Environment and peace were united in 1972

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The demonstration at Sergels Torg outside the premises of the Conference, against the environmental murder of Vietnam, the first mass demo at a global summit. Photo Björn Gustafsson

There is something to learn from past experiences as we now face significant global threats. Not least how this awareness was brought about by a popular commitment. When we now celebrate the World Environment Day, June 5, in memory of the opening of the first day of the UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, there is reason to see what lessons we can draw from history.

A population movement for survival emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. That was when the consciousness arose that the nuclear bomb posed a global threat to humanity. A type of threat of total annihilation that mankind has not previously known. Soon enough, the World Federalist Movement could hand over a shovel to the Palace Guard in Stockholm in 1957 and the chairman of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Association Per-Anders Fogelström talked about the same thing. Redirect the defense budget to support amending hunger and poverty in the world.

In 1972, in conjunction with the first UN conference on the environment in Stockholm, the realization arose that peace and the environment are connected. The concept ”environmental murder” came into use. Olof Palme used it at the conference to the great anger of the United States. Outside at Sergel’s Square, 7000 demonstrated against the poisonng of Vietnam’s forests with Agent Orange. The damage was widespread in this war against nature; to ensure that no one could hide from US helicopters and aircraft the forests of 15 percent of the land area were decomposed. The United States didn’t care about genetic damage to the women when the land was environmentally murdered to win the war. The children born by the mothers who were sprayed are filling the hospitals in Vietnam to this day.

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Streets and squares were frequently used by the peace and environmental movements during the conference, as in this case with a poster against the environmental murder of Vietnam. Photo Björn Gustafsson

The popular movements’ demonstrations and alternative forums became a turning point for the environmental movement. So far, the environmental movement had accepted the framework set by the current development model. It din’t want or dare to imagine changing social power relations in society. Instead, it preferred to talk about choosing the right technology and everything would be fine. Therefore, organizations such as the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and its youth organization the Field Biologists supported nuclear power. How else could you save the last rivers from being exploited? Another view was found only in small marginal groups such as the Working Group on Nuclear Power and the Health Promotion Movement.

The alternative activities surrounding the UN Conference changed this. The driving force behind these was the Powwow group, which took its name from the Indians’ concept of meeting where the peace pipe goes around. This small group of 12 people took the initiative one year in advance to spread leaflets, call for local actions internationally, information meetings and the cooperation organization Folkets Forum, or People’s Forum. In response, the Environmental Forum arose from the initiative of Anglo-American strategists in the secretariat of the UN Conference. It was governed by the Swedish Youth Council and the Swedish UN Association with its chairman Ingrid Segerstedt-Wiberg in the leadership of the entire forum.

The Anglo-American environmental movement with its close ties to the state, large corporations and a de-politicized hippie culture, where drugs replaced social criticism, came to suffer major defeat. So far, it had dominated the international debate. The issue of population growth was said to be the big problem. In the book Population Explosion, Paul Ehrlich pleaded for forced sterilization of men in Third World countries such as India. In a book from the US-initiated international Friends of the Earth before the conference, commons were seen as the major threat to the environment. A widespread view originally from the eco-fascist Garret Harding through the concept “the tragedy of the commons”. The solutions to the environmental issue consisted of population control at least of poor, better morals of the individual and that private ownership advanced at the expense of the commons.

An alliance between Swedish popular movements of all kinds and peoples of the Third World, as well as individual US peace and environmental activists such as Barry Commoner, thwarted the Anglo-American mix of large corporate private profit interests and the concept of too many poor people as causes of environmental degradation. The international contact network of the Young Theosophists was used to invite many environmental activists from the Third World with the help of Ingrid Segerstedt-Wiberg. The Director General of the Swedish Statistics Office demonstrated that rich people’s consumption did more harm to the environment than poor peoples’ numbers, and furthermore that forced sterilization was less efficient than contraceptives to bring numbers down. The Powwow group’s initiative, which criticized the entire UN conference for being a smokescreen in service to those in power, made its mark. The United FNL Groups ensured that there were thousands on the streets and squares willing to protest against the US environmental killings. The dominant position that the pro-capitalist and sometimes eco-fascist ideas conveyed by the Anglo-American environmental movement never again gained the central dominance they had before the UN Conference.

A more unified alternative to the Anglo-American environmental ideology was delayed for some time. But it was in its infancy. In 1973, the Stockholm environmental group Alternative City published the booklet Low Energy Society – but how? Here, the view was presented that both nuclear power and the climate must be saved, which can only be done by changing the power relations so that we get a society in need of less energy. An approach far more radical than most that is brought forth today by the climate movement in Sweden, but prominent in the Friends of the Earth International and global campaigns that demand climate justice. Unlike the environmental movement in 1972, many people nowadays seem to have the illusions that UN conferences will be the starting point for everyone if we are to solve the global social and ecological crisis. To many nowadays, the message is that if we only trust cooperation between business, the state and what is now called civil society, then win-win solutions will save us. Sometimes with civil disobedience on individual issues such as pressure and dissemination of local alternatives.

What became a more immediate effect of the alternative activities in 1972 was that the fight against nuclear power became central in both Sweden and internationally. To this, not least, Ingrid Segerstedt Wiberg, chair of the International Women’s Association for Peace and Freedom, encouraged the environmental movement to realize that peaceful nuclear power was a myth.

But even the Friends of the Earth in the United States had begun to take nuclear power seriously, which now came into its own when the dominant Anglo-American environmental ideology was challenged by Swedish peoples movements and third-world environmentalists. From the Powwow group grew a study circle with Annika Bryn as a driving force who in 1973 published the booklet Alternatives to nuclear power which influenced parliamentarans. In the Riksdag, Center Party member Birgitta Hambraeus had a central role in getting Sweden as the first country in the world to introduce a unanimous moratorium for continued nuclear expansion in new locations, which caught the haughty nuclear industry napping. In the Environmental Protection Group’s National Association, the Liberal Anita Lövgren from the Tyresö Environmental Conservation Association pushed a broad interest in the country’s many environmental groups for the nuclear issue.

1972 thus showed that the peace and environmental movement need each other. What happened also showed that power must be challenged and the question of how the whole of society is organized must be centered. That still applies.

Tord Björk,
once active in the Powwow group as a teenager and today an activist in the Friends of the Earth, Activists for Peace and the People and Peace Network.

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