Britain’s green shift in the 1960s

In: Uncategorized

10 Oct 2010

I have unexpectedly stumbled across a fascinating BBC programme on the rise of environmentalism, and corresponding decline of scientific optimism, in Britain in the 1960s.

When Britain Went Wild, programme three in Series 10 of the BBC Time Shift series, looked at the conservative side of the decade. While the 1960s is usually seen as a time of rising political and cultural radicalism it also saw the rise of green ideas.

There were many ways in which this more conservative shift manifested itself. These included: the rise and astonishing popularity of wildlife programmes (David Attenborough and Peter Scott); the popularity of wildlife writers such as Gerald Durrell and Gavin Maxwell; the interest in the work of Jane Goodall (an expert on apes) and Joy Adamson (an expert on lions); the foundation of green organisations including the World Wildlife Fund (later the WWF) in 1961; the concern over pesticides (partly triggered by the popularity of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in America; the Torrey Canyon oil disaster and the image of earth from outer space that was first seen in 1968, the advent of Earth Day in 1970.

I particularly liked the revelation that aristocratic hunters were central to the early conservation movement. Evidently the elite were keen to preserve their hunting stock. To me this finds its echo in the elitist character of contemporary growth scepticism.

Evidently the world’s first international conservation charity was founded in 1903 as the Society for the Preservative on the Wild Fauna of the Empire. Today it is called Fauna and Flora International and its patron is Queen Elizabeth while it has many influential vice presidents.

Although the BBC programme was well presented and researched it did have flaws. First, it did not even consider the possibility that the rise of environmental awareness could have a downside. It was presented as without question positive development. Second, it failed to see the rise of green thinking in a broader political context. In particular, it did not appreciate the conservative character of the shift away from the humanist project of conquering nature.

For those in Britain the programme is still available to watch on BBC iPlayer until the early morning of Sunday 17 October. For those who want to investigate the topic further useful books include Anna Bramwell’s The Fading of the Greens (which looks at America and Germany as well as Britain), Helene Guldberg’s Just Another Ape? (on the idea that humans are simply another part of the animal kingdom) and Dominic Sandbrook’s White Heat (a look at the conservative side of the 1960s in Britain).

* 16 October update. Another BBC documentary, Jane Goodall: Beauty and the Beasts, clearly brings out the primatologist’s anthropomorphism. Even before she started her studies she was prone to seeing human qualities in apes. The programme is available to watch on iPlayer for a few more days for those in Britain.