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Global Environmental History in the Age of Fossil Fuels

J.R. McNeill
Georgetown University

V. Environmentalism

Intense pollution and its attendant human health risks helped to crystallise the modern environmental movement, a cultural and political phenomenon that has begun to affect ecology in modest ways. Environmentalism has a tangled and deep root structure, involving British imperial administrators, American diplomats, Brazilian slaveowners, German forest managers, Himalayan peasants, Chinese literati, ancient philosophers and kings.

polar bear

Their concerns ranged from soil erosion and wildlife extermination to shortages of naval timber and unruly floodwaters. State efforts to restrict deforestation go back at least 600 years, and anti-pollution laws at least 700. It was normally difficult to enforce such rules as existed even when emperors or legislatures fervently wished to protect environments.

The power of the state to regulate the conduct of its subjects or citizens with respect to the environment was sorely limited in pre-modern times, but the rise in the last two centuries of more effective regulatory states allowed the possibility of more successful environmentalism.

While environmentalism has multiple variants and countless parents, nothing did more to make it politically prominent than the urban air and water pollution of the mid-20th century, which galvanised effective coalitions into forming.

Urban populations normally made their voices heard in the corridors of power more effectively than could peasantries; the issues surrounding urban pollution were on the one hand easily tangible, visible, and smellable, and on the other demonstrably threatening to human health.

Moreover, the threats were not easily confined to the politically disenfranchised urban-dwellers. Dangerous air and water sometimes menaced the rich and powerful in the cities too. For all these reasons, between 1960 and 1980 a new environmentalism took root around the world, from the cities of Japan, Europe, and North America to the forests and floodplains of India and Brazil.

It flourished in open societies suffering from conspicuous environmental problems, such as Sweden. It served as one of the few tolerated forms of public dissent in parts of the old Soviet bloc, such as Hungary, and does so today in China. It became a routine feature of politics in some places, such as the Netherlands and Canada, and an ideology of insurgency in others, such as Peru. 19

pollutionIt has become a capacious and incoherent global movement, loosely uniting peasants concerned with access to forest resources, city dwellers worried about air quality, and everyone vexed by climate change or overpopulation. It has been adopted as a priority, rarely a high one, by hundreds if not thousands of government bodies and corporations, and forms part of the education of almost every schoolchild around the world.

To date, however, states and societies retain their traditional priorities of military security and economic growth, tempered only somewhat by environmentalism. Barring a cultural transformation on the scale of a new great religion that successfully converts billions to the faith, or a galvanising ecological threat that is clear to nearly everyone, this will remain the case.

The chief candidate for this role is climate change, but to date it seems an insufficient threat to provoke serious alterations in any society’s ecological behaviour.

Environmentalism took root when it did because the ecological disruption of the modern world had reached an unprecedented scale and pace, and a ready audience. The environmental turbulence of the years 1800-1950, when coal was king and industrial demand and long-distance migration remade the world’s frontiers, was unsettling to hundreds of millions and lethal to tens of millions.

But most of them had no way of uniting with others as aggrieved as themselves, no way of becoming a political and cultural voice. After 1950, with pell-mell urbanisation, ever-cheaper transport and communication, not to mention higher literacy and (on balance) less censorship and political oppression, an audience for environmentalism formed just as the oil age added new environmental concerns on top of the old.

The post-1950 environmental tumult, with its local and regional anxieties about accelerated deforestation, overfishing, soil erosion and urban pollution, its global concerns about population growth and the ozone hole, had something to worry almost everyone.

continue to: VI. Conclusion

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19Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism (2001); John McCormick , The Global Environmental Movement (New York, 1996).

Date posted: 30/11/07


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