3.2.3 The 1970s: deforestation and desertification

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Unit 3 Contents



By the 1970s, evidence was becoming widely recognized of two quite large-scale environmental problems, neither of which was easy or quick to reverse.

(a)  One of these was deforestation, with concern focusing on the clearing of large areas of tropical forest, for example in the Amazon Basin in South America.  In fact, in non-tropical regions (including Europe, North America and Australasia), destruction of forests had already been extensive over the previous few hundred years.  For example, in the country which European settlers called New Zealand, forest cover was reduced from about 75% to 25% of the land area between about 1500 and 1950 by burning and logging.  About half of this deforestation was done by Māori people and half by the (mainly) British colonists after 1800.

The 1970s saw a large growth in awareness of and concern about deforestation.  The point is not that deforestation was particularly intense during that decade.  One factor among others that contributed to this awareness was the Chipko movement in northern India, in which many activists were peasant women.  This received significant coverage in the western press, not least because of the use of methods of peaceful resistance inspired by Mahatma Ghandi.  The movement’s most famous form of protest was ‘tree hugging’ (see the optional reading), which attracted media coverage but also provoked some mockery by sceptics.


Optional reading (4pp)

Wikipedia entry on the Chipko movement:



There is in fact ongoing dispute about both rates of deforestation in recent decades and how damaging it might be.  However it is widely recognized that rainforest that is cleared can take literally several hundred years to recover fully, because some main species of tree are very slow-growing.  This means that, relative to smog and pesticide pollution, deforestation is less amenable to easy technical solutions.

The main concerns about the damaging environmental effects of deforestation are three.  The first is its possible impact on local weather patterns, e.g. reducing rainfall and so contributing to drought.  Second, it is widely accepted that forests ‘soak up’ carbon dioxide, so that getting rid of forests means that more of this gas goes into the atmosphere and contributes to heating up the planet.   Third, rainforests are very rich in ‘biodiversity’ – they have many different species of fauna and flora.  So their destruction can greatly increase the likelihood of animal and plant species becoming extinct.

(b)  The second main problem about which awareness grew during the 1970s was ‘desertification’ – the loss of fertile land to desert, i.e. land that has no topsoil and in which, therefore, very little can grow.  For a few bullet points about desertification, see the following page from a publication of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).


Reading (1p)

‘Basic Facts on Desertification’


If you’re short of time, don’t be waylaid by this subject, even though it is a very serious problem – as those points make clear.  But if you are interested and do have the time, an excellent fuller briefing is at a website called ‘Green Facts’.


Optional reading (c.5pp)

Green Facts, ‘Level 1’ pages about desertification


Much further, up-to-date information is accessible in publications of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification at http://www.unccd.int/en/resources/Pages/default.aspx.


Deforestation and desertification were among several main issues given attention at the first ever United Nations conference on ecological issues, which was in Stockholm in 1972.

Barbara Ward, a British economist and a Roman Catholic, deserves to be mentioned in connection with this.  Ward co-wrote a book for the 1972 Stockholm Conference, called Only One Earth.  The book proved to have a very large influence in drawing people’s attention to the extent and urgency of environmental problems, although it didn’t have as high a profile as Silent Spring.  You might like to look at the Wikipedia entry about Barbara Ward.


Optional reading (5pp)

Wikipedia entry about Barbara Ward:





End of 3.2.3

Go to 3.2.4 The Philippine Catholic Bishops: ‘Our Beautiful Land’


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