Specific environmental problems

Susse Georg & Inge Røpke

Specific environmental problems emerge in many different ways. A classic problem is that an important resource becomes depleted. As a Danish example, in his doctoral thesis (Den danske revolution 1500-1800. En økohistorisk tolkning, 1991), the historian, Thorkild Kjærgaard, discusses how Denmark, in the first half of the 18th century, ran into an ecological crisis, especially because the forests were disappearing. While 20-25% of the country was covered in forest around 1600, this percentage had fallen to only 8-10% of the country around 1750 (p. 23). As timber was the most important raw material and source of energy, the decline was a problem in itself, but it also led to other related problems such as worsening sandy drifts. Many interrelated factors contributed to the ecological recovery, while also creating the basis for more recent environmental problems; not least those that are linked to the increased use of fossil fuels.

Other classic problems are connected to societal changes such as rapid urbanisation with which infrastructure planning can not keep up, thereby leading to new side effects. The book Det heles vel. Forureningsbekæmpelsen i Danmark fra loven om sundhedsvedtægterne i 1850’erne til miljøloven 1974 (1999) by the historian, Jens Engberg, talks about the horrible living conditions in Copenhagen in the mid-1800s, when the population grew from approximately 100,000 inhabitants in 1801 to approximately 155,000 in 1860 (p. 23), waste of all kinds piled up and mortality was very high. The book also highlights the many new problems that arose as a result of early industrialisation during the same period and the problems that arose following the introduction of new pesticides in agriculture in the 1930s. Establishing regulations of environmental problems takes a long time, and because new problems are constantly emerging, we are still not finished.

Acknowledging environmental problems
The first step in dealing with a problem is acknowledging that it is a problem. Throughout history, a lot of time has passed from when the first critical voices have begun to highlight something as being a problem to the first attempt is made to do something about it. For example, it took a long time before the first danger signs led to a recognition of the problems connected with lead in petrol, the use of asbestos in buildings, the collapse of fish stocks, and the consequences of pesticides for men’s fertility (a large number of case studies are gathered in two reports from the European Environment Agency titled ‘Late Lessons from Early Warnings’, 2001, 2013).

Some problems may be difficult to discern because the harmful effects of a particular activity may not be apparent until much later or much further away, and because the causal relationships can be difficult to establish. However, at other times there may be solid evidence, which does not lead to action because it would cross powerful special interests, because it ‘only’ affects weak groups in society, or because the majority of society prioritises other issues. The opposition to doing something can be reflected in counter-documentation, although such a strategy is obviously difficult in situations where the connections are obvious. Therefore, highly visible problems can be easier to address, especially when they affect a number of groups in society at the same time.

Conflicts of interest and balancing
In a Danish context, the long road to modern environmental regulation is, as previously mentioned, described in Engberg’s book. The book illustrates that many environmental problems, such as waste management, water supply, sewage, the use of toxins in agriculture and the pollution of various industries – have a long history, and that efforts to regulate have often encountered great resistance. One of the central problems is that environmental improvements often require interfering with property rights, i.e. the owner’s right to do what they want with their property. When doctors attempted to improve people’s health in Copenhagen in the 1850s and reduce the risk of epidemics, they saw no other way: “The free use of houses and grounds should be limited to such an extent that the individual’s capriciousness or selfishness can not interfere with the common good”(Engberg, p. 47). At the time, this view came into conflict, just as it does today, with the traditional legal understanding of legal rights, which focuses on protecting owners from government intervention. Therefore, it has been an important aspect in the subsequent development of the field of environmental law to argue for another concept of legal rights that focuses on protecting the interests that may be affected by the owners’ use of their property.

In addition to the countless examples of special interests, there have also been many examples in history of the more general dilemma that society faces; the fact that pollution control is not free. For example, in 1969, while preparing comprehensive legislation on pollution control, the Social Democrat, Erling Olsen, wrote: “What would we prefer? More clothes? Better food? Better and more furniture? More and longer holidays? Larger cars? Colour TV? Or fresh air, clean water and less noise in everyday life?” (Engberg, p. 378). When you read about the debate in Denmark at that time, it is easy to draw parallels with the current debate in China, where urgent environmental problems face aspirations for better living standards. In Denmark, environmental problems and consumption wishes have both changed, but the problem is still present.

Next: The problem of side-effects and third parties