World History 2 267 - 15.2.2 Environmentalism Today

Many of the most outspoken proponents of environmentalism and policies to curb fossil-fuel use have come from the United States and developed countries in Europe. Some of their anxieties about the state of the environment are a product of their own affluence and the sense that it is unsustainable. Yet frequently their environmental concerns have clashed with the interests of developing countries, which are largely geared toward growth. Concerns about the Amazon rainforest is one example of this dynamic.

The depletion of the rainforest was largely the result of the expansion of cattle ranching and later of farming in the Amazon River basin. When rainforest trees are removed for these purposes, the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) is released, contributing to global warming. Ranching also contributes to a rise in methane, another greenhouse gas, produced by the cattle themselves. While environmentalists in the United States and Europe viewed with horror the increase of greenhouse gases and the loss of animal habitats, plants, and trees, the clearing of land brought economic opportunities for many Brazilians. It created jobs for poor workers, produced lumber for construction, and opened space for ranchers to graze cattle and farmers to grow crops that could be consumed domestically or exported for profit.

Debates about whether these outcomes are positive or negative reflect the fact that developed countries have mostly freed themselves from concerns about survival. They are able now to focus on sustainability, while developing countries like Brazil must exploit their natural resources to get by and improve their economic position. Between 1990 and 2019, China’s coal consumption increased nearly four times. Its energy needs have become enormous as China has industrialized and its citizens have experienced a rising standard of living. While the Chinese are not immune to criticisms about high coal consumption, which emits greenhouses gases and contributes to global warming, their policies suggest their larger concern is maintaining their country’s continued growth and development.

Groups like Greenpeace, an environmental organization founded in 1971, sometimes express dismay about such perspectives. For example, in the 1970s, Greenpeace and other environmental groups pushed for a ban on seal hunting around the world, calling it unsustainable and cruel to the animals. However, many in Canada and other arctic regions depend on sealing for their livelihoods. They felt Greenpeace and other environmentalists undermined their industry and hampered their efforts to provide for their families. They resented being portrayed as unfeeling killers by organizations that appeared to know little about their lives.

A similar conflict erupted in the forests of the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s as environmentalists ramped up protests against logging in order to preserve the spotted owl, a threatened species indigenous to states like Washington and Oregon (Figure 15.13). (Threatened species are those the government identifies as likely to soon be endangered.) The tens of thousands of loggers who depended on the industry to survive complained that while the environmental concerns were real, their livelihoods should take priority over the survival of an individual species. The conflict became known as the Timber Wars and gained enormous media attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the end, the U.S. government sought a compromise in the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994, which restricted forest exploitation and satisfied neither group.

A picture of an owl sitting on the green, mossy branch of a tree is shown. The owl has big black eyes with small yellow pinpoints in the middle, a small, curved, pointy beige beak, and black and brown feathers around its head and brown, white, and black feathers on its body. There are leaves, sunlight, and sky in the background.
Figure 15.13 Concerns about the fate of the spotted owl became a major point of contention between loggers and environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest during the 1990s. (credit: “spotted_owl_forest_bird_NPS_Photo” by Olympic National Park/Flickr, Public Domain)
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax