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  • Writer's pictureJohn Pabon

Know Your Environmental History! (Part 1)

Many of us, myself included, go around as if climate action and environmentalism have been around forever. But, like with most things, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. That's why I wanted to devote a bit of time to walking through the history of the modern environmental movement. Understanding where we've come from will no doubt help us figure out where we're going.

A Not-So-Silent Spring: The Early Years

While the nucleus of environmentalism and the conservation movement began in the middle of the eighteenth century—primarily as a response to the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution—things started to ramp up following World War Two. Propelling the need for ecological balance into the limelight was the publication of two highly influential novels on conservation: Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac in 1949 and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962.

A collection of essays rather than a single novel, Leopold’s work is considered one of the foundations of the modern ecological movement. A Sand County Almanac is beautiful in its simplicity and accessibility. In it, Leopold promotes what he terms a land ethic. He calls for a responsible relationship with the land humans inhabit.

Often cited as the catalyst for the modern environmental conservation movement, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring focused on the unintended negative impacts of DDT and other pesticides on the environment. Her argument was that the effect of these chemicals was never limited just to their intended targets. She elucidated the links between pesticides and deadly diseases, like cancer, while also excoriating the chemical industry for malfeasance. Silent Spring was wildly successful, selling over 2 million copies in a number of languages.

With the publication of these works, people around the world embraced this need for a new way forward. It was during this period, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where we saw the formation of frameworks, organizations, and events still tied to the movement today. We can link the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States to Carson’s work as an author and activist. Grassroots organizations that would come to dominate the conservation narrative also started to emerge. These included, among others, the Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, and the National Resources Defense Council. Globally, groups like The Club of Rome, the World Conservation Union, and the United Nations Environment Programme brought issues to the international stage. Of course, we also had the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

National governments passed a treasure trove of environmental and conservation measures in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unfortunately, many of these came about a little too late. The 1968 grounding of the SS Torrey Canyon along the western coast of the UK dumped 36 million gallons of crude oil into the sea. Although it is known to this day as the worst oil spill in UK history, it brought about the first International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage. Up until that time, nobody was legally responsible for disasters like this. In fact, during the spill itself, the UK undersecretary responsible for handling the disaster said the Government clearly “… has no responsibility in law for what has happened.” Today, it would be political suicide to ignore an environmental issue of the scale of the SS Torrey Canyon.

Overall, these early days of the movement proved to be strong support against a clear-and-present danger. The threat of nuclear war, use of damaging pesticides like DDT, and major environmental disasters all made the issues much more tangible. You had the eco-activists, like James “The Fox” Phillips, going out of their way to make life hell for corporations stupid enough to flout environmental law. Grassroots organizations took their message to the public, increasing awareness and buy-in. Even politicians were onside. Earth Day was founded by a group of American Senators, including John F. Kerry and Gaylord Nelson. It certainly looked as if we were all working in tandem and collaboratively to ensure a brighter future.

Then, we were made to wade through the muck of the 1980s.

The Privatization of Sustainability

Synonymous with greed, indulgence, and questionable fashion choices, the 1980s were a time of big business getting bigger. In the developed world, it was the era of pure capitalism. An increasingly complicated web of conglomeration, confusing bureaucracy, and sleight of hand between 1980 and the year 2000 meant corporations began to think they were invincible. Their new levels of leverage, coupled with consumers’ inability to vote with their wallets, began to result in greed and hubris of biblical proportions. A favorite example is the 1998 Cendant Corporation accounting incident, one of the largest financial scandals of the 1990s. The company was found to have reported US$500 million in false profits, costing shareholders a whopping US$19 billion. That a corporation would think they could get away with this as if it were a simple accounting error shows just how indomitable they thought they were.

This mindset didn’t just apply to financial behavior, either. The corporate world’s involvement in sustainability was just as unsavory. Consider the example of ExxonMobil. Formed in 1999 by the merger of Exxon and Mobil, the 2019 Fortune 500 places the American oil and gas giant as the second-largest US corporation by revenue. Given its size, ExxonMobil has immense lobbying power and influence. On paper, they purport to use this for the good of humanity. The reality, though, wasn't as altruistic.

Lucky for us, we now have the privilege of hindsight and a ton of informative documents released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). These reveal just how far the oil giant has gone to steep itself in the language of sustainability while actively working against building a more sustainable future. On the surface, corporate executives say nice things like the “…risk of climate change is real and it warrants action. Ninety percent of emissions come from the consumption of fossil fuels.” The Union’s documents highlight, however, how Exxon executives in the 1980s fully understood the negative impact companies in their industry had on the climate. Rather than take this knowledge and do something positive, the company continued to publicly deny any links between fossil fuels and climate change for decades. Even more covertly, they funded influential groups that actively discounted the science of climate change. All the while, Exxon publicly called for greater efforts to be made to curb climate change and environmental degradation.

Exxon wasn’t the only group saying one thing and doing another. This period was also one where those do-good grassroots organizations began to grow up. In so doing, the likes of Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy started to emulate their private-sector peers. They shed off the dead weight of the non-profit world, embracing operational models, spreadsheets, and business suits in their place. While in many ways this helped to legitimize their work practices—taking them from fringe activists to players at the big boy’s table—it also restricted the action necessary to make a genuine impact. As Sunil Babu Pant of The Guardian notes concerning the professionalization of non-profits, “…efficient doesn’t necessarily mean effective.”

With all the action happening in the corporate and NGO world, political actors began to take a step back. While they would retain oversight, they weren’t very interested in getting into the day-to-day running of the business. Essentially, they were outsourcing their responsibility. Now, the foxes were able to freely patrol the henhouse.

A Changing of the Guard

It took a lot of missteps, but the powers-that-be began to realize this wasn’t the best model to follow. Enter the United Nations as it prepared to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. Officials began to note just how little governments had done to uphold their end of the bargain over the past several decades, so were looking for ways to encourage the now-obligatory public-private partnerships. The UN wanted governments and corporations to work together for a brighter future. Basically, the UN was creating accountable partnerships to try and get the hard work of sustainable development done.

Unfortunately, it only fast-tracked the privatization of sustainability. An excellent piece by the UN watchdog Global Policy Forum sums up the idea of privatization perfectly. They state that the “…Type-II approach is essentially the privatization of implementation. The job of ensuring sustainable development will be outsourced to various NGO and corporate actors, while governments look on approvingly and compare verbiage.”

All of these unfortunate mistakes were on full display with the creation of the Millennium Declaration and its associated Millennium Development Goals (MDG). While drafted and passed by the United Nations, the documents were reflections of donors’ vested interests. The Goals were a set of eight simple targets—such as eradicating extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, and promoting gender equality to name a few—all to be completed by 2015. Nearly all UN member states, and an additional 23 international organizations, signed on to support the Goals.

Yet, by their deadline it wasn’t really clear how much had been achieved. There was a lot of good that came from having these Goals, but the Goals were more a tool for powerful blocs and donors to focus direction on what they considered the most important issues, not necessarily what the most important issues were. For example, Fehling, Nelson, and Venkatapuram note the main creators of the framework were the United States, Europe, and Japan. By the time of their approval, only 22 percent of the world’s national parliaments had even seen the Goals. In another example of vested interests driving creation, “a small number of UN members influenced the initial rejection of a reproductive health goal…the ‘unholy alliance’ of the Vatican and conservative Islamic states made the goal disappear from the original MDG list.”

As a result of this not-to-open process, the MDGs ended up being focused on efficiency over effectiveness. These were key performance indicators (KPIs) to meet. They weren’t human-centric issues to address. Michael Hobbes of The Huffington Post examines Goal 2, Achieve Universal Primary Education, in his criticism of the MDGs. The Goals measured this target by the number of kids attending school, not necessarily the quality of their education.

In many cases the rapid expansion of schools aimed to grant an increasing number of students access to primary schools had in many cases a deteriorating effect on the learning quality, first and foremost due to teacher shortages, resulting in single teacher schools with one teacher responsible for one multigrade classroom, or the hiring of so called para-teachers with considerable less educational qualification as regular teachers. ... 130 million children completed primary education but without being able to read or write.

Phew. That's definitely enough history for now. In my next post, I'll discuss some of the key issues facing climate activism today and what that means for the future of our fight.


To go even deeper into the history of the modern environmental movement, buy "Sustainability for the Rest of Us: Your No-Bullshit, Five-Point Plan for Saving the Planet," available at these retailers.

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