Last Friday I took an exam and finished my first year of university. Most students probably want to move on as quickly as possible after the stress of revision, but this exam was on something I study in my free time: environmental issues and management.
An interesting part of the module I had to revise was the history and growth of the modern environmental movement.
Above are photos of a timeline I sketched out to help me remember some of the key moments in the movement’s development.
Environmentalism as we know it is considered by many to have started when Rachel Carson wrote the bestselling Silent Spring in 1962, a book about the effect of pesticides (particularly DDT) on wildlife and biodiversity. The book caused a huge stir, and as I understand it it was the first time the public was made aware of the domino effect caused by human action and seemingly unrelated ecological side-effects. During the late 60s and 70s there was undoubtedly a surge of environmental awareness. But interestingly, the seeds were actually sown long before Carson put pen to paper – at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
In England in the early 1800s the Industrial Revolution was beginning, and was soon to spread to Europe and America. Before this time, wild nature was viewed in popular discourse as dangerous and uncivilised. When urban sprawl and industrial expansion meant there began to be less and less open countryside, nature began to be viewed as something to not only control and conquer, but also cherish. The new paradigm of Romanticism saw artists and writers treating wild nature very differently, and assigning it an aesthetic value. This led to the mother of modern environmentalism: conservation. The first national park in the world was set up as Yellowstone National Park in the USA in 1872, and much later in 1949 national parks started being set aside in England to preserve the ”green and pleasant land” from human industry.
The first environmental NGO was set up back in 1889 as the Plumage League. It was set up by sophisticated bourgeois ladies who morally objected to the fashion of wearing the feathers and skins of exotic birds. Later the organization changed it’s name to the RSPB, which as you know is still going strong.
After WW1 fears of resource shortages led to the creation of the Forestry Commision in 1918, which attempted to sustainably manage the timber extraction from forests, a goal that we still haven’t achieved all these years later. In 1955 the UK started implementing green belts to protect the countryside from urban sprawl.
The 50’s and early 60’s saw the post war economic boom in the UK, and the birth of consumer culture, which was designed by PR specialists so that the newly enhanced rate of supply would not outstrip demand. See my article on the rise of consumerism here.
And then after this history of Industrial expansion and pollution coupled with the Romantic conservation of wild nature, we arrive in the swinging 60’s where environmentalism really kicked off. We’ve already mentioned Rachel Carson’s book. The next ‘moment’ I consider to be a milestone in the evolution of environmentalism is in 1968 when the American astronauts took the most important piece of nature photography of all time: ”Earth Rise”, the first photo of the Earth from space. It’s hard for me to get to grips with how awesome it must of been to see the whole planet for the first time. In my lifetime, imagery of the planet has been everywhere. I have an image of the Earth as the avatar for this blog, I have another on my laptop’s desktop, environmental organizations often incorporates a stylized version into their logos and Google will happily give you page upon page of stunning space photography.
I can scarcely imagine how powerful it must of been to see the whole planet in a photo for the first time. When you really think about it, it is pretty amazing. In 1968, this one photo showed all of nature and all of human civilisation – every nation – entwined together in one blue-green oasis of life amongst the dark vacuum of space. I guess it reminded everyone that this is our home, shared by all nations, all animals, and it’s not exactly like we have another planet lying spare.
Fuelled by this powerful imagery, the first Earth Day was organized in 1970 in America and was attended by 20 million people. At the time, many people were protesting for world peace, and many others were fighting against the then-isolated issues of industrial pollution, toxic dumping, health scares and wildlife loss. The Earth Day harnessed the energy of the student’s peace movement and united the other projects under the banner of environmentalism.
One year later, Greenpeace started work by sailing off to Alaska in the Rainbow Warrior to protest against nuclear-testing. They’ve been working on their creative PR-stunt-ish non-violent protesting against environmental devastation ever since, and are often considered as one of the loudest voices for environmental concern. In 1972, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth a groundbreaking book by Meadows et al which began the conversation on environmental limits. The book argued that finite resources would mean there was a limit to population and economic growth, that growth cannot go on indefinitely.
Also in 1972, was the Stockholm Conference, aka the UN Conference on the Human Environment. This was the first time the United Nations met to discuss environmental issues, and was largely off the back of all the action in the years gearing up to it. The conference discussed – among other things – the interrelated nature of the environment, and how many environmental issues are on the global scale so international cooperation is required to deal with them.
Unfortunately after that economic problems dominated the political sphere for several years, as the oil crisis caused a recession that pushed environmental concerns off the priority list. In 1987 the Brundtland Commission focused on the new idea of sustainable development, and the oft quoted definition of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” was decided upon. This was quite a turning point for environmentalism, as sustainable development is quite different ideologically to both the Romantic protection of wild pristine nature and the youthful rebellion against industrial misconduct. Firstly, it’s very anthropocentric. It’s about managing the environment in such as way that it will be able to continue supporting us. It’s not about some ethical or spiritual concept of other species having a ”right to life”, it’s wholly practical. Secondly, it assumes that humans can and should exist harmoniously within nature – rather than being separate from it. Conservation is about setting aside places for nature, where it cannot be ruined by humans. Sustainable Development is more about integration and cooperation.
In 1990, which seems incredibly recent after this potted history, the IPCC publish their first report warning of the climate change problem. At this point they stated that the climate was changing, and that it could be because of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, enhancing the natural greenhouse effect to create a warming. Two years later in 1992 the UN had another meeting, this time called the UN Conference on Environment and Development, or the Rio Summit. It was fuelled by not only the IPCC’s warning but also the global Earth Day in 1990 which 200 million people from 141 countries had participated in.
The Rio Summit discussed many environmental and developmental issues, and it’s most lasting achievement was setting up the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty (UNFCCC) which has the aim to ”stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. This led to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which is now in its second phase which commits developed nations (although not America!) to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 18% below 1990 levels. This is a start, but it’s slightly flawed in that the two largest emitters – China and America – are not included in the reduction. Nonetheless, it’s going to be reviewed in 2015 when hopefully a stricter reduction plan will be implemented.
In 2000, Millenium Goal number 7 is ‘ensure environmental sustainability’ – a vague but promising goal that the UN doesn’t appear to have taken very seriously. In 2008 the UK passed the Climate Change Act, which calls for an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050. A big cut, but with a deadline very far in the future so that accomplishing the goal can pretty much be left to the next generation of politicians.
In the present, environmentalism and sustainability are everywhere in popular discourse, even if actual action is still a bit more niche. Everyone knows the buzzwords, and ‘green’ or ‘eco’ gets used as a prefix for just about anything, but I’m still unsure how common a decent understanding of environmental issues is. I want to do a survey on public opinion on these issues, as I have no idea what ‘most people’ think – I only know what my peers, friends and colleagues think.
Learning about the history of environmentalism has been quite eye-opening for me, and I hope you found this little timeline interesting too!