70 years reign. 7 decades of Sustainability Champions
Updated: Jun 15
For the third and final instalment of our Jubilee coverage, we look across 70 years of sustainability.
In 1952, the year that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ii ascended the throne, a lot was happening across the globe; the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb while Mother Teresa opened a home for the dying and destitute in Calcutta. 1952 was also the year that Jonas Silk invented the Polio vaccine that would spare the suffering of countless children. The diary of Anne Frank was published, Singing in the Rain premiered at Radio City Music Hall, and Superman (aka Christopher Reeves) was born, as was the ever-popular Mr Potato Head.
Back in London, the last trams were removed from the streets as cars began to fill them. And the London skies were filled with smog from fossil fuel pollution that caused 40,000 fatalities. Meanwhile, the first passenger jet launched into the skies. Technology was changing our world.
Crucially, amongst the advancements that would contribute to the climate crisis, there also began a period of enlightenment, a realisation that much of the progress since the Industrial Revolution had a significant impact past its intended use. We began to see that the planet and its human and animal inhabitants needed further attention, and so began the roots of a movement towards a better environmental future with positive changes that would span decades. Here we detail the pivotal people, moments, movements, and organisations that began the transition towards a sustainable future across the globe.
1952 – UICN launches to protect nature
As the Queen ascended the throne in 1952, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature was in its infancy. Starting with only 65 members in 1948 in Fontainebleau, France, it was closely linked to UNESCO and successfully engaged prominent scientists to investigate the harmful effects of pesticides on wildlife. Due to a lack of resources and government engagement, the organisation struggled to push initiatives through. Just as Her Majesty has demonstrated persistence over the years, the same applies to the UICN, whose mission is to "influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable".
1955 – The Air Pollution Act
A result of research performed in the 1930s and 40s, the Air Pollution Act was the first federal law in the United States to address the nation's air pollution issues. The act was introduced to provide research and technical assistance regarding air pollution control, highlighting pollution as a danger to public health.
Photo credits: Noah Buscher
1961 The Launch of the World Wildlife Fund
The WWF, not to be mistaken for the World Wrestling Federation, was founded on the 29th of April 1961 based on the idea of a fund for endangered animals proposed by businessman and hotelier Victor Stolan. With over five million supporters worldwide, the WWF now works in over 100 countries, supporting around 3,000 conservation and environmental projects. The non-governmental organisation's mission is to "stop the degradation of the planet's natural environment and build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature."
1962 – Rachel Carson kickstarts the modern environmental movement
Rachel Carson, a Scientist and Author, regarded by many as the founder of the modern environmental movement, published the controversial "Silent Spring", where she discussed the devastating ecological impacts of pesticides written in a style that lay readers could understand. Despite much resistance from the chemical companies, Carson's observations were eventually proven correct, leading to banning pesticides such as DDT and raising greater awareness about environmental issues.
1967- EDF bans pesticides
The Environmental Defense Fund was established with the original mission to ban the DDT pesticides Rachel Carson campaigned against. Over the years, they have addressed numerous issues and achieved countless other goals documented later in the article.
Photo credits: NASA
1968 - Earth Rise and Biosphere protection
On the 24th of December, 1968, as part of Apollo 8's lunar orbit, astronaut William Anders photographed the Earth from the moon's surface. Nature photographer Galen Rowell commented that the picture was "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken". While Anders exclaimed, “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth." The image of the Earth's dome rising out of the stark blackness served as a great reminder of the precariousness of our place in the universe.
1970 Earth Day & The EPA
The 22nd of April, 1970, saw the beginning of Earth Day, an annual event demonstrating the support for environmental protection. Twenty million Americans took part in the first large-scale demonstration, which led President Richard Nixon to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in July of the same year. The rally also moved the government to introduce the Clean Air Act, intended to reduce and control air pollution nationwide. The EPA is still a significant agency in the United States and Earth Day is now part of a wide range of global events coordinated by Earthday.org. The official theme for 2022 is to invest in our planet.
1971 - Man and the Biosphere Programme & Greenpeace
1971 UNESCO's intergovernmental Conference for National Use and Conservation of the Biosphere took place in Paris and was a turning point in international environmental politics. One result of the conference was the launch of the "Man and the Biosphere" program (MAB), devised to integrate research, sustainable development, and a nature conservation program. MAB's mission was to protect areas representing the planet's major ecosystems with the creation of "Biosphere Reserves". Today more than 7 million square kilometres of biospheres exist across the world representing all ecosystems from mountainous to urban.
The same year the international environmental organisation Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver, Canada. Now operating in 55 countries across Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, Greenpeace campaigns on climate change, deforestation, overfishing, and commercial whaling, amongst others.
1972 – Human Environment Conference & Limits of Growth
Between 5-16 June 1972, the first world conference on the environment occurred in Stockholm. It was the first international conference to bring the environment to centre stage. It comprised world leaders who recognised they were facing a planet in crisis with oil spills, acid rain and deforestation. The summit marked the beginning of a unified effort to protect the Earth. Over five decades since the first gathering, countries have worked together to address deforestation, repair the ozone layer, and cut out damaging pollution.
The same year non-profit organisation Club of Rome published its report 'Limits of Growth' that discussed the exponential growth of the economy and the population weighed against the planet's finite resources. The book has since sold 30 million copies in more than 30 translations and is the best-selling environmental book of all time.
1973 – Protecting Flora and Fauna
The World Conservation Union (UICN) meeting drafted a convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES) with the aim across governments to ensure international trade of wild plants and animals in no way endangers the survival of the species.
Photo credits: George Pagan
1980 – Recycling
Though not an entirely new concept to those who lived through the second world war, in the 1980s, New Jersey, a town called Woodbury became the first to make its recycling pick-up program mandatory for all residents.
1985 – Antarctic and the ozone
People and governments worldwide were shocked to hear that scientists had discovered a 7.3 million square mile hole in the Ozone layer over Antarctica. Two years after this shocking discovery, over 100 countries pledged to phase out the use of CFCs, the compounds known to be depleting the ozone layer.
1985 – Chico fights deforestation
Activist Chico Mendes created the National Council of Rubber Tappers. The union worked closely to address issues around the deforestation of the Amazon that would disrupt the lives of so many indigenous people. For his efforts, Chico was awarded the United Nations Environmental Global 500 Honour Award in 1987, as well as an award for National Conservation from the National Wildlife Federation in 1988.
1986 – Mcdonald's makes changes
EDF pushed Restaurant giant Mcdonald's to introduce biodegradable food packaging containers.
1987 – A triumph against CFCs
The EDF again played a significant part in the treaty to phase out CFC chemicals that many researchers believed contributed to the depletion of the Ozone Layer.
1992 - Earth Summit
The United Nations created The Earth summit so that member states would cooperate internationally. It was viewed that sustainability issues were too big for states to manage the problem individually. The conference addressed production patterns, alternative energy sources, reducing emissions, transport congestion and limited water supplies.
Photo credits: Michael Marais
1997 – Hybrid Cars
With the introduction of Toyota's Prius in Japan, the hybrid gas-electric vehicle came to the attention of and was widely available to consumers for the first time. This model of car emits half as much carbon dioxide as gasoline-powered cars.
1997 - The Kyoto Protocol
This international treaty was signed to combat dangerous human interference in the climate system. The protocol implemented the UNFCCC's objective to reduce the onset of global warming by reducing the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. By 2020, 92 parties across the globe had signed up to work together toward the protocol's objectives.
2004 – A Peace Prize for an activist
Environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her continued efforts to fight for women, the politically oppressed and the planet. By the early 21st century, her 'Green Belt' movement had planted more than 30 million trees, provided jobs, and ensured firewood for rural communities.
That year, the Environmental Defence Fund, in partnership with FedEx, developed and deployed hybrid trucks that cut pollution by 65%.
2006: An Inconvenient Truth
Bringing the climate crisis into our cinemas, An Inconvenient Truth opened to packed theatres. It went on to win an Oscar for its documentation of Vice President Al Gore's efforts to educate people about global warming. The documentary raised awareness and effectively explained the gravity of the challenges we face.
Photo credits: Alexas Fotos
2007 – The Eagle Lands, as does US-CAP
If the Dodo taught us anything, it's that once you're gone, you're gone. In 2007 another bird, the Bald eagle, came back from the brink of extinction thanks to decades of conservation work and was removed from the endangered species list after observers found more than 10,000 nesting pairs across the lower U.S. 48 states.
2010 – Ellen introduces the Circular economy
In 2014 the European Union launched its vision of the circular economy, and in 2010 The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was instrumental in the diffusion of the concept in Europe and the Americas. MacArthur launched the foundation to raise awareness and aid the acceleration from a linear to a circular economic model. Targeting challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution, the concept aims to replace the current 'take, make, waste' system draining our resources.
Photo credits: Naja Bertoit Jensen
2015 – The Great Pacific Garbage Patch & Paris Agreement
A research expedition set out across the Pacific in 2015 to scale the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii. The project found that the patch contained over 80 million kilograms of floating plastic debris in an area three times the size of France.
On a French note, The Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, was adopted in 2015, covering climate change mitigation, adaptation and finance. The agreement's long-term goal is to keep the rise in the global temperature to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F) and limit its increase to reduce the effects of climate change significantly. By 2021, 193 UNIFCCC members were parties to the agreement.
2019 – Greta says how dare you!
On the 23rd of September, 2019, Sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg addressed the world leaders of the 2019 U.N. Climate Action Summit with what philosopher Peter Singer described as "the most powerful four-minute speech I have ever heard". As part of her delivery, she passionately announced, "How Dare you, you are betraying us, but the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: we will never forgive you." With those rousing words, Greta led a new generation of activists as she urged young and old to rally for the environment.
Photo credits: Markus Spiske
Earthday.org presented the Earth Day Climate Action Summit, in which they led proposals to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the 21st century to keep the global temperature below 2.5 °C. As part of the summit, they offered solutions that could help us meet the emissions reductions needed by 2030 as outlined by the Paris Agreement.
In the 70 years that The Queen has reigned over the U.K. and commonwealth territories, a lot has changed. The streets are filled with cars, and the skies are a constant stream of planes. Covid briefly halted all that, and in that pause, we had time to think about the fragility of our existence and how we could adapt to improve our lives and ensure a brighter future for our children. Through the persistence and sacrifices of strong individuals, a framework of cooperation has emerged so that we continue to work as an international community to make change for the better. As Greta addressed the U.N. with her moving speech, she ignited a passion in her generation and an awareness that we see daily as our children prompt us about ways to help the planet. They see things so differently, as sustainability is not a byword but an essential way of living, and for them, we must continue to implement those changes.
As Greta said, "There is no planet B".