Beekeepers and communists: how environmentalists started a global conversation | Climate crisis

It all started with HögertrafikomläggningenSwedish for “the right traffic reorganization”.

September 3, 1967 Sweden changed from driving on the left to driving on the right. The change took place mostly at night, but in Stockholm and Malmö all traffic stopped for most of the weekend as intersections were rescheduled.

So sweet was the resulting city air that weekend that ecological enthusiasm soared. It was a moment that would change the world.

Three months later, Sweden, citing air and other pollution, called on the UN to hold its first international environmental conference, initiating a process that would lead to a pioneering meeting in its capital on June 5, 1972, to mark its 50th anniversary. next week. This was the beginning of a long and slow struggle to find and agree on global solutions to these newly understood global environmental problems. Twenty years later, the Rio conference will follow in the same month, with the launch of UN climate summits, the most recent of which took place in Glasgow last autumn.

Bill Clinton, then a presidential candidate, is speaking at a press conference on the Rio 1992 summit in June 1992.
Bill Clinton, then a presidential candidate, is speaking at a press conference on the Rio 1992 summit in June 1992. Photo: Ben Rusnak / AFP / Getty Images

And yet critical mistakes were made at this early moment. Progress, as we know, has been icy in the years since. Now, looking back on the first steps in that journey, it’s hard not to see that while there were so many things that the conference hit, there were also some crucial things that went wrong.

The Stockholm conference – held in the city’s Folkets Hus, the site of both a former prison and a theater specializing in farces – gave green themes international importance. In the 1960s, environmental issues seemed local, not global. In Britain, for example, the last of London’s great smogs killed 750 people in 1962, during a tragedy four years later in Aberfan, Wales, with the collapse of a coal mine loot peak. In Japan, people wore masks against air pollution. There was a drought in the Sahel. And in 1969 a passing train set fire to oil in the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, setting it on fire.

But this was also a decade in which there were early uprisings against environmental destruction. The World Wildlife Fund launched in 1961 with a special issue of the Daily Mirror bearing the front page title “FINISHED”. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring Saved Insecticides the following year, and in 1969 student Prince Charles first entered the fray, lobbying then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson over Atlantic salmon at an event at the Finnish embassy.

Firefighters deal with a burning oil spill on the Cuyahoga River in 1952.
Firefighters deal with a burning oil spill on the Cuyahoga River in 1952. Photo: Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

But these were isolated voices, denounced and discarded by the powerful. Carson said the U.S. chemical industry wanted to return to “the dark ages” where “insects and pests would once again inherit the Earth.” The then U.S. secretary of agriculture wrote to former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, saying that because Carson was single, despite being “attractive,” she was “probably a communist.”

The plan for an international conference in Stockholm initially had so little support that it was loosely called “the Swedish issue” at the UN. It took two years of lobbying, against British and French opposition, before the general assembly supported the proposal. It just so happened (January 1970) when I was told by a foresight editor at the Yorkshire Post that we needed to cover these issues and my long stint on environmental tactics – the longest in the world as much as I did. am aware – started.

A special issue of the Daily Mirror in 1961 to cover the launch of the WWF Launch.
A special issue of the Daily Mirror in 1961 to cover the launch of the WWF Launch. Photo: mirror.co.uk/

Now the matter took off. The number of Americans worried about air and water pollution doubled between 1965 and 1970, to 70%. That April, 20 million people demonstrated on Earth Day, leaving a lot of rubbish behind. Richard Nixon’s environment chief described Washington’s mood as “hysteria,” and the then U.S. president devoted a quarter of that year’s State of the Union address to the issue. Over the next three years, he brought 14 pieces of legislation laying the foundations of U.S. environmental policy and institutions.

In Britain in 1970, Ted Heath came to power and established one of the world’s first environment ministries (he originally wanted to call it the Department for Life until he realized that this would make his insistent minister Peter Walker “secretary of state for life”).

Developing world leaders have become concerned, fearing that rich countries would use environmental concerns to deny them development. These concerns were not alleviated by the publication of two best-selling books: the Club of Rome Borders to Growth (the title says it all) and A Blueprint for Survival by 30 top British scientists who called for deindustrialisation and praised tribal societies. Alarmed, some have considered boycotting Stockholm, with Brazil calling it a “spectacle of the rich”, and India and Nigeria are also publicly expressing concern.

Keith Johnson, from Jamaica, and general rapporteur for the UN human rights conference, made a statement.
Keith Johnson, from Jamaica, and general rapporteur for the UN human rights conference, made a statement. Photo: Yutaka Nagata / UN Photo

The books had another effect, erroneously focusing on finite “non-renewable resources,” such as minerals and fossil fuels, which were projected to run out. Limits to Growth had a particularly strong impact because – back in those days when computers were supposed to be omniscient – the book’s authors ran a series of models that showed stocks collapsing as economic growth continued, causing a “fairly sudden and uncontrollable decline” in industrial capacity.

Its fans generally cared much less about “renewable” resources such as forests, fisheries and land, as these would, by definition, be replenished. But, in practice, these were already depleted so quickly that they had no chance of recovery, and their destruction was at the heart of most of the great environmental crises of the past half. century.

Meanwhile, the shortage of minerals has never occurred on anything like the dreaded scale – and we now know that we have more oil, gas and coal than we can burn without ruining the climate.

Such was the background on which the Stockholm conference began. In retrospect, far too little attention has been paid to climate change – which has only just begun to raise concerns, despite being identified as a potential crisis more than 100 years ago – and to biodiversity. And while the conference did come up with 109 recommendations, it would not be another big global summit on the environment for another 20 years.

The outcome of the conference was uncertain until the last minute. The final issue of its newspaper, Eco, said negotiators could only agree on one issue when the end approached: “Either a statement will be finalized – or it won’t.” After a non-stop 14-hour session, it was – along with a 109-point action plan.

A series of international agreements followed – on marine pollution, endangered species, world heritage, acid rain, whaling and much more, culminating in one of the most successful treaties of all time, saving the Earth’s vital ozone layer.

Image of the Earth's summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Image of the Earth’s summit in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Antonio RIBEIRO / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

The concept of sustainable development also emerged from the conference: fair economic growth that has preserved the environment for future generations. Cared for by leading economists like Barbara Ward and accelerated by the insistence of the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that poverty was the worst form of pollution, it became one of the lasting legacies of the conference.

Another was pioneering participation of lobbyists: 258 attended, from Greenpeace to the International Beekeepers Federation. And they made a difference – effectively pushing a call to ban whaling.

But momentum soon slowed. The 1973 oil crisis first seemed to strengthen environmentalism, underscoring the fragility of resources. But attention was diverted as an economic crisis, and then another price shock followed. Nixon – who turned green because of political opportunism, not conviction – quickly dropped it (his infamous tapes recorded him comparing environmentalists to “a bunch of damned beasts”) as other leaders did. And the environment was pushed to the back of the shelf.

Now is another time. Last year Cop26 A summit in Glasgow has reached more than expected, with governments giving themselves this year – until another summit in Egypt in November – in which to do more. So far, not much has happened, but the potential exists, not least to reduce the release of methane and similar pollutants, a hitherto neglected measure that could reduce the rate of warming by half.

The Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, is greeted by his Swedish counterpart, Olof Palme, on the first day of the conference.
The Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, is greeted by his Swedish counterpart, Olof Palme, on the first day of the conference. Photo: SCANPIX SWEDEN / AFP / Getty Images

Also this year another summit will be asked to approve a 10-year strategy to protect nature and biodiversity.

And what about an economy once thought to be so conflicted with environmentalism? It is increasingly recognized that they must be in concert, that the old models of extract capitalism simply do not work, that the only way forward is to accept a circular economy and turn green. Just this week, a study by Deloitte said that achieving zero net carbon emissions would benefit the world economy by $ 43 billion (£ 34 billion) over the next half century.

It is extremely late, long past the time to stop driving, full incline, down the wrong side of the road. Which is for global Högertrafikomläggningen?

This article was modified on May 30, 2022 to restore two commas that were erroneously deleted during the editing process, which resulted in a sentence saying: “[Rachel] Carson said the US chemical industry wants to return to “the dark ages” where “insects and pests would once again inherit the Earth”. The comments were in fact about Carson from the US chemical industry.

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