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19 Pages

INTRODUCTION: THE ROOTS OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONSCIOUSNESS

One of the most profound changes in human consciousness over the last fifty years has been the growing realization that nature is not an inexhaustible resource which we can plunder indefinitely to satisfy our immediate needs, but a complex and delicately balanced set of systems which can be fundamentally unbalanced or destroyed by human intervention. Consequently the entire future of human life depends on the safeguarding and evolving of environmental systems. But thinking about nature in this way cuts across not only widely held conceptions of traditional rural attitudes in earlier periods but also the short-term materialism of contemporary urban life. It has put a new set of issues on the political agenda, which belong easily neither to the left nor to the right. Crucial points along this path towards a greater environmental awareness were at first marked especially by the publication of powerful books, notably including Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring and also, ten years later, Meadows and Meadows’ much criticized but undoubtedly catalytic report on The Limits to Growth,1 which confirmed the long-term ecological impact of human industrial and population growth as a global political problematic. But subsequently, equally important have been direct signs confirming earlier warnings, and particularly the fears spread by events such as the Russian nuclear station catastrophe at Chernobyl, the discovery of thinning in the ozone layer and, most recently, the increasing evidence of climatic warming and disturbance. At the same time in many parts of the western world there has been a notable growth of green politics, ranging from conservative groups trying to ensure the preservation of natural rural heritage and the traditional countryside, through former peace activists now organizing mahogany boycotts in defence of the Amazon tropical forest, to tree-dwelling communities of young militants attempting through their defiance to save woods in the path of motorways. In Britain alone conservation groups have more members than the churches. Since the high peak of feminism in the 1970s, it is above all to environmentalism that idealistic young people in the west have become attracted, and to campaigning not only in their own countries but also to working for international NGOs in many parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia. This volume is a response to this

context. Drawing on evidence both from personal memory and from intergenerational tradition, we wanted to explore a double issue: what is it in people’s lives which gives them a consciousness of the changing environment, and what leads a minority into environmental activism?