Fifty years ago, Ziggy Stardust and the first UN climate summit changed our vision of the future

MIT Technology Review Italy

In 1972, in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, David Bowie tells of a world on the brink of apocalypse in which the last hero is a boy who became a rock star thanks to an alien help and represents one of his greatest hits, as well as one of his most influential and seminal works. Around the same time, the US Apollo program was making man’s presence on the moon a routine occurrence, the power of computers was starting to unfold, and the countercultural youth revolt was challenging prevailing values ​​and norms.

Bowie’s fictional alter ego, the androgynous rock star from outer space with her heavy makeup, red hair and Japanese kabuki theater inspired clothing, he expressed the attraction for the technological changes underway, but also the fear for the future. His opening piece, Five Years, warns listeners of the danger that “the Earth is indeed dying” and echoes some of the darkest sentiments of the survivalist debate, with its weeping “reporter” confirming that the end of the world. it’s close.

Yet just five years earlier, during the utopian summer of love of 1967, this message would hardly have resonated in popular culture.. During the Cold War years, the prospect of artificial armageddon through nuclear warfare was always hovering and by the early 1970s, fears of an ecological crisis and overpopulation were beginning to take on similar apocalyptic proportions.

The same day the album appeared, the Stockholm Conference was held, the first meeting of the United Nations on the human environment and the starting point for global environmental governance.. The summit moved with the same conflicting emotions as Bowie’s album: environmental awareness of global conflict and planetary collapse.

As reported by “The Conversation,” Bowie’s obsession with space predates the creation of Ziggy Stardust. In 1969’s Space Oddity, the British singer-songwriter told the story of an astronaut who loses contact with the control tower while looking at the Earth from afar in his “tin can”. Later that year, the BBC used the song in its broadcast of the first moon landing, apparently unaware of the tragic lyrics.

As Bowie clearly understood, the Apollo space program was instrumental in the birth and early growth of the global environmental movement. The most iconic image of manned lunar expeditions is a 1968 photo, Earthrise, showing our planet rising over the lifeless landscape of the moon, like a sun on the horizon. Images of the first astronauts who ventured out of Earth’s orbit resonated with the new generation of environmentalists.

One of the pivotal moments for the awakening of environmental consciousness came in the fall of 1967. Then, a choir of eminent scientists, in particular the Swedish Hans Palmerstierna with his book Plundering, Starvation, Poisoningclaimed that it was urgent to act “before the hourglass runs out for humanity”. The link was between environmental destruction to other global issues, including world poverty, warfare and overpopulation, thus underscoring that environmental risks were an equally serious threat to humanity.

The impact of the collective intervention of Palmstierna and other scientists was powerful. It was as if a “new continent of problems” had been discovered. Where previously environmental risks had been viewed as individual problems to be solved in isolation, more and more people began to see them as connected and constitute a major crisis..

The situation seen from Stockholm

From an international perspective, the environmental debate that arose in Sweden in the late 1960s brought the threat to humanity to the fore. At the heart of this new approach was the very concept of “environment”, a word that had not been used in the early 1960s, despite the intense debate sparked by Rachel Carson’s book. Silent Springwhich had awakened public understanding of the links between industrial pesticides and the extinction of insects and wildlife in the United States.

Of particular importance was the awareness of the danger of acid rain. The discovery that it was caused by sulfur dioxide emissions from all over Europe was first reported in October 1967, in an article in Sweden’s largest morning newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, by scientist Svante Odén, causing an immediate sensation.

Inspired by the internal debate, Swedish diplomats suggested that the United Nations organize a major conference on the environment. Their initiative started what would later become the Stockholm Conference of 1972, the first global conference of the United Nations on the human environment.

That summer of 1972, humanity’s future seemed increasingly precarious in many other ways as well. Despite the Stockholm Conference’s focus on humanity’s shared destiny, it – like the world – was deeply polarized, with most of the Eastern Bloc boycotting the event and with only three Communist countries to participate: Yugoslavia, the Romania and unexpectedly China which, admitted to the UN in October 1971, made its first appearance on the world stage.

The conference was also harshly criticized by emerging environmental movements who argued that it was a top-down, inadequate and purely symbolic event. In his inaugural keynote address, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme highlighted “the enormous destruction caused by indiscriminate bombing” and “the large-scale use of bulldozers and herbicides”. While not explicitly worded, there was no doubt that his remarks were aimed at the US conduct in Vietnam, particularly in reference to the use of chemical herbicides and climate modification technologies described as “ecocides”..

Palme’s speech was not appreciated in Washington. A spokesperson for the US State Department said he felt “profound unease” at the way the host country’s prime minister had raised this issue, which (at least in the eyes of the United States) had nothing to do with it. do with a conference on environmental protection.

Two concrete results of the Conference were the International Stockholm Declaration, and the founding of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Headquartered in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, UNEP became responsible for coordinating international responses to environmental issues and was the first United Nations body based in the developing world.

Much of the conference’s focus was on the global north-south divide. Attempts by the Western world to address environmental degradation and overpopulation have been pitted against the desire for industrialization and prosperity of developing countries. For an observer in 2022with last year’s COP26 still fresh in the memory, the 1972 Stockholm dividing lines look strangely familiar. Greta Thunberg’s famous “blah, blah, blah” speech could have been delivered by protesters in 1972.

The last day of the Stockholm Conference, June 16, 1972, was the day that Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars were released to the world. What would Bowie have said about the current situation? Some clues could be found in his latest album, Blackstarpublished two days before his death in January 2016. In the center of the video for the title song is an empty spacesuitreminiscent of Major Tom’s character in Space Oddity and Ashes to Ashes, in a decidedly somber echo of that revolutionary period when humans first walked on the moon.

Bowie’s death coincided with a renewed interest in space. In our day, however, it is not superpower states that lead the way to the last frontier, but super-rich individuals like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.which have made billions through the digital revolution of the 21st century.

From an environmental standpoint, the picture looks just as depressing. COP 27 November will return to Africa in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, on the continent, which despite contributing only 4 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions, is bearing the brunt of their impacts, with the combined effects of severe drought, floods and plagues. The hope is that that empty suit was not an omen of a catastrophe.


The post Environmentalism? David Bowie invented it, and the UN first appeared on Technology Review Italia.

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