World History 2 266 - 15.2.1 The Rise of Environmentalism

In the post–World War II period, as the United States and Europe experienced unprecedented economic growth and a rapidly rising standard of living, anxiety regarding the condition of the environment rose to the surface and gained political significance. In the developed West, members of the generation reaching maturity in the 1960s occasionally struggled with their affluence and the recognition that it came with disastrous environmental consequences. These consequences were not limited to the developed world. In the 1950s and 1960s, as part of the Green Revolution, agricultural scientists developed new high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that increased food production in both the developed and the developing world. The result was that millions were saved from hunger, and infant mortality in developing nations decreased. Scientist Norman Borlaug, who was considered largely responsible for the Green Revolution, received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work. Such benefits, however, came with a heavy price tag, in many ways. Small farmers had to borrow money to purchase the new high-yielding seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, and many found themselves deeply in debt. Reliance on the new varieties of crops reduced biodiversity, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides polluted the soil and water.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published her bestselling book Silent Spring, which railed against the proliferation of dangerous pesticides like DDT (Figure 15.9). Carson drew connections between the political power of the chemical industry and the many adverse effects of chemicals that made their way into food supplies and human bodies. Though strongly condemned by large chemical companies, the book was undeniably influential. It was a finalist for the National Book Awards for nonfiction, and its ideas inspired a generation of young activists. In 1972, the use of DDT in U.S. agriculture was banned.

A black and white headshot photo of a woman is shown on a gray background. She is smiling, has short wavy hair, almond shaped eyes, and a pointy nose. She is wearing a white pointy collared shirt and gray jacket with no trim.
Figure 15.9 Before writing Silent Spring, Rachel Carson spent years working as a biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. After the publication of her book she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (credit: “Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring. Official photo as FWS employee. c. 1940” by USFWS National Digital Library/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Carson’s book tapped into the growing anxiety of many who felt the economic growth from which they benefited was environmentally unsustainable. These fears were confirmed by a series of ecological disasters that galvanized public attention. They included the 1958 Niger Delta oil spill in Nigeria, the 1962 start of the Centralia mine fire in Pennsylvania (which is still burning), the 1967 Torrey Canyon oil spill in the United Kingdom, the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire in Ohio, and the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. By the 1970s, environmental concerns had translated into political action. In April 1970, approximately twenty million people in the United States participated in the world’s first Earth Day celebration, a grassroots movement intended to raise public awareness about the environment (Figure 15.10).

A photo is shown of a lawn, trees, and a large white building with a rounded front in the background. In the right forefront of the picture a man and a woman are shown. The woman is wearing a pale blue dress, heeled white shoes, and has curly short hair. She is holding a white shovel with a red, white, and blue striped ribbon tied to it. There is dirt on the shovel. To her right is a pile of dirt and to her left is a small tree with the ground dug up around it. To the right stands a man in a blue suit, white shirt, and tie looking down at the small tree. In the background there are white and red busses, people walking around and a bench by each of two trees.
Figure 15.10 The first Earth Day celebrations even encouraged President Richard Nixon, with First Lady Pat Nixon, to contribute by planting a tree on the White House lawn. (credit: “President and Mrs. Richard Nixon plant a tree on the White House South Lawn to recognize the first Earth Day. WHPO C6311-11a” by Executive Office of the President of the United States/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 1972, scientist Donella Meadows and others from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a report called The Limits to Growth, which used computer models to predict that humanity would soon reach absolute limits on its use of resources, with disastrous consequences. The report had been commissioned by the Club of Rome, a nonprofit group of scientists, economists, and other intellectuals founded in 1968 to address global problems like pollution and environmental degradation. The Limits to Growth circulated widely and reinforced public concerns about a widespread environmental crisis on Earth.

Over the next decade, green parties, political parties organized around environmental concerns, proliferated in countries around Europe, proving popular with the young and highly educated. Some green party founders, such as Petra Kelly of the German Green Party, had studied in the United States and were influenced by its environmental movement. By the 1990s, there were green parties in almost every country in Europe and also in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand.

One of the factors motivating green parties in Europe was growing concern about nuclear technology. Following the 1951 creation of the first nuclear reactor for producing energy, nuclear power plants became common in the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union. Once hailed as a cleaner alternative to polluting coal-burning power, nuclear energy began to stall as environmentally conscious populations around the world voiced concerns about its potential dangers. News of the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979 gave new vigor to the already strong antinuclear movement.

Still considered the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, the Three Mile Island disaster released radioactive gases through the plant and into the surrounding area. After news of it reached the public, more than 100,000 residents fled the area. Despite President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to calm the public, the event shattered the country’s belief that such plants could be operated safely. Just a few years later, in 1986, an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union, resulted in the single largest uncontrolled radioactive release ever recorded. Although the Soviet Union reported that only thirty-one people died as a direct result of the accident, more than 200,000 had to be resettled in the wake of the disaster, and in 2005 the United Nations estimated that another four thousand could still die as a result of exposure to radiation released in Chernobyl. The area around Chernobyl was declared off limits, and the Soviet Union suffered irreparable harm to its reputation as a competent and technologically advanced superpower.

In Their Own Words

Voices from Chernobyl

The 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) required the creation of an “exclusion zone” of towns, villages, forests, and farms that had to be abandoned due to radioactive contamination (Figure 15.11). However, the Soviet government minimized information about the crisis to reduce its embarrassment and maintain an image of technical dominance. Decades later, we can glimpse what people were thinking and doing at the time.

A picture shows the view from the top of a building. There is a metal fence around the edges of the building in the concrete roof and wires going up from the fence on the right side. The floor of the roof looks dark and littered. The view shows tall and long white buildings and green trees in front of a blue sky. In the background there is a large group of buildings with tall pipes.
Figure 15.11 The accident at the nuclear power plant of Chernobyl (in the background) led to the abandonment of the city of Pripyat (foreground). (credit: modification of work “View of Chernobyl taken from Pripyat” by Jason Minshull/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

At that time my notions of nuclear power stations were utterly idyllic. At school and at the university we’d been taught that this was a magical factory that made ‘energy out of nothing,’ where people in white robes sat and pushed buttons. Chernobyl blew up when we weren’t prepared. And also there wasn’t any information. We got stacks of paper marked ‘Top Secret.’ ‘Reports of the accident: secret;’ ‘Results of medical observations: secret;’ ‘Reports about the radioactive exposure of personnel involved in the liquidation of the accident: secret.’ And so on. There were rumors: someone read in some paper, someone heard, someone said . . . . Some people listened to what was being said in the West, they were the only ones talking about what pills to take and how to take them. But most often the reaction was: our enemies are celebrating, but we still have it better.

—Zoya Danilovna Bruk, environmental inspector interviewed by Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl, Translated by Keith Gessen

At first everyone said, ‘It’s a catastrophe,’ and then everyone said, ‘It’s nuclear war.’ I’d read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I’d seen documentary footage. It’s frightening, but understandable: atomic warfare, the explosion’s radius. I could even imagine it. But what happened to us didn’t fit into my consciousness. You feel how some completely unseen thing can enter and then destroy the whole world, can crawl in and enter you. I remember a conversation with this scientist: ‘This is for thousands of years,’ he explained. ‘The decomposition of uranium: that’s 238 half-lives. Translated into time: that’s a billion years. And for thorium: its fourteen billion years.’ Fifty, one hundred, two hundred. But beyond that? Beyond that my consciousness couldn’t go.

—Anatoly Shimanskiy, journalist interviewed by Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl, Translated by Keith Gessen

  • Do you think Chernobyl changed the prospects for nuclear energy use? Why or why not?
  • How should governments handle disasters of this magnitude? If your government dealt with this event, how would you want it to do so?

It was also in the 1980s that scientists first detected the existence of an “ozone hole” over Antarctica. The ozone layer is a portion of the Earth’s upper atmosphere with especially high concentrations of ozone molecules (Figure 15.12). It serves to block much of the potentially harmful solar radiation the Earth naturally receives from the sun and thus is essential for life on this planet as we know it. The news that this layer had a hole—an area severely depleted by the use of manufactured chemicals in common consumer items like aerosols, refrigerants, and food packaging—startled the public. Some environmentalists predicted an apocalyptic near-future in which billions would die of skin cancer caused by the sun, and the Earth’s surface would become unlivable.

A picture of a piece of a blue colored planet is shown. There are clouds swirling around the blue and bright spots are scattered throughout the clouds. Above the clouds there is a yellowish haze and then a dark black sky with stars.
Figure 15.12 The Earth’s protective ozone layer is visible as a hazy blue film hanging in the planet’s atmosphere in this 2015 photograph from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (credit: “View of Earth taken during ISS Expedition 42” by NASA/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In the 1980s and early 1990s, people also became concerned about the plight of the environmentally invaluable Amazon rainforest. The movement known as Save the Rainforest brought professional environmentalists and concerned citizens together to raise awareness about deforestation. Brazil’s extensive rainforests had been under threat since the 1960s, when cattle ranchers and others began clearing thousands of acres of pristine forest. Until the 1980s, few people had paid much attention. But concerns rose in wealthy countries about the harm done by major beef producers and other multinational corporations to the people and resources in developing countries, including by eliminating the “lungs of the planet” (trees that produce oxygen and absorb the carbon dioxide created by industrial processes), and more people began to take notice.

Environmentalists stressed the rainforest’s unique biodiversity and warned of the consequences of destroying the sole source of potentially world-changing drugs and species of animals found nowhere else on earth. Anthropologists and Indigenous activists spoke of the effect on Indigenous peoples who lived and hunted in the rainforest and were threatened with loss of both home and livelihood. These warnings merged with developed countries’ anxieties about overconsumption and living beyond their means. The result was the Save the Rainforest campaign. By 1991, the effort had borne fruit, and deforestation in the Amazon had declined to one of the lowest recorded rates. Between 2005 and 2010, Brazil managed to reduce the destruction, but millions of hectares are still being cleared each year.

It was also during the late 1980s that much of the world was first introduced to the concept of global warming, the general rise in Earth’s temperature that scientists have observed over approximately the last two hundred years. The consensus is that this warming is the result of a steady increase in fossil-fuel burning since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The process has contributed to a rise in greenhouse gas levels, which trap yet more heat within the Earth’s atmosphere. Global warming is just one aspect of climate change, a broader phenomenon that includes changes in temperature, weather, storm activity, wind patterns, sea levels, and other influences on the planet.

Both global warming and climate change present enormous challenges for the future. Rising sea levels may make some large coastal cities around the world unlivable. Stronger storms, floods, and more intense heat can make life unbearable in entire regions. Extreme weather events like hurricanes, heat waves, and forest fires caused by drought and high temperatures may kill and injure thousands and cause billions of dollars in property losses. Hotter, wetter conditions may encourage the breeding of insects that spread infectious diseases like malaria and West Nile virus. These changes in turn will likely lead to worldwide problems. The World Bank estimates that more than 200 million people could become climate refugees, people forced to flee their homes to find livable climates in other areas, over the next few decades.

Link to Learning

Artists have always tried to highlight problems around the world. Climate change is no exception. Take a look at this PBS report on the Ghost Forest exhibit created by artist Maya Lin for one stunning example.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax