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Michael McCarthy: The origins of green thinking

It was not the threat of rising temperatures that sparked the modern green movement

Ever heard of Love Canal? You probably haven't, but 30 years ago it was all over the news, the dumping site for chemical waste in a residential part of Niagara Falls, New York, that became America's most notorious pollution scandal. Love Canal has largely been forgotten now, as has Minamata, the town in southern Japan whose inhabitants contracted mercury poisoning from eating shellfish contaminated by their local factory's discharges, and Seveso, and Three Mile Island, and even Chernobyl – all major incidents involving large-scale industrial, chemical or nuclear pollution which made international headlines.

They have been forgotten not only for the passing of years, but because these days, even though they are all striking examples of environmental despoliation, they represent only a faint part of the environmental discourse. This has been subsumed by global warming: to be an environmentalist today, especially among the young, is to be a climate campaigner, and the environment movement has more or less become the climate change movement.

One can understand the reasons for this shift: the climate threat is absolute, menacing the very habitability of the earth, and its moral implications are broad, involving as they do ideas of equity and historical justice (it was the rich industrialised nations that started the problem, and it will be the poorer developing countries which suffer most from it, even if it is the developing countries which are worsening it fastest now, with their ultra-rapid growth in carbon emissions).

Yet it is a shift which misses something fundamental. It was not the threat of rising temperatures that sparked the modern green movement; it was the threat of industrial filth and dangerous chemical compounds damaging the natural world on a large scale. We can take as the movement's beginnings the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the American biologist's unforgettable exposé of what unrestricted pesticide spraying was doing to America's wildlife; and in the years after that, the issue of the environment largely defined itself in pollution terms. Pollution, however, has now almost vanished from the to-do lists and mindsets of some green groups and activists, along with other critical issues such as the protection of wildlife and natural habitats, as concern for the future of the climate carries all before it.

In this context, it was sobering to witness last week's spectacular industrial accident in Hungary, when more than 150m gallons of red sludge from an aluminium plant poured out of a punctured waste containment reservoir and fouled a great swath of countryside and several rivers (besides killing seven people and injuring more an 150).

There was something horribly compelling about the sight of that sea of lurid red goo, basically liquid rust with a good dose of chemical nasties in it; that was what large-scale industrial pollution used to look like before companies realised that out of sight, out of mind, was not an adequate basis for waste disposal. The key worry was whether the Red Tide would reach the Beautiful Blue Danube, 45 miles from the accident site; when it did, it was diluted to harmlessness by the water volume of Europe's second-largest river, or so it appears. But it might not have been, had the chemical content been different and the accident closer: the Sandoz chemical spill near Basel in 1986, for example, when 15,000 tonnes of highly-toxic pollutants such as insecticides were released into the Rhine, caused major wildlife mortality over 150 miles of the river, including killing much of Europe's eel population.

In the year when we have also witnessed the world's greatest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Hungary's swamping tide of red filth reminds us that the problems of large-scale industrial pollution have by no means gone away; perhaps the sight of it may help some young environmentalists to understand that there is more to protecting the planet than protecting its climate, vital though that is.