3.2.2 The 1950s and 1960s
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(a) The ‘Great London Smog’, 1952
Until the 1950s, most houses in Britain were heated by coal and there were also many coal-fired power stations. The smoke generated by these, together with emissions from road vehicles, meant that London and other major cities frequently experienced bad smog during the winter – ‘smog’ means fog caused mainly by smoke. The air was so thick that severe smogs were known as ‘pea soupers’. Cyclists, who could see the curb, had to guide buses and other vehicles along the roads. (My father could remember doing this.)1
In London in December 1952, there was the worst ever incident of such smog, produced by smoke plus unique weather conditions. It lasted five days. Several thousand people died through breathing the polluted air – estimates range from 4,000 to 12,000 people. This was a huge shock to the city and the whole country, and caused a new awareness of how damaging pollution could be. It led to a series of new laws, the Clean Air Acts, which controlled the kinds of fuel that could be burned in urban areas. These laws could be introduced because technical developments were making available both forms of ‘smokeless coal’ and new means of heating (especially central heating) that were less polluting of the immediate environment. As a direct result of the Clear Air Acts and such new technologies, severe smog in British cities became a thing of the past.
This event was significant, not only because it led to new awareness of the seriousness of pollution, but also because the Clean Air Acts showed that government action, in the shape of new laws that were enforced, could overcome the problem. This point is important because each successive major environmental problem that has emerged over the following 60 years has raised the question: can new laws, combined with new technology, address the issue effectively?
Still today, some people hold that even the severest ecological problems will prove to be able to be solved by new technology and appropriate legislation. Others believe, however, that some problems – such as global warming – are so large that they are beyond human control by those means and it is inevitable that they will cause much more severe ecological damage than we have yet seen. If this view proves to be right, we can only reduce the extent of the damage and we need to try to adapt to the changes that will take place.
(b) Silent Spring
In 1962, an American biologist, Rachel Carson, published what became a very famous book, Silent Spring. This argued that many pesticides – chemicals used in farming to control pests – were having much more damaging effects on the environment and on human health than most people realized. A focus of Carson’s case was a chemical known as DDT, the use of which as a pesticide was subsequently banned. The details of the book’s arguments have been much debated, but its significance was that it provoked a huge rise in awareness of issues around pollution across the Western world. Silent Spring is generally seen as the text that inspired the beginnings of what became the Green movement, and in particular the start of a revival of organic food production.
Like the Great London Smog and its aftermath, a main issue the book raised was whether legal controls combined with changes in technology (e.g. non-chemical pesticides) would succeed in overcoming the ecological problems to which the book drew attention.
End of 3.2.2
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Richard Townsend died a few weeks after the first draft of this unit was written. R.I.P. ↩