(3) Environmentalism

Governmental Environmentalism

Collective efforts to control nature started in earnest 8,000 to 15,000 years ago as nomadic hunters and gatherers began turning to settled agriculture.

Large civilizations emerged as inventions like the animal drawn plow, the wheel, numbers, and writing began to change political and social life. Often, these same civilizations began to clear forests, degrade land, and pollute local waters. Environmental collapse even toppled a few great civilizations, such as Mesopotamia (a land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, part of contemporary Iraq), where a badly designed irrigation system slowly poisoned the land with salt. Until some 200–300 years ago, however, environmental problems were primarily local; only with the industrial revolution did human activities start to cause noticeable regional and global environmental damage.

One reason for the increasing global damage was the rise in the production and the burning of fossil fuels (such as coal). Another was the growing global population, which jumped from 1 billion people in the early 1800s to over 2 billion by the end of the 1920s. Athird reason was the rising consumption of natural resources from places far from producers and consumers (with colonial administrations often facilitating this “trade”). The evidence of severe damage was already clear by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On some days smog in cities like London and New York became thick enough to kill. Once abundant species, such as the Plains bison of North America, were brought to near extinction; a few, such as the passenger pigeon, even went extinct (in 1914). By then, some governments were starting to respond by passing new national and regional policies to promote conservation of wildlife and better resource management. Canada and the United States, for example, signed the Migratory Birds Treaty in 1918.

State environmentalism began to take off after the late 1960s, however, as more and more people (especially in wealthy countries) began to demand better living conditions and as “global” environmental problems began to emerge. By the beginning of the 1970s various governments were establishing environmental departments and agencies. The United States, for example, created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. The following year Canada set up its Department of the Environment and France established its Environment Ministry. A year later Singapore established a Ministry of the Environment. By this time many governments were also putting together negotiating teams to participate in international environmental negotiations. One outcome was the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in June 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Stockholm conference was the first international United Nations conference for state officials on the environment and a sign of the growing importance of environmentalism for governments worldwide. The only heads of state to attend were Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; still, the turnout was impressive, with about 1,200 delegates from over a hundred countries attending (although, disappointedly for the organizers, Russia and the Communist bloc countries boycotted the conference to protest the exclusion of East Germany).

The conference revealed, however, some fundamental differences in how governmental environmentalism was emerging in developed and developing countries. Delegates from wealthier states tended to stress issues such as industrial pollution, nature conservation, and population growth. Delegates from poorer states tended to stress the need for development, arguing rich conservationists should not deny the world’s poor the benefits of economic growth. Sharp differences emerged as well over who was responsible for solving (and thus financing the solutions to) global environmental problems.

Many delegates from the Third World saw global capitalism as a cause of poverty and a core reason for the pressures on natural environments, especially with global economic institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund pressuring developing countries to export natural resources on declining terms of trade. These delegates coined the phrase the pollution of poverty to express the idea that the greatest global environmental threat was in fact poverty and that the only solution for poverty was international economic reforms.

In the end, the official conference documents-the nonbinding Declaration on the Human Environment (with 26 principles), the Action Plan for the Human Environment (with 109 recommendations), and the Resolution on Institutional and Financial Arrangements-did not stress these calls to reform the global economy. The conference did, however, raise the profile of global environmental issues within states as well as reveal the complexity and diversity of worldviews about the causes and consequences of global environmental change. It also led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), officially launched in 1973 with its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, and with Canada’s Maurice Strong as the first executive director. It was not designed as a strong institution-more a coordinating program than a specialized agency with a significant budget. Both the First and Third Worlds supported this. The First World did not want to fund a large institution; the Third World did not want an institution able to interfere with development goals.

After the Stockholm Conference, rising oil prices in 1973–1974 rocked the global economy: inflation soared, economic growth slowed, and foreign debt increased in many Third World countries, particularly in Latin America and Africa. Such turbulence deflated some of the more ambitious environmental plans after Stockholm, especially in countries with heavy debts and weak economies. Still, governmental environmentalism continued to strengthen. In 1973 the United States passed the Endangered Species Act and Bangladesh enacted the Wild Life (Preservation) Order. In 1974 Germany set up its federal Environment Agency and Mexico hosted a symposium on development and environment in Cocoyoc, formulating some of the earliest conceptions of sustainable development. Just after Stockholm, states also signed some noteworthy international environmental treaties, including the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (the London Convention of 1972, which entered into force in 1975), and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, 1973, which entered into force in 1975).

In the second half of the 1970s and first half of the 1980s, conservative governments more hostile to environmentalism came to power in the United States and Great Britain, and many developing economies fell further into debt. Nevertheless, governmental environmentalism was continuing to strengthen, partly because of advances in scientific understanding (such as the dangers of chlorofluorocarbons – CFCs, for the ozone layer and the link to skin cancer), partly because of disasters such as the 1979 U.S. nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and the1984 Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India, and partly because of increasing pressure from grassroots and nongovernmental environmentalism (and thus, in democracies, pressure from voters).

More and more states established environmental agencies, including increasingly in the developing world (for example, Bangladesh established its Department of Environment in 1977 and Taiwan created its Environmental Protection Bureau in 1979). States also continued to sign and ratify international environmental agreements, such as the 1979 Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (which entered into force in 1983), the 1979 Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (which entered into force in 1983), and the 1980 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (which entered into force in 1982).

 

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