In recent decades, air pollution has radically changed the planetary climate and the conditions of the biosphere.
Many initiatives and events have been organized in order to protest against the inactivity of governments in safeguarding nature, or against the practices of some companies and corporations that damage the environment.
However, although the concept of “environmentalism” as we know it today was born only around the 1960s, its principles have been applied since ancient times.
A brief history of environmentalism
Protection of the territory and the environment is not a recent phenomenon: in fact already in antiquity some societies had adopted laws to protect the environment.
The Romans, since the times of the Roman Republic (5th century BC), had laws against deforestation, and established a body of guards who had the task of protecting and patrolling the sacred woods, but also of regulating deforestation and reforestation of other forests, and monitor any abuse.
In Egypt during the time of Ptolemy (4th century BC) tree logging was regulated by the state, and sanctions were provided for any authorized logging.In addition, there were plantations of trees managed directly by the state, to encourage reforestation.
However, following the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, many of these good practices fell into disuse.In medieval times the exploitation of forests increased, and generally there were no regulations on the matter.
In England one of the first “anti-smog” was issued by King Edward I in 1272, banning the use of coal, due to the fumes emitted by its combustion.
The Incas in South America had a legislation on deforestation, which provided that the trees could be felled only with the permission of the state, and any unauthorized exploitation would be sanctioned with death: we have this information thanks to the testimonies of the Spanish Conquistadores, in the sixteenth century.
However, only after the advent of the second Industrial Revolution mankind noticed the impact that human actions have on the surrounding environment.
One of the first books on this matter was written by Geroge Perkins Marsh in 1864, “Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action”, which theorized the dangers and consequences of human actions on the environment; the book debunked the myth of inexhaustibility of Earth’s resources, and promoted sustainable development and environmental protection as well.
The first consequences of the pollution of coal-fueled factories, such as air pollution, increase in waste and the spillage of chemicals into water courses began to be evident.
To counteract these phenomena, in 1865, the Open Spaces Society, one of the first environmental associations, was established in the United Kingdom, followed by the Americans in 1892 with the establishment of the Sierra Club.
The first international environmental association, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), was established in 1948, and is still recognized as a United Nations observer member.
In 1962 Rachel Carson published her book “Silent Spring”, in which she highlighted the seriousness of the environmental impact by human actions and the use of DDT: this book greatly influenced the environmental movement in the 1960s, and led to the ban of the pesticide in the following decade.
Also in the 1960s two of the most famous and important environmental associations were born, the WWF and Greenpeace, and around this time the scientific community began its research on global warming.
Meanwhile, ordinary people, thanks to the hippie culture, began to care about environmental protection, and environmental initiatives and movements were promoted.
The “Earth Day”
In 1969 in Santa Barbara, California, the malfunction of an oil pipeline caused a spill of about 16 thousand cubic meters of crude oil into the ocean, causing serious damage to the marine ecosystem.
To raise awareness about the damage caused by the Santa Barbara oil spill and the environmental impact of human activities in general, on 22 April 1970 the first “Earth Day” was held: it was organized in the United States as a university movement first, but then involved all US institutions, up to President Richard Nixon, who planted a tree in the White House garden as a sign of solidarity.
The first “Earth Day” saw the participation of about 20 million American citizens, and it was decided to organize it every year on April 22: over the years this initiative became increasingly known and involved more and more nations.
The “Earth Day” of 1990 contributed not only to increasing waste recycling around the world, but also to paving the way for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which took place two years later in Rio de Janeiro.
Nowadays this initiative involves 193 nations, and is attended by millions of people around the world.
Anti-environmentalism and denial of the climate change issue
There is some degree of skepticism about climate change and global warming, coming from a tiny part of the scientific community, part of public opinion, but above all from multinational and large corporations.
These skeptics argue that scientific data supporting climate change have been misinterpreted, exaggerated, or are even false, which would create unnecessary alarmism, since the phenomenon is mostly caused by natural factors (volcanic eruptions, inclination of the terrestrial axis, solar phases, natural greenhouse gases), while the human impact would be minimal.
But there are also openly anti-environmentalist groups: they attack the environmentalists, accusing them of damaging the economy of industrialized countries for political reasons.
Usually these groups are made up of politicians, as well as corporations, which consider economic profits more important than human health and environmental safeguarding.
For example, in his 2018 interview, Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo defined climate change as “a Marxist conspiracy created to help China and hinder Western economies”.
Sometimes multinational corporations commission scientific studies to defend themselves from accusations of not respecting the environment, manipulating the results in order to discredit the environmental cause and defend their own reputation.
Both anti-environmentalists and skeptics share some arguments in support of their claims:
- it has been proved that Earth has undergone severe cataclysms (volcanic eruptions, meteoric impacts, etc.) over millions of years, but is nevertheless able to sustain life, which means that the planet is not as fragile as environmentalists want to make us believe: the Earth will continue to exist, with or without us;
- man by his nature is able to adapt to changes and to survive even in extreme conditions (just think of the fact that some arctic or desert areas are inhabited): consequently we will be able to easily adapt to climate changes, assuming that they really occur;
- we must care about people first, and then about nature, by safeguarding jobs and the economy, since phenomena such as deforestation and mining are the only sources of livelihood for millions of people and their families.
The safeguarding of the economy and profits are the reasons that led the United States not to ratify the Kyoto protocol and to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
The Climategate affair of 2009 reinforced skeptics’ and deniers of global warming arguments.
That year a server of the Climatic Research Unit of the English university of East Anglia was hacked, and about 2000 emails concerning global warming were leaked.
What caused outcry and sparked much controversy was a controversial sentence contained in one of the intercepted emails: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t”.
Anti-environmentalists and skeptics used this phrase to reinforce their claims, arguing that global warming was a farce.
In reality this sentence simply referred to the fact that it was necessary to better monitor the energy flows involved in short-term temperature variations, but it was taken out of context and exploited.
This and other similar phrases were intercepted in the Climategate emails, and were exploited by skeptics, but in reality they were totally decontextualized and misinterpreted specifically to discredit the scientific community.
Such skepticism towards climate change can also be found in the media
For example, on May 6 2019, the Italian newspaper “Libero” published an article on its front page, stating: “Global warming? Can’t you see it’s cold”, referring to the unusual cold wave that hit Italy in that period.
Likewise, that same day “Il Tempo” on its front page published a similar article: “Even weather grew sick of Greta. Greenhouse effect?” and the subtitle “Greenhouse effect? No, instead of heating we find ourselves in May with a global cold. […]”.
Both newspapers have fallen into error, as they have confused meteorology with climatology, since the former is directly affected by the latter; in other words, if unusual and out-of-season meteorological phenomena occur, this is mainly due to global warming.
Furthermore, “Il Tempo” in the title of its article has also personally attacked the Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg, not simply being skeptical towards global warming.
Environmentalism and eco-terrorism
Since the 1960s protests have been held in defense of the environment, such as the Greenpeace activists’ protest against the American nuclear tests in Alaska in 1969, and whose fame gave force to the environmental cause; the following year, in 1970, the first “Earth Day” was held, in which participated millions of people: these two were peaceful protests.
However, sometimes the protests degenerate into clashes with the police, as it happens since the mid-90s in Italy in the protests of the No TAV Movement (against the construction of the high-speed railway network) in progress in the Val di Susa (province of Turin), or those of the Native Americans of the North and South Dakota against the construction of an oil pipeline in their reserve, which took place in 2016: in both cases, the demonstrations degenerated into violence with consequent arrests and injuries both among the demonstrators and the police.
There are also radical environmental associations, which resort to vandalism and violence to save the environment, and accuse other peaceful movements of not doing enough to protect the planet.
American writer Edward Abbey was the first to address the issue of radical environmentalism, publishing his novel “The Monkey wrench Gang” in 1975, whose plot centered on a group of American environmentalists who performed acts of vandalism against infrastructures that damaged the environment, and whose symbol was a wrench.
This book became so popular that it created a neologism in the English language: “monkey-wrenching”, to indicate an act of sabotage.
Between 1979 and 1980, drawing inspiration from Abbey’s novel, the first radical environmental movement, Earth First!, was founded.
It alternated purely demonstrative acts with actual sabotage against various companies of the US timber industry: their symbol is a wrench and a stone hammer.
The Earth Liberation Front was established in 1992 in the United Kingdom: they are responsible for sabotage against the timber industry, genetic engineering automotive industries and GMOs.
These two are the most famous radical environmental associations, and they have managed to collect support and recruit activists from all over the world; there are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar associations, but these represent only a small minority of environmentalist associations.
Greta Thunberg, between activism and controversies
In August 2018 the Swedish student Greta Thunberg, decided not to go to school and demonstrate in front of the Swedish Parliament with a sign that reads “Climate school strike”, to protest against the forest fires that had occurred in Sweden and to ensure that the commitments made by her country in the Paris Agreement on the reduction of CO2 emissions were respected.
Later, after the political elections held on 9 September, Greta decided to go on strike only on Fridays, and founded the student movement “Fridays for Future”; in the meantime her school strike had attracted the attention of the media from various countries.
In December 2018 he gave a speech at the UN Climate Change Summit in Katowice (Poland), in which she highlighted the serious consequences that humanity could face if action is not taken immediately.
On March 15, the student organized “Global Strike for Climate”, an environmental initiative that took place in 1700 cities around the world and saw a huge participation of young people.
On April 17 she met with Pope Francis, with whom she spoke of the danger of climate change and the fact that current governments are doing too little to hinder the phenomenon.
In May 24, 2019, a second “Global Strike for Climate” was launched, in which millions of students and environmentalists from around the world participated.
Because of the great influence she has on the younger generations and the great media coverage she enjoys, Greta Thunberg has been object of skepticism, and the young woman has not only been accused of being under the thumb of powerful institutions, but has even been insulted and personally attacked.
The following are among the most common known arguments against Greta Thunberg:
- the fact of having exploited her parents’fame (an actor and an opera singer well known in Sweden) to obtain success;
- the fact of having leveraged on her own illness (Asperger’s syndrome, of which the Swedish activist suffers mildly) to achieve success;
- the fact that others are exploiting her illness (which in some cases partially damages the patient’s judgment) and her reputation, manipulating her;
- the fact of not being a true environmentalist, as she’s portrayed in a photo while using plastic food containers;
- the fact of having become so famous in such a short time while being just sixteen years old, suggests that Greta Thunberg is nothing more than a publicity stunt made for marketing and profit.
There are also conspiratorial accusations, such as the fact that Greta Thunberg is part of Freemasonry, or that she is manipulated by it.
The only accusation that actually matches reality is the fact of being exploited for her influence, as shown by an investigation made by the Swedish newspaper “Svenska Dagbladet”.
It turned out that by the end of 2018 Greta had been hired as a volunteer consultant with the Swedish environmental association “We Don’t Have Time”, which used the image of the young activist without her permission and without her knowledge, managing to earn about ten million Swedish crowns (about 930 thousand euros), without ever paying any amount of money to the young activist.
In an official note, the “We Don’t Have Time” association denied exploiting the girl for profit, claiming to frequently use their activists for communication purposes, and confirmed the fact that she had never paid her or for the role consultant, nor for image rights.
After the publication of the investigation, Greta stopped collaborating with the association.
In addition to the accusations and criticisms, there are those who question the effectiveness of the protest, since it involves the youngest generation who don’t have yet the right to vote, can not politically contribute to the protection of the environment, and that these “climate strikes” are only a temporary thing, destined to fall by the wayside.
There are also those who have expressed concern for the fact that the girl is skipping school to demonstrate, since unlike a normal strike, in which workers hinder the company, a “school strike” does not harm schools, but the same students who give up education to attend these strikes.
As mentioned, in addition to criticisms and accusations, the girl also received insults: both ordinary people and some journalists tried to discredit her.
In any case, Greta Thunberg has managed to raise awareness among both young people and civil society in general, to ensure that the mass media focus on the phenomenon of global warming, to remind politicians that nature is in danger, and that the extinction of animal and plant species would be devastating also for humans.
Pollution and respect of the environment
Only the joint effort of governments and civil society can prevent the rise in global warming, the consequences of climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
The United Nations has tried to stem the problem with the Kyoto and Paris treaties, while nations strive to meet the commitments made with the ratification of these treaties.
People are now aware of the risks they face if they do not reduce pollution and the exploitation of resources, and environmental groups carry out awareness-raising and information campaigns.
Western societies are gradually shifting to renewable energy sources, efficient household appliances, less polluting cars, and anyone who does not sort waste risks heavy fines; there is more and more news of simple citizens who collect waste in parks, gardens, beaches.
Some animal species in serious danger of extinction are preserved inside protected reserves and parks, and their number is increasing again, while heavy penalties are imposed on poachers.
However, in the meantime, large industries and corporations continue to emit harmful gases and not dispose of toxic chemical compounds, abandoning them illegally, especially in third world nations.
In these same countries, sorting of waste is often not carried out, or waste isn’t even disposed of; moreover, vehicles and appliances are old, are more polluting and energy-consuming.
Other industrialized nations, such as China, India and the United States continue to use coal-fueled power plants and other polluting sources, which represent their main energy sources, leaving little room for renewable ones.
If on the one hand progress is being made in order to counteract climate change and pollution, on the other we continue to pollute and adopt unfair practices in waste disposal.
If temperatures rise by 2 degrees by 2100, mankind will face many problems, caused both by the increase in temperature and the consequent loss of biodiversity.
Mankind is trying to improve the situation and solve the issue, but there is still a long way to go.