The 1970s saw a boom in both scientific and environmental activism. But some considered the greens too right-wing.
The 1970s was a key period in modern environmentalism. Concerns over air and water pollution grew, new social movements developed, processes to build international agreements were forged, and something called climate change started to be talked about more and more.
Central to this new environmentalism were questions surrounding the uses and abuses of science – the core issues for the scientist-activists of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS). BSSRS shared a building with the first offices of Friends of the Earth. And yet, on the whole, BSSRS chose to avoid green issues. “We missed the big one, we missed the environment,” Jonathan Rosenhead, a former BSSRS activist, told a 2014 symposium at the University of Cambridge.
“This caring about the planet seemed like a bit of a diversion,” he explained. “Maybe that’s just my view. I know I had… a slightly dismissive attitude towards people doing stuff about pretty green fields, and we were trying to save the workers.”
BSSRS didn’t miss the topic entirely. In 1969 they published a special environmental edition of their newsletter, looking forward to 1970 as European Conservation Year and, further ahead, UN talks in 1972. It featured some of the first graphics published by BSSRS, including an image of a test-tube pouring oil over the Earth as another globe was engulfed in smoke from a factory. A Steven Rose article on how the military were polluting the environment was illustrated with a picture of the Earth in a gas mask. Elsewhere in the issue, Robert Smith referred to the risk of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use causing polar ice melt, and calls for international agreements.
This being the case, why the distance from the environmentalists?
Today the problem of science and the green movement is often framed as if the latter is deficient in knowledge of the former. But for BSSRS, the point of contention was class, not scientific knowledge: specifically, the ‘establishment’ mindset that they thought the greens still held.
In 1972, the Ecologist magazine published a ‘Blueprint for Survival’, boasting the signatures of 36 leading scientists. But to the BSSRS activists, that was part of the problem. BSSRS liked people to listen to science, they were just less sure that the scientific establishment were the best advocates for it.
BSSRS activist Hugh Saddler responded to the Ecologist, lambasting the green movement’s tendency to mimic or play up to those in power rather than fight them. “There is a distinct feeling throughout that change is to be accomplished by direct from above – a sort of dictatorship of the ecologically-enlightened,” he concluded.
The green movement wasn’t, Saddler argued, necessarily dominated by right-wing ideology, nor was the environmental crisis something dreamed up by ruling classes to keep us under control. But, he worried, much of the green activism was politically naive, putting its faith in existing elites. He called for BSSRS to engage more with environmental groups and teach them more about politics.
For a short time, BSSRS did employ a member of staff to research pollution. Jonathan tells me how that came about, and the story speaks volumes about the class politics of science and environmentalism at the time.
Back in the early 1970s, he met a wealthy sponsor: David Hart, the Eton-educated son of a merchant banker. In the 1980s, Hart went on to achieve notoriety as a ‘Downing Street Irregular’ with the ear of Margaret Thatcher. Active against the miners, he famously organised anti-strike activities from a luxury suite at Claridge’s hotel in London, travelling to the East Midlands in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. The Socialist Worker headed his obituary “the scum’s scum”. But back in the 1970s, BSSRS made him an unlikely – and unknowing – supporter of the workers’ struggle via a shared interest in pollution.
Back in the 1970s Hart was concerned about the frog population on his estate. Via Cambridge connections, Jonathan and his family were invited down for a visit. A trip from London involving a Rolls-Royce, a private plane and a butler-driven Range Rover followed. “As soon as we got there he changed into knee-length boots, went out with a shotgun, and started killing things,” Jonathan recalls. They played chess and discussed the problems of industrial pollution. By the end of the weekend, Hart had agreed to fund a BSSRS researcher.
This post went to Charlie Clutterbuck, and out of that grew BSSRS’s work on health and safety at work. The centre of this was very much the health and rights of workers, not frogs.
As Jonathan puts it, “We stole his money. And made it into something different.” Charlie similarly beams with mischief remembering this. “We were absolutely clear on pollution, the working class got the worst and the rich didn't,” says Charlie. “And they got the least resources. And the ruling [class] got the least pollution and the most resources.”
But, Charlie says, as far as the environmental movement at large saw it, “We were always seen as the lefties.”