Beekeepers and Communists: How Environmentalists Started a Global Conversation | Climate crisis


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

On September 3, 1967, Sweden switched from left-hand drive to right-hand drive. The change took place mainly at night, but in Stockholm and Malmö all traffic came to a standstill for most of the weekend while intersections were reconfigured.

The city air was so balmy that weekend that enthusiasm for the environment skyrocketed. It was a moment that would change the world.

Three months later, Sweden, citing air and other pollution, asked the UN to organize the first-ever international conference on the environment, launching a process that would lead to a revolutionary rally in its capital on June 5, 1972, whose 50th anniversary will be marked next week. This was the start of a long, slow struggle to find and agree on global solutions to these newly understood global environmental problems. Twenty years later, the Rio conference would follow the same month, kicking off the UN climate summits, the most recent of which was held in Glasgow last fall.

Bill Clinton, then presidential candidate, speaks at a press conference at the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992. Photograph: Ben Rusnak/AFP/Getty Images

And yet, critical mistakes were made at this early stage. Progress, as we know, was glacial in the years that followed. Now, looking back at the early stages of this journey, it’s hard not to see that while there were so many issues that the conference resolved, there were also critical issues that it faced. deceived.

The Stockholm conference – held in the city’s Folkets Hus, the site of both a former prison and a theater specializing in pranks – gave environmental issues an international focus. In the 1960s, environmental problems seemed local, not global. In Britain, for example, the last of the great London smogs killed 750 people in 1962, while tragedy struck four years later in Aberfan, Wales, when a slag heap collapsed. mine. In Japan, people wore masks against air pollution. There was drought in the Sahel. And in 1969, a passing train ignited oil in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, igniting it.

But it was also a decade during which there were the first movements of revolt against the destruction of the environment. The World Wide Fund for Nature was launched in 1961 with a special issue of the Daily Mirror with the front page headline “DOOMED”. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring wreaked havoc on pesticides the following year, and in 1969 an undergraduate, Prince Charles, first entered the fray, pressuring Britain’s Prime Minister of time, Harold Wilson, about Atlantic salmon at an event at the Finnish Embassy.

Firefighters tackle a burning oil spill on the Cuyahoga River in 1952.
Firefighters tackle a burning oil spill on the Cuyahoga River in 1952. Photography: Bettmann Archives/Bettmann

But these are isolated voices, denounced and rejected by the powerful. Carson said the U.S. chemical industry wanted to return to “the dark ages” where “insects and vermin would once again inherit the Earth.” The then US Secretary of Agriculture wrote to former US President Dwight Eisenhower, saying that since Carson was unmarried, although she was “attractive”, she was “probably a communist”.

The plan for an international conference in Stockholm initially had so little support that it was disdainfully called “the Swedish affair” at the UN. It took two years of lobbying, against British and French opposition, before the general assembly backed the proposal. In fact, it was (January 1970) that a discerning Yorkshire Post editor told me we needed to cover this stuff and my long run on the beat of the environment – the longest in the world as far as I’m 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. Photography:

Now the problem started to take off. The number of Americans concerned about air and water pollution doubled between 1965 and 1970, to 70%. In April, 20 million people demonstrated on the first Earth Day, leaving – much to the delight of naysayers – a lot of trash behind. Environment chief Richard Nixon called Washington’s mood ‘hysteria’, and the then US president devoted a quarter of this year’s State of the Union address there to the question. Over the next three years, he introduced 14 pieces of legislation that laid the foundation for American environmental policy and institutions.

In Britain in 1970, Ted Heath came to power and created one of the world’s first environment ministries (he originally wanted to call it the Ministry of Life until he realizes this would make his arrogant minister Peter Walker a “Secretary of State for Life”).

Leaders in the developing world were beginning to fret, fearing that rich countries would use environmental concerns to prevent them from developing. These concerns were not allayed by the publication of two best-selling books: Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome (the title suggests) and A Blueprint for Survival by 30 top British scientists, who called for deindustrialisation and boasted tribal societies. Alarmed, some have considered boycotting Stockholm, with Brazil calling it “a rich man’s show”, and India and Nigeria have also publicly expressed concern.

Keith Johnson of Jamaica and General Rapporteur of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment made a statement.
Keith Johnson of Jamaica and General Rapporteur of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment made a statement. Photograph: Yutaka Nagata/UN Photo

The books had another effect, wrongly focusing attention on finite “non-renewable resources,” like minerals and fossil fuels, that were bound to run out. Limits to Growth had a particularly strong impact, because – back in the days when computers were considered omniscient – the book’s authors ran a series of models that showed supplies collapsing as economic growth continued, causing a “rather sudden and uncontrollable decline” in industrial capacity.

His fans were generally far less concerned with “renewable” resources like forests, fisheries, and soils, as these would, by definition, replenish. But, in practice, these were already depleting so quickly that they had no chance of recovery, and their destruction has been at the heart of most of the major environmental crises of the past half-century.

Meanwhile, mineral shortages have never happened on the scale feared – and we now know we have more oil, gas and coal than we can burn without ruining the climate.

It is in this context that the Stockholm conference took place. In retrospect, too little attention was given to climate change – which was only beginning to cause concern, despite being identified as a potential crisis more than 100 years earlier – and to biodiversity. And, although the conference made 109 recommendations, there wouldn’t be another major global environmental summit for another 20 years.

The outcome of the conference was uncertain until the last minute. The latest issue of his newspaper, Eco, said negotiators could only agree on one thing as the end approached: “Either a statement will be finalized or it won’t.” After a 14-hour nonstop session, it was — with a 109-point action plan.

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

An image of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
An image of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Photography: Antonio RIBEIRO/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

The concept of sustainable development also emerged from the conference: equitable economic growth that preserves the environment for future generations. Nurtured by eminent economists like Barbara Ward and spurred on by then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s insistence that poverty was the worst form of pollution, it became one of the lasting legacies of the conference.

Another was a pioneer in the participation of pressure groups: 258 took part, from Greenpeace to the International Federation of Beekeepers. And they made a difference – effectively pushing a call to ban whaling.

But the momentum quickly slackened. The 1973 oil crisis at first seemed to strengthen the ecology, highlighting the precariousness of resources. But attention was diverted by an economic crisis and then another price shock followed. Nixon – who had gone green out of political expediency, not conviction – quickly abandoned him (his infamous recordings recorded him comparing environmentalists to “a bunch of damn animals”), as did other leaders. And the environment has been pushed to the bottom of the shelf.

Now there is another time. Last year’s Cop26 summit in Glasgow achieved more than expected, with governments giving themselves this year – until another summit, in Egypt in November – to do more. Not much has happened so far, but there is potential, including for reducing emissions of methane and similar pollutants, a hitherto overlooked measure that could halve the rate of warming.

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

Also this year, another summit will be invited to approve a ten-year strategy for the protection of nature and biodiversity.

And what about economics, once seen as so much in conflict with environmentalism? There is growing recognition that they have to come together, that old models of extractive capitalism simply don’t work, that the only way forward is to embrace a circular economy and go green. Just this week, a study by Deloitte said that reaching net zero carbon emissions would benefit the global economy by $43bn (£34bn) over the next half-century.

It’s desperately late, it’s high time to stop driving, flat out, on the wrong side of the road. Who is for a worldwide Högertrafikomläggningen?

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