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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

Contemporary Europe

Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality, and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.

Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment
June 5-16, 1972

The first transatlantic flight of the supersonic aircraft, the Concorde, took place on January 21, 1976. The plane, a joint development of the French and the British, was designed to introduce a new era of swift, intercontinental travel and to serve as proof of Europe's intention to remain in the forefront of technology.

However, environmentalists protested against the Concorde's noise level at take-off; politicians criticized the enormous expenditures made for the aircraft's development; and economists complained of the plane's gluttonous consumption of fuel. The Concorde thus unintentionally transported across the ocean a small inventory of new global problems. International affairs now included communications, economics, and ecology, as well as traditional interpretations of war and peace.

New European Dimensions and Problems
In the last two decades the world has socially diminished in size to become what the American architect and critic Buckminster Fuller has described as "Spaceship Earth." All of our living space has been bunched together by advanced telecommunications systems, while the condition of the environment has become a common concern.

The world no longer is centered on a single continent, nor does any continent remain in isolation. As a result, contemporary Europe is both more cluttered and more extended. Two of the most obvious indices of modernization, the number of telephones in a region and the frequency of air travel, stand as proof of the recent changes in European social space. In 1970, there were 80,776,000 telephones in Europe; in 1975, that figure increased by nearly one half to become 118,199,000. In 1970, 37,935,000 European passengers were carried on international aircraft flights; that figure rose to 51,843,000 passengers in 1975.

Beyond the ring of the phone and the roar of the jet are found more impressive telecommunication developments that have silently supported the new social order that has made Western Europe a "neighborhood" of North America. In 1956 the first transatlantic telephone cables were laid, thus allowing for near-instantaneous voice communication of high quality between Europe and America. Then, in 1965, the International Telecommunications and Satellite Consortium (Intelsat), primarily an American and European organization, launched its Early Bird satellite that was designed to carry both telephone and television signals. Since that date, Intelsat has developed more sophisticated satellites, such as the Intelsat IV series, first launched in 1971, which are able to carry ten thousand messages simultaneously. The direct intercontinental broadcast of television programs was now possible, while telephonic communication between New York and London is, for instance, as easily and quickly made as a call between London and Manchester.

This new social mobility indicated by telecommunications developments is an expression of Europe's continuing economic growth. With a per capita income that now is approaching that of the United States in general (and which has exceeded the American in a few countries like Sweden and Switzerland), Europe has once again become one of the wealthiest regions of the world. Both trade and investment are of impressive global proportions. European automobile assembly plants have been built in Russia, Romania, Africa, and the United States; while investment in American firms has reached striking proportions, with the Germans alone placing $730 million in the United States in 1977. As simple an indicator of the new prosperity that can be found is the tourist trade. Europeans now spend more abroad annually than do Americans. In 1977 the West German tourists spent $8.9 billion - more than any other nation in the world.

However, such general economic ascendancy has not been without its downward side. Industrial and technological progress has meant pollution. Tall factory chimneys in England have had their fumes carried by unfavorable winds to Sweden. Overcrowded Parisian roads led the government to the decision in 1967 to build expressways along the picturesque banks of the Seine River. Excessive noise from Heathrow Airport, outside of London, led to such severe complaints from neighboring residents that the government, in 1966, forced the British Airport Authority to allocate special funds for some soundproofing. More spectacular in bad effects has been the breakup of two super oil tankers: the Torrey Canyon, which in 1967 spilled over a hundred thousand tons of crude oil on the beaches of Cornwall, England; and the Amoco Cadiz, which did even greater damage in 1978 to the beaches of Brittany, France.

These new industrial hazards were first dramatically headlined in 1952, when London endured its worst smog. For four days in early December, the city was ashen with soot, darkened to the point where automobiles were abandoned, and unhealthy to the extent that four thousand Londoners lost their lives. In response to this disaster, the government passed a Clean Air Act in 1956 which attempted to regulate urban smoke emission.

Since then, there has been a variety of European responses to environmental problems. In 1968 the West German government declared a ban on all supersonic civilian flights over the land. In the same year, the British provided more stringent measures on smoke emission with another Clean Air Act. A Ministry of Environment was created in 1971 in France. And in the French elections of 1978, four major ecological movements joined together to form Ecology '78, the first ecological party in Europe.

On the international level, the United Nations has found an area of activity in which its institutional strength can be effectively used. Since 1954 that organization has held a series of conferences on population and pollution control, the most famous of which was the Stockholm Conference on Human Environment, held in 1972. As a result of this particular conference, an Environment Secretariat was set up as a permanent unit of the UN, with its headquarters established in Nairobi, Kenya.

Such expressions of concern with the environment have still not led to a noticeable cleaning-up of the European atmosphere. Although some 125 varieties of birds now reside harmoniously with some 7 million people in clear-sky London, the situation is exceptional. Elsewhere there is continuing tension between the technocrats who speak of growth and the environmentalists who speak of decay.

Economic issues have lately been complicated by the energy problem. The cheap energy that largely fired the "economic miracle" of the 1950s and 1960s is no longer available.

NEXT:  The New Economics of Oil

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