By Michael Allaby
Today is Earth Day. At least, that’s the date of the official International Mother Earth Day, as adopted by the United Nations in 2009. It’s a day when we’re asked to reflect on the interdependence of all living things, our responsibility to restore damaged environments to health, and to cherish the world around us.
It was in the 1960s, the decade in which the modern environmental movement emerged, that the idea was born of dedicating one day of the year to celebrating the natural world and publicizing the injuries being inflicted on it. There had been several recent spectacular disasters. In 1967 the oil tanker Torrey Canyon ran aground on the Scilly Isles, causing the world’s first major oil spill. Between 1953 and 1960, people living near Minamata Bay, Japan, were slowly poisoned by eating fish and shellfish contaminated with mercury compounds in effluent from a chemical factory. Londoners had long experience of the winter smog, a mixture of fog and smoke, which afflicted most industrial cities, but in December 1952 the smog killed some 4,000. It was so dense that a performance of La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells Theatre had to be cancelled because the audience couldn’t see the stage. Cinemas closed because no one could see the screen. Gaylord Nelson, a US senator from Wisconsin, saw the damage caused in 1969 when an oil well blew out not far from Santa Barbara, California, releasing between 80,000 and 100,000 barrels of crude oil, and called for an ‘environmental teach-in’ to be held on 22 April 1970 to raise awareness of the harm being done. That was probably the first Earth Day.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books and articles appeared around that time, warning of the dire consequences of allowing the situation to continue. And in June 1970 the first edition of The Ecologist magazine hit the newsstands, dedicated to describing and analyzing what many saw as an impending crisis of existential proportions. It all came to a head early in 1972, when The Ecologist devoted the whole of its January issue to one long article called ‘A Blueprint for Survival.’ Meanwhile, the United Nations was preparing for its first major international conference, which was also the first conference on the state of the global environment. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment—the Stockholm Conference—was held in Stockholm in the summer of 1972.
June in Stockholm was sunny and warm, and the summer days were long. I was there as a member of a team from The Ecologist that collaborated with the recently formed Friends of the Earth to produce a daily conference newspaper, the Stockholm Conference Eco. Each morning we set out to attend meetings, returning in the evening to our office at a technical college in a Stockholm suburb to type our stories—no desktop computers in those days. The reports were cut out, pasted down, headlined, and finally taken to a Stockholm daily where it was printed. The following morning, volunteers distributed copies to all the hotels where delegates were staying and after the first few days they were allowed to take it into official conference premises.
The Stockholm Conference exposed the conflict between environmental protection and the need for economic development, a conflict that still remains unresolved. But it also encouraged governments to work together in addressing the most urgent environmental problems. Mainly under the auspices of the United Nations, a series of treaties followed, and in subsequent years there were more environmental conferences. Stockholm led to the creation of the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme, which coordinates much of this activity.
On 22 April, as we mark the forty-third Earth Day, we can perhaps take stock of what was achieved. There are no more London smogs. Factories are no longer permitted to discharge their untreated effluents into rivers, so the rivers are cleaner. There are fish—lots of fish—in the Thames. Nor are industries allowed to release harmful dust and gases into the air. The condition of regional seas, such as the Mediterranean, is monitored and regulated by the countries bordering them. Pesticides are rigorously tested for their effects on non-target organisms before being licensed for use. The list of improvements is a long one, and the improvements are very real.
It is not to say that no problems remain. Of course they do, and some are serious. But they are acknowledged and serious professionals dedicate their lives to finding and applying solutions, and environmental protection and nature conservation now offer rewarding careers. There is always more to be done. But experience shows that we can advance, and that a better, healthier, and more interesting environment is within our grasp.
Michael Allaby has written many books on environmental science and especially on climatology and meteorology. He is an editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Environment and Conservation, and the General Editor of several other Oxford Dictionaries, including the Dictionaries of Earth Sciences, Ecology, Plant Sciences, and Zoology.