The legal achievements of the Environmental Defense Fund demonstrated the virtues of organized activism, pointing the way for other interested parties that wanted to follow suit. Organizations sprang up year after year, employing the talents of individuals with expertise in the rapidly developing field of environmental law. Some of those individuals became famous in their own right, such as American lobbyist Ralph Nader—who founded the Public Interest Research Group in 1970 as one of the first independent "watchdog" agencies on environmental regulation—and French mariner Jacques Cousteau, whose Cousteau Society drew worldwide attention to the state of the world's oceans. Other agencies that were formed about the same time went on to become household names: Friends of the Earth, Union of Concerned Scientists, League of Conservation Voters, and the Worldwatch Institute.
No such list would be complete without Greenpeace, which continually set higher standards for the most dynamic of these organizations. This definitive collection of environmental activists assembled in 1970 by way of responding to a somewhat different cause—the U.S. testing of nuclear weapons under Amchitka Island, part of the Aleutian Island chain off Alaska. The group consisted of antiwar protesters who feared the outcome of a nuclear arms race, many of them expatriate Americans who had moved to Canada to avoid being drafted into the war in Vietnam. Others were Sierra Club members, voicing their own fears of deep-sea seismic activity set off by
In 1972, the Club of Rome, an international think tank, published The Limits to Growth, warning that man-made damage to nature was expanding to such an extent that it might put at stake the very survival of humankind. The book was highly controversial, coming at a time of high public optimism following a period of immense economic growth in both the Western and Communist worlds. The Limits to Growth was based on one of the first efforts (at MIT) to apply computer modeling to economy and the environment. It sold twelve million copies in thirty-seven languages.
an underground nuclear explosion, which could lead to tidal waves or earthquakes along North America's west coast. Searching for a name at their initial meeting in a church basement in Vancouver, British Columbia, these distinct elements posed the words "green" and "peace," until the connection was ultimately made.
Following a fund-raising concert, Greenpeace chartered an old fishing boat, and later, a retired minesweeper. In October 1971, members and news reporters sailed on these vessels up the west coast toward Amchitka, hoping to arrive before the next scheduled bomb test at the beginning of November. Some of the people who went on this voyage admit that it seemed like a crazy thing to do, and they had little idea of what would happen once they got there. Deteriorating fall weather prevented the fishing boat from reaching the island, and the sturdier minesweeper failed to reach it before the test. Nevertheless, the trip succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. News outlets were able to provide gripping coverage of the adventure and, more importantly, the reason for that adventure in the first place. Embarrassed by this extraordinary attention, the federal government subsequently abandoned its underground testing program. As it turned out, Greenpeace did not need to achieve its stated goal to achieve a much loftier objective: exposing problems that might otherwise elude public notice.
Greenpeace learned this lesson well and began applying it elsewhere. The group chose whaling as its emblematic example of human assault on the natural world, a brutal slaughter of mammals whose intelligence was considered to be comparable to our own. Greenpeace became intimately associated with the expression "save the whales" after its ships began intercepting whaling vessels at work on the high seas. Taking great personal risks by maneuvering small boats in front of whales as they were being targeted by harpoons, Greenpeace activists filmed what they found and ensured that this visual record made its way to television news outlets. In some cases the very act of recording these encounters was enough to cause the whalers to stop what they were doing and leave.
All too frequently, such daring tactics were met with mockery, anger, and the odd outbreak of violence, but they got results. By adding drama to the earlier legislative momentum, Greenpeace helped turn the 1970s into an era of groundbreaking environmental measures. The process was already well under way in 1970, when the U.S. federal government created the Environmental Protection Agency as the bureaucratic cornerstone for an emerging regulatory regime. Over the next few years, clean water and clean air laws would be repeatedly revised. New controls would be placed on all kinds of toxic substances. Legal protection would be provided to endangered species by safeguarding their habitat, even when such protection hampered business interests.
And the activist posture born in the United States was being exported. "Green" parties, with political platforms explicitly premised on environmental topics, emerged in New Zealand in 1972 and in the United Kingdom in 1973. By the end of the decade similar parties would appear in four other European countries, most prominently in West Germany, where substantial numbers of members gained elected office. This trend had a profound influence in Europe, where citizens were facing all of the same environmental challenges as in the United States, but where governments had done little to respond to these challenges. Green party politics, raising environmental issues in the very seat of a nation's government, became an important means of prompting laws and regulations.
But perhaps the most ambitious initiative arrived on the scene by way of the United Nations. In 1972, in Stockholm, the United Nations held a Conference on the Human Environment, endorsing a list of twenty-six environmental principles and creating a new body to oversee them. This agency, called the United Nations Environment Programme, was based in Nairobi, Kenya, and employed more than 1,000 people. It became the model and basis for creating thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in all parts of the globe, focusing on various aspects of environmental management. Many still do good work, but not all of these NGOs would be free of political influence, and some would prove to be ineffectual or downright incompetent. Yet they stood on the front lines of a growing number of international treaties for dealing with environmental issues. From 1930 to 1971, forty-eight such treaties were negotiated. Between 1971 and 1980, another forty-seven were added.
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