The International Movement

Europeans were struggling with their own environmental disasters. Swedish scientists had been studying the connection between common air pollutants like sulfur and nitrogen dioxides and high levels of acidity in many of their waters. Documenting an overall decline in the biological diversity of Scandinavia, the scientists hoped to capture international attention. The 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, hosted by Sweden, was the perfect place to present their findings. Air pollutants transported by precipitation and deposited across the land came to be known as acid rain. The idea that pollution did not remain a local problem but could be carried long distances alarmed the international community. By 1979 thirty-five countries signed the first international air-pollution agreement, the Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

During the course of the 1970s, the face of environmentalism had shifted to civil action. Just as it seemed that environmental policies were effectively in place, the political climate was about to make a complete turn—but not before the fear of nuclear power reared its head again. In 1978 a partial meltdown at the nuclear plant in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, generated a ripple of fear and uncertainty throughout the public. Residents were evacuated, and radiation-contaminated water was released in the nearby Susquehanna

A view of earth from space. (United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA].)

River. One year after the enactment of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation Liability Act, also known as Superfund, a national law dealing with the cleanup of contaminated areas, the alarms sounded again. This time it was exposure to toxins in Times Beach, Missouri. Over 2,000 residents were evacuated when the roads were contaminated with oil-containing dioxin. The government spent around $40 million buying back homes from residents, and the cleanup efforts under Superfund ensued. As of 2003, the town remains vacant.

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