Daniel Gibbs is a student at Edinburgh University.
Margaret Thatcher helped to bring about profound change in our country. Her economic reforms advanced property rights, and helped to establish the modern banking regulation that cemented the individual’s connection with global financial institutions. The 1988 Education Reform Act created a new educational landscape which still dominates the way in which our children are taught, and by whom. Her impact was also felt abroad. And one of the most globally significant outcomes from her time as Prime Minister – though one sometimes overlooked – was the rationalisation of environmentalism.
Before Thatcher, environmentalism enjoyed a very poor reputation. None the less, issues that had largely been ignored before the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 were becoming horrendously apparent. But these effects were local, and did not capture the imagination of the global populace (beyond the fear of the bomb itself).
The 1970s saw a large number of environmental catastrophes, which stirred a greater awareness of environmental issues. The governmental recognition of the poisoning in Minamata Bay; the Torrey Canyon running aground in Cornwall, and the 1974 famine in Bangladesh highlighted just how damaging our actions can be to the environment. Events such as these caused the founding of Earth Day on the 22nd of April, established by Gaylord Nelson, and the establishment of Greenpeace in 1971.
For many, there were larger problems that needed addressing. The Cold War and the threat of Communism instilled such fear that environmental concerns felt insignificant in comparison. The methods of the environmentally-minded further distanced the issues from the majority of people. The Nazca Lines incident during which protesters failed to wear protective footwear, ironically, irreparably damaging the historic site. Confrontational tactics used by groups protecting animal rights – such as throwing red paint at those wearing fur – tarnished the reputation of many environmentalist groups. This alienated large swathes of the population who viewed activists and their concerns as inconvenient, ineffectual, irrelevant – and sometimes illegal.
Thatcher changed this. Having studied chemistry at university, she was well aware of the symptoms of climate change, such as the melting ice caps and soil degradation, and for a brief period at the end of her reign had a profound impact on the ownership, focus and language of the environmental debate.
A number of speeches, especially Thatcher’s 1989 address to the United Nations, created a rational argument for environmentalism. She combined three major themes of conservatism to provide a critique of the way we have treated the planet: economic sustainability, protection of private property, and preservation. Speaking to the Royal Society in 1988, she made an impassioned speech, claiming that “we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself”. In 1989 she spoke to the United Nations, about the intrinsic link of the economy to the health of the environment.
Farming constitutes a large part of the global economy, especially for developing nations. By 1990, agriculture formed only 1.5 per cent of UK GDP. However, in Uganda it was 56.6 per cent, in Somalia 65.5 per cent and Myanmar 57.3 per cent. Economic stability was necessary for nations to develop and grow: international leaders could not cooperate if nations such as Myanmar were not able to end their own conflicts. As agriculture, and therefore many economies, depend so heavily on sustainability it was necessary to care for the environment to aid stability – both national and international.
Thatcher recognised that the plight of exotic species in foreign lands was not an issue most people empathised with: after all, they had not seen or experienced the damage. Instead, by focusing on the economy, she enabled working men and women to recognise that their livelihoods, and the livelihoods of their children, could depend on how their governments responded to the ongoing environmental crisis.
Thatcher also moved blame away from the multinational industries – the villains in the views of early environmentalists. She explained that ‘far from being the villains, it is on them that we rely to do the research and find the solutions’. This was a crucial move: environmentalism was seized from the hands of the Left and turned into a cross-political issue, not simply one which activists raved about.
The argument was brought closer to home when potentially damaging consequences were expressed in terms of our homes and of posterity. In a speech to the Aspen Institute, Thatcher said ‘the cost of doing nothing, of a policy of wait and see, would be much higher than those of taking preventive action now to stop the damage getting worse”. This was combined with the idea that acid rain, excessive methane production and soil degradation would cause damage to agriculture, land and houses. In 1989, she pleaded that “[we must not] leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow”. The message that the children we raise and the homes we raise them in were at risk resonated throughout homeowners and families.
The final point that arises from the speeches of Thatcher is more about another danger that climate change posed. In a 1988 speech to the Royal Society, she spoke of her meeting with the President of the Maldives. She was reminded that the highest point on the Islands was only six feet above sea level and that they were deeply threated by rising sea levels. The increasing concentration of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere had led to a raise in global temperature by one per cent, something that was a concern to the habitats of species – not just in the tropics, but across the globe. Their importance extends beyond economics, enhancing our lives and the lives of future generations, and they could all too easily be lost.
She stated that if the current trends continued changes would become irrevocable, societies would be damaged and the effects would be felt by all. The combination of economic sustainability and stability, protection of private property and preservation of society made environmentalism a concern for all, not just the liberal-left. Thatcher was one of the first high-profile non-celebrities to make the dangers of climate change clear -dangers which did not affect only animals and plants, but people, their livelihoods and their future.
By making the wider implications of poor environmental policy clear, the issues were understood by a greater number in society. The crucial change was the provision of a salient and succinct argument based on rationality and not on aggression, which had for so long disenfranchised people from the topic. She opened up debate between all parts of the political spectrum. The legacy of Thatcher’s speeches was to make environmentalism relevant to all and not simply a few.