Why did the environment emerge as a political issue at the end of the 20th century?

Published: 05 December 2010

Environment as an issue started become widely known in 1960's.

It is argued that the rise of modern environmentalism is a direct response to rapid industrialisation of the world in 1960’s. In the US, Europe and European colonies it meant to destroy forests, natural resources and indigenous societies.

Ideas of environmentalism failed to influence the mad rush for development after WWII. The period between 1945 and 1962 is designated as the age of ecological innocence. The transformation first took place in the US and then spread more to the West.

The second sign towards environmental movement was Rachel's Carson's book Silent Spring which stimulated intense concern about the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides. Movements like "Deep Ecology" and "Earth First" in US began demanding environmental justice but it failed. This had an effect on Europe in terms of green movement in Europe which led to the rise of green party which influences public even to this day.

Global awareness of the health risks in 1963 posed by radioactive fall-out contributed to the pressures to conclude the ban on nuclear warhead tests in the atmosphere.

Concern about sea pollution grew, caused by disasters such as the spill in 1967 from the Torrey Canyon oil tanker which killed 40,000 seabirds (British PATHE). IMO became increasingly engaged with preventing oil pollution at the sea. Another problem which damaged the forests and lake ecosystems in Scandinavia and Canada was of a transboundary air pollution known as acid rain which attracted huge attention. Informal discussions began on the development of a new "Law of the Sea” which would govern access to and use of, the international seas and the seabed: the old regime was collapsing as unilateral claims were being made on transit rights and for economic control of waters up to 200 miles from the coastline.

Environment becomes a global issue because firstly some environmental problems are inherently global. CFCs (chlorofluoro-carbons) released into the atmosphere contribute to the global problem of stratospheric ozone depletion irrespective of where they are emitted, just as carbon dioxide emissions contribute to global climate change. Such problems are tackled trough cooperation of many countries which emerged as a political issue at the end of 20thcentury.

Other problems relate to the exploitation of global commons: resources shared by all members of the world community, such as atmosphere, oceans, deep-sea bed and outer space.

Also many environmental problems are intrinsically transnational, in that by their nature they cross state boundaries, even if they are not entirely global. An example of it would be emissions of sulphur dioxide by one state will be carried by winds and deposited as acid rain on downwind countries. This relates to acid rain in Scandinavia.

Waste which is dumped into semi-enclosed or enclosed sea has an effect on all littoral states. Such problems create conflicts amongst countries. Non - state actors like UN tried to tackle the problems or resolve any disputes which have constructed between the countries.

Many processes of over-exploitation, also known as tragedy of the commons, or environmental degradation were relatively local or national in scale, and now they are experienced in such a large number of localities around the world that they can be considered to be global problems. An example of it would be soil degradation and erosion.  These problems are linked to broader political and socio-economic processes, which themselves are part of a global political economy. People will over-exploit natural resources because otherwise others will exploit them. Greene argues that environmental problems are closely related to the generation and distribution of wealth and power. Therefore as government is an administrative unit of capitalist society, then those problems become instantly a political issue.

Environment as a political issue emerged in the late 20th century because capitalists were seeking to establish a new market to generate wealth.

After WWII, as Lebeau argues, US economy began to demand that we make consumption our way of life that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption and that we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate (Lebeau).

Corporations like US Federal Reserve would benefit from this in terms that US government would need to raise taxes or borrow money from US Federal Reserve on interest to help to protect the environment.

Governments wanted to set limits to carbon dioxide limits but in the same time they were allowing corporations who want to pollute more to buy and trade carbon credits from companies who pollute less. Some argue that environmental issues like global warming never existed (IPCC global warming report).

Frietas wrote: "A hearing in August 1998 on the subject of global warming before the U.S. House Committee...revealed that the IPCC scientific report was deceptively altered by Santer et. al to convey the misleading impression to the public that there is a "discernible human influence on climate" that will lead to catastrophic warming.... [A paper] published in Nature showed the research on which the IPCC "discernible influence" statement is based used only a portion of the available atmospheric temperature data, with no scientifically defensible reason for not using the entire data set. When the full data set was used, the previously identified warming trend disappeared." (IPCC global warming report). Sheppard argues that some environmental issues like global warming is a scam and it's not anthropogenic. It is made to force people to buy billions of green products and to make the government spend billions of dollars on research with the help of mass media.

Venturaargues that Ben Santer and Maurice Strong were linked together. Maurice Strong was the secretary general of the UN conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, which was organized in response to the dramatic increase in international environmental concern in 1960's. This was the first international conference which launched the green movement which aim was to establish an international framework to promote a more coordinated approach to pollution and other environmental problems. The importance of environmental issues as a focus for international concern became institutionalised, along with the principle that states have a responsibility to cooperate with efforts to manage the global commons and reduce transboundary pollution. It was argued by developing countries that they have a less historical responsibility for global pollution and resource depletion than industrialized countries, and that actions are to protect the environment had to be linked to efforts to promote their social and economical development.Southern movements began as a challenge to the “postmaterialist values” of the North, according to which the backward South was unable of developing any serious environmental movement until it became fully developed like the North.

Strong argues in one of his interview that "under the polluter payer's principle, those who created the damage should pay for it, and of course we and the industrialised countries are creating most of it and therefore we need to pay for most of it". Roughly 80% of world’s resources are utilized by 20% of population that lives in Europe and North America which makes those countries the ones who will pay the most for the used resources. Industrialised countries also sent their waste to third world war countries which created a political issue among the nations. NGOs from many countries gathered to oversee the entire proceedings of the conference, to exert political pressure on the participants, and to network, thus establishing a practice that has continued ever since. Strong was the first director of UNEP and he also organised the conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Ventura argues that he wasn't a proper environmentalist and that he only was seeking money by deliberately manipulating the data using Ben Santer as he was the convening lead author of IPCC second assessment on climate change to promote environmental issues. Strong stepped down from his UN post in 2005 because he was involved in the food for oil scandal.He issued himself a cheque in a sum of $988,885,in 1997 while working for ANNAN. Ventura also argues that Strong used Al Gore as a front man who was 45th vice president of US and now an American environmental activist who starred in the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, to educate citizens about global warming. This was done to manipulate people to be more environmentally friendly and to make governments spend even more money.

To conclude, environment emerged as a political issue at the end of 20th century, because of capitalist interests to step into a new market to generate surplus value known as profit (Marx, Communist manifesto). To generate profits, capitalists used governments as administrative unit to increase consumerism, promote the negative impact on the planet and to make citizens of industrialised countries pay for the waste they produced so that capitalists could generate profits in terms of taxes, new products, research etc.  Chavez argues: "If the climate was the bank, then the capitalists would save it". He also argues that the only way to save the world is to abolish bourgeoisie society and to have a new system (Chavez, Copenhagen summit 2009). Fresco argues that a better system would be a technology led system known as Venus project which does not promote capitalist interests and would therefore save our planet.  

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