The birth of industrial civilisation in the 18th century meant humans could extract, transport, and process ever more of nature’s bounty, permanently affecting natural cycles. As we navigate the Anthropocene, the much-debated geological epoch that recognises the geological and ecological impact of the industrial age, there are several environmental disasters and crimes that should be taught in schools to educate young people about the human impact on our shared planet.
In choosing a list of five, I have confined my choices to the 1960s and beyond as popular environmental alarmism was born in the decade of cultural revolution that questioned the conventional wisdom of Western civilisation.
1. Torrey Canyon Oil Disaster, 1967: an early televised warning
This was the first major oil spill of the post-Second World War era. When the SS Torrey Canyon was shipwrecked on a reef off the coast of Cornwall, England, spilling 875,000 barrels of crude oil into the sea, a national event sparked an international debate about the impact of transporting oil, the size of tankers (which had grown dramatically since 1945), and the use of untested chemicals to break down the spilled oil.
Millions of litres of the detergent BP 1002 were sprayed into the sea, but it failed to break down the oil and caused more long term damage to birds and the marine environment.
Torrey Canyon was one of the first televised environmental disasters. Images broadcast around the world helped fuel the fledgling environmental movement and highlighted the vulnerability of marine ecosystems, the role of chemicals, and the dangers of a new global economy based on consumerism and fossil fuels.
2. Love Canal, 1978: popular protest and environmental protection
One of the most significant environmental disasters in American history happened in the city of Niagara Falls, upstate New York. Between 1942 and 1953 the Hooker Chemical Company used the city’s “Love Canal” to dump 21,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals, including 12 carcinogens. It then sold the land to the Niagara Falls School Board for US$1.
By 1978, the chemical pollution had caused residents surrounding Love Canal to suffer from birth defects, miscarriages and cancer rates far in excess of national averages.
A popular resident’s protest, driven by local mother-turned-activist Lois Gibbs, forced the American government to act and prompted a national debate about chemical waste disposal sites. President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency, 700 families were eventually moved away from the site, and the Environment Protection Agency’s Superfund was established in 1980 to clear up chemical waste sites, oil spills, and natural disasters.
One community’s suffering and protest provided the legal framework to challenge polluters and command the American state to fund the clean up of environmental disasters.
3. Operation Ranch Hand, 1962-1971: ethics of war, legal rights of nature
Operation Ranch Hand was part of an American herbicidal warfare programme during the Vietnam War, which sought to remove the strategic cover the forest canopy provided for the Viet Cong. Three US administrations – the governments of Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon – sprayed 72m litres of defoliants and herbicides, primarily “Agent Orange” to kill Vietnam’s forests and poison its rice paddies.
The US was condemned internationally and accused of breaking the Geneva Convention which banned the uses of chemical weapons on humans. Though it defended itself by stating that humans were not directly targeted, America’s actions were described as “ecocide” by Swedish prime minister Olof Palme at the UN’s first environment summit in 1972.
Operation Ranch Hand should be taught in schools as it initiated discussions about the targeting of the natural environment in warfare, ecocide as the fifth “crime against the peace”, and whether nature should be bestowed with its own legal rights.
4. Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, 2011: energy and disaster
In March 2011, a strong earthquake off the coast of Japan resulted in the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. A tsunami unleashed by the quake overwhelmed the Fukushima nuclear plant’s safety systems, disabling the emergency generators and preventing the reactors from being cooled. As a result, reactors one, two, and three suffered meltdowns.
Despite no deaths being directly attributed to the nuclear meltdown, unlike at Chernobyl, it is estimated that the radiation from the many dump sites will last for 300 years. Teaching about the Fukushima disaster in schools encourages children to consider the fuels of the future as we come to legislate for the roles of solar, tidal, wind, and non-renewable energies. With a growing global population and energy demands, how we produce energy and maintain the health of the natural world is a central question for the 21st century.
5. Palm Oil plantations: an ongoing ecological disaster
Palm oil is derived from the palm fruit which originates in West Africa but is now largely cultivated in Malaysia and Indonesia. It is found in cosmetics, cleaning products, shampoos and all kinds of food from frozen pizzas to peanut butter.
Yet palm oil is also a leading cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 300 football pitches are deforested every hour to make way for plantations, while species such as the orangutan are being driven towards extinction as their habitats disappear.
It is important to teach about the impact of palm oil production because it forces us to confront the very foundations of our relationship with nature. It is a case study of an unsustainable economic system that elevates short term economic gain at an ecological cost. A discussion about palm oil is a discussion about the future of life on this planet.