Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Dassen and Robben Islands, South Africa, 2000

In the mid-20th century, people who were put at risk from environmental disasters most often struggled alone or with a few family members, maybe a few neighbors.  This isolation served to reinforce, to intensify, the vulnerability that is experienced in disasters.  In London, Windscale, Seveso , and Bhopal,  for example, there was a dearth of citizen organizations to which the affected individuals could turn for advice, assistance, sharing, or comfort.  Government agencies often were too close to the commercial interests and the polluters to be of much help.  Affected citizens did organize but they had to do it from scratch and they had to overcome stubborn resistance from those around them, including neighbors.  The victims of Minamata overcame enormous opposition from the community and neighbors in order to publicly demand recognition for their suffering.  At Love Canal, Lois Gibbs and Debbie Cerrillo were ordinary housewives who had to learn how to take control over events that were putting them and their families at risk.   

By the time the M.V. Treasure spilled its oil and threatened almost half of all existing African penguins, things had changed.  The slaughter of African penguins, for their oil and eggs, decimated the population early in the century.  But then the penguins came to be valued as a natural, not a commercial resource.  When large oil tankers and other ships carrying substantial quantities of oil brought new dangers for the penguins, the public was ready to intercede.  And the public at the end of the century was well organized.

A call for help over the Internet, to activist individuals and organizations, produced thousands of experts and volunteers from South Africa and from points over the globe in a matter of days.  The dramatic rescue that followed saved the penguins on Dassen and Robben Islands.  That rescue could not have happened except for the networking and cooperation that grew out of the environmental movement in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The rescue effort was also made possible because of immediate funding provided by the World Wide Fund for Nature and other environmental organizations.  It is noteworthy that the insurance company for the ship also responded quickly with funds to support the rescue. 

By the end of the century environmentalists had organized locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. Increasingly, the public would not tolerate contamination of their environment, threats to their children, or destruction of their planet because of commercial activity.  Based on other pollution incidents, people learned that prompt action was necessary to minimize the risks to threatened populations, whether human or other specie. Similarly, industries and companies learned that they could not deflect attention away from their ultimate responsibility for the pollution. The principle that the polluter pays for its acts of environmental destruction was sinking into the conscience of most.

Just as the economy is increasingly global, and the threats from environmental disasters are global, the resolution of threats to our environment is global, involving people and interests throughout the world.


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