To mark International Women’s Day (March 8th) we are drawing on the BBC’s Green Originals series. These are 15 brief (15 minute) programmes that are well researched and full of detail. They have a global reach and feature a mix of scientists, activists and communicators. Seven of these are women: Rachel Carson, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, Petra Kelly, Wangari Maathai, Joni Mitchell, Margaret Thatcher, and Judith Wright.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring was probably the most important environmental book of the 20th Century. It catalogued, in grim detail, the effect that pesticides were having on the countryside and the wildlife within it. The book was fiercely attacked by the chemicals companies, whose businesses had grown rapidly in the years after the Second World War as a result of the widespread adoption of pesticides like DDT (dubbed the “insect bomb”). After the publication of the book, there was a change in policy regulating the use of such substances in North America and in Britain too, where the effects of DDT on birds of prey numbers had long been suspected by organisations like the RSPB. The nature writer Conor Jameson reflects on the work of this humble marine biologist turned conservationist, and analyses what challenges remain for the regulation of chemicals in wider environmental systems. “Carson has taken on the status of a prophet,” he says, “with Silent Spring she created a new testament for our ecological times.”
Severn Cullis-Suzuki was twelve years old when she gave a speech demanding action on the environment at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Like many young people who came after her, she demanded that adults listen and act swiftly to protect her future. She had grown up with a love of nature and was scared and angry about the extinction of animal species, pollution, and the destruction of forests. In this programme, the naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham reflects on the impact of her speech and the power of children’s voices in the climate debate.
Petra Kelly did more than perhaps anyone else to raise the profile of green politics. As the most prominent member of West Germany’s Green Party, Die Grünen, Kelly’s energetic campaigning played a critical role in catapulting her party to electoral success in the 1983 Bundestag elections, where they won 27 seats. Outside Germany, Kelly was an internationally famous campaigner against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, issues which galvanised the early green movement. But in 1992, at the age of just 44, Kelly was found dead in mysterious circumstances, alongside her lover Gert Bastian. The Green Party MP Caroline Lucas looks back on the career of a politician who inspired her and considers Petra Kelly’s relevance to the environmental movement today. “For Petra Kelly, green politics was never confined to Parliament,” she says, “it happened out on the streets, embracing non-violent protest and direct action.”
In 1977, the Kenyan academic Professor Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots initiative which encouraged rural women to plant trees to restore local ecosystems and address their need for food, fodder and fuelwood. Maathai also campaigned to protect Nairobi’s green spaces, including Uhuru Park and Karura Forest, from government development. To date, the Green Belt Movement has planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya. In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for her environmental work. The nature broadcaster Gillian Burke, who grew up on the outskirts of Nairobi and met Wangari Maathai as a child, reflects on the legacy of this larger-than-life environmental activist, and considers the role of tree planting in addressing the climate crisis. She says, “Wangari Maathai understood what people, especially rural women, really needed and married that with the needs of the environment.”
Joni Mitchell isn’t often associated with environmental activism, but her famous 1970 hit Big Yellow Taxi is one of the biggest green anthems to date. Growing up in the golden prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada, Joni spent her childhood surrounded by nature. She began touring the United States in the mid 1960s – a tumultuous decade of social, political, and environmental change. Big Yellow Taxi was written in response to the natural losses she saw on her journey. The song laments ecological loss and warns of irreversible damage to the earth’s natural beauty. But Joni’s dedication to raising awareness of environmental devastation spans her entire career. Folk singer Sam Lee takes a look at Joni’s relationship with the earth she inhabited, and how she inspired so many to care about the world through her personal yet highly political lyrics.
Margaret Thatcher might seem to some like an unlikely pioneer of the need for climate action but, in the late 1980s, she made a series of remarkable speeches and interventions on the subject and catapulted the issue to the foreground of media and public attention. In 1988, at a Royal Society dinner, she gave a speech warning of the dangers of what was then known as the greenhouse effect, and the need for action. Tellingly, a key paragraph setting out practical suggestions for global action was struck out by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson. She encouraged discussion of the subject at Cabinet level, inviting leading climate scientists into Downing Street to educate her Ministers, and described the urge to protect the environment as a key plank of Tory philosophy. In 1989, she addressed the UN General Assembly on the subject of climate change and called for immediate and urgent action to address it. Alice Bell is co-director at climate change charity, Possible, and is writing a book about the history of climate change. She reflects on Margaret Thatcher’s brief and vigorous engagement with the question of climate change.
Judith Wright, one of Australia’s finest poets whose poems forged a new way of looking at and valuing the Australian landscape and wildlife. In 1962, increasingly concerned by environmental destruction, Judith founded the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland with three friends and was president of the organisation until 1975. She was a leading force in the successful campaign to prevent oil drilling in the Great Barrier Reef and fought to create the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. It was a campaign that relied not on arguments about the beauty of the Reef but carefully marshalled scientific evidence and thorough administrative and legal action. In later years, she focussed on land rights for indigenous Australians which she saw as a part of her environmental activism. The writer Corin Throsby reflects on the poetry and activism of Judith Wright. “She showed generations of Australians that our landscape may be dusty and craggy, but that it has a profound and unique beauty. After a century of thinking the bush was something to be feared and tamed, she sent a loud and defiant message – this land is worth fighting for”.