of new resorts in wild places, the over development of fragile beaches in particular (Click on these links for Prof. Schmidt’s classes on Coastal Policy, International Integrated Coastal Zone Management and Internship in Coastal Policy) and increase the amount of aviation fuel burned. Yet sometimes both humans and wildlife do get a good deal. Whale-watching, for example, is worth £700 million to the tourist industry, much more lucrative than whale-killing and has thus created a counter weight to whale hunting.

2002 – Johannesburg Earth Summit (Joburg 02)

We go back to Africa for the fourth Earth Summit. In August 2002, 65,000 politicians, numerous NGOs (non-government organizations), and plane loads of media flew in to Johannesburg, South Africa to review the situation. Five areas were identified by the UN for particular attention – water and sanitation, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity. Previous summits had been dominated by the European Union and the US, but now the developing countries are becoming more vocal demanding their interests be given greater consideration.

There were some achievements. A commitment to halve the number of people in the world who lack basic sanitation by 2015; to halt the loss of fish and forests stocks; and to reduce the agricultural and energy subsidies in the West.

But this Summit has been roundly condemned by environmentalists, claiming the event was hijacked by corporate interests. They say that the US, Japan and the oil companies once again discouraged the promotion of renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power, in order to favour their own economic interests.

These days, more and more people accept the fact that many environmental problems are caused by man, and that the environment needs to be protected, by us and from us. But just as the first spokespeople found 150 years ago, we don't all agree on what it needs protecting for. Should the environment be protected because it's a source of energy, food and materials? Or should it be protected because it has value in its own right?

Ideally we can and must find room on the planet for both.


Channel 4 Television, London, England

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