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The powerboat and the planet

Political Theory

Illustration by Jeff Douwes

Illustration by Jeff Douwes

The pioneer

While environmentalism is definitely a child of the twentieth century, its philosophical roots hark back to earlier times and it is perhaps the first genuinely internationalist movement in the variety of its origins. It has drawn on everything from traditional native beliefs about the sanctity of nature to the scientific ecology of the German biologist Haechal; from Eastern religions like Taoism and Buddhism to the social analysis of anarchism and Marx; from Charles Darwin to Walt Whitman. The non-violent civil disobedience of Gandhi has also been a major influence.

The early environmentalists found their homes in wilderness and wildlife protection associations, animal-welfare efforts and the public-health movement. They quickly found themselves in opposition to market liberalism and to the conquest-of-nature mentality of colonialists and of settlers in North America, Australasia and South Africa. Among the first environmentalists were the Americans Aldo Leopold, whose _Sand County Almanac_ is an ecological classic, and John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club. The tension within environmental politics was between those who wanted to ‘manage’ nature in a more rational fashion and those who demanded a whole new paradigm for the relationship between nature and the economy. The tension continues to this day.

Silent Spring

No single ecological work has had as much influence as Rachel Carson’s _Silent Spring_, published in 1962. For Carson, a biologist, the lack of birdsong was emblematic of a world poisoned by the first generation of agro-chemicals. She traced the impact of chemicals up and down the food chain and in the general environment. _Silent Spring_ had a dramatic influence both on public consciousness and eventually on regulatory policy. Despite criticism of her science by the chemical industry and others, 12 of the pesticides and herbicides Carson identified as the most dangerous have since been either severely restricted or banned outright. This of course includes the infamous DDT, now banned in most countries. After Carson a profound unease about technological progress was loose upon the land and the environmental impact of economic decisions and technological choices was always on the agenda. The main focus of environmental protest in the 1960s was not however agro-chemicals but the effects of nuclear fallout from weapons-testing and the movement for a comprehensive international test-ban treaty.

Prophets of doom

The early 1970s saw a series of studies published that predicted a dire future for humanity if we did not change our ways. A furious debate broke out between Paul Ehrlich (_The Population Bomb_) and Barry Commoner (_The Closing Circle_) over whether the problem was too many people or too many machines. A group of scientists and business leaders came together to form the Club of Rome and launched an extensive computer-based study extrapolating present patterns of population growth, resource use and other environmental trends. Their alarming results were published as _Limits to Growth_ in 1972. The same year another study entitled _Blueprint for Survival_ was published in Britain. Their critics accused them (with some justification) of exaggeration and at least some of the doomsday theorists had alarming biases against poor countries, blaming them for population growth and ignoring the vastly disproportionate share of the world’s wealth gobbled up by industrial corporations and consumers. But the studies set the alarm bells ringing and made people think about the kind of world we want to live in.

The new environmentalism

Under the impact of a series of major oil spills, nuclear and chemical accidents, species extinctions and mounting evidence of global eco-destruction in the late 1960s and early 1970s a new generation of more militant environmental organizations started to emerge. Among these were Greenpeace, with its uncanny ability to capture media attention, and Friends of the Earth (FoE), originally an activist splinter group from the more conservative Sierra Club. Both quickly became international in scope and membership and took a leadership role in exposing and opposing crimes against the environment. Public concern for the environment fluctuated with the business cycle of the economy – waxing in times of prosperity and waning in recession. As organizations like FoE and Greenpeace became established a new wave of direct-action groups emerged to take up an even more militant position of environmental defence. The anti-nuclear movement in Europe launched massive demonstrations against the secretive nuclear establishment and their power plants, while in the US a loose-knit coalition called Earth First used civil disobedience and sometimes sabotage (which they called ‘monkey-wrenching’) to defend endangered species and wilderness areas. The current movement of road protesters in Britain is very much in this tradition.

Green politics

The West German Greens were not the first Green political party but they were certainly the first to achieve prominence – and their success helped spawn other such parties, especially in Europe, in the 1980s. The key to whether Greens could organize into effective parties was the political space available to them. Dictatorships or even the ‘guided democracies’ of the South provided an inhospitable climate. Also the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral systems of countries like the US, Britain and Canada made it very difficult for Green parties to break through. It was under the proportional-representation systems of countries like Germany, France, Scandinavia and Holland that they really gained a political toehold. While their share of the vote has fluctuated between five and ten per cent, their support has been consistent and their influence as part of local, state and now national governments has outweighed their numbers. On such issues as soft energy, pollution controls, planning and human rights they have helped shape policy. But to gain this influence they have often had to compromise on their ideals, leading to a tension inside most Green parties. This was most dramatically seen in the split between the ‘realos’ (realists) and the ‘fundis’ (fundamentalists) in the German Green Party but is present throughout the entire Green movement.

The Earth Summit

In 1992 the United Nations convened its second international conference on the global environment, in Rio de Janeiro. The first had been held in Stockholm two decades earlier and saw conflict between industrial countries and the Third World: Southern governments felt they were being expected to bear the brunt of ecological controls which would deny them an industrial future. By 1992 the situation had altered: a grassroots environmental movement had over the two decades gained increasing influence in the South. This stretched from anti-dam protesters in Thailand through the Chipko tree-conservation movement of northern India to Amazonian rubber-tappers’ struggle to save the rainforest. Rio's Earth Summit gave voice and weight to such movements, bringing development and environment together. No longer could Southern politicians maintain that the environment was solely a concern of the Northern middle class. But demands for justice as well as sustainability have rendered the movement a lot less palatable in Washington and the other industrial capitals, and urgent action on the key problems has been lacking. Nevertheless, as the century ends, a ravaged world fishery, global warming, ozone depletion, widespread chemical poisoning and rampant deforestation have placed the Green movement centre-stage for the twenty-first century. For if there is going to be a future, it looks very much like it will have to be Green.