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Europe confronts environmental crisis

Western Europe's leaders are worried. Scientists, political leaders,
even members of royalty are urging concerted, united action on the common enemy widespread,
nearly uncontrolled pollution and environmental decay.
The very heritage of Europe's rich cultural past is at stake.


Strasbourg, France

WESTERN EUROPE is threatened. The danger this time is not from without — that is, Communist aggression — but rather from within. It is Europe's own burgeoning prosperity that is threatening to swamp the continent under a swelling tide of pollution.

The Rhine — "Sewer of Europe"

The most important environmental conference ever held in Europe was recently concluded here in this somber French city on the Rhine River.

The Rhine.

This aquatic superhighway, the world's busiest river, exemplifies the gravity of Europe's environmental crisis. It is a crisis that spans national borders.

The Rhine, pure at its glacial source, rises in Switzerland. Halfway on its course to the sea it has accumulated 24,000 "undesirable organisms" per cubic centimeter.

By the time it courses through the industrial heartland of Germany and finally empties into the North Sea through the Netherlands, the Rhine has picked up the burden of a dozen additional major cities, plus the wastes of numerous tributaries. Its germ tally amounts to a phenomenal 2,000,000 per cubic centimeter!

Little wonder the Rhine is called "the sewer of Europe." And the microbe count, of course, says nothing of the abundant array of industrial wastes and toxic chemicals the river transports, or of the occasional chemical spill that can kill millions of fish.

Such an accidental spill killed an estimated 40 million fish along a 250-mile stretch of the Rhine last summer.

"Rivers of air" — prevailing air currents — also are internationalizing Europe's contamination. The problem was dramatized a year ago when "black snow," actually grayish snow with black spots, fell on eastern Norway and western Sweden. Swedish scientists concluded the airborne pollutants had wafted in from West Germany's Ruhr district.

It was against the background of these and similar examples that the European Conservation Conference was held.


European Conservation Year

The conference was organized by the Council of Europe, the leading nonpolitical consultative organization in Europe. The assembly, designed to stress the urgent need for European cooperation on environmental issues, kicked off the Council's "European Conservation Year."

Participating were Prince Philip of Britain, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, and Prince Albert of Liege (brother of King Baudouin of Belgium), along with about 350 government experts, parliamentarians, conservationists, educators, and industrialists.

Besides the Council of Europe member states, several other European states together with delegates from the United States and Canada and 60 international organizations were in attendance.

In their speeches the three members of royalty clearly traced Europe's environmental crisis to three factors —population, urbanization and industrialization. And behind these secondary causes, they noted, lay the primary causes of human greed, the boundless appetite of affluent Europeans for more and more material goods, and, as Prince Albert stated it, man's breaking of the "immutable laws" which govern the earth and all life upon it. (See accompanying excerpts from the speeches of Prince Philip and Prince Albert)

This reporter noted that royalty, being above politics, can and do speak out much more boldly on major issues than do elected officials.

In the three subsequent days of the conference, officials from all the member nations discussed the horrendous chronicle of environmental woes.


Populations Grow — So Do Cities

Europe is already the most densely populated continent. Yet, even with the lowest current rate of increase, it is projected that in three decades Europe's population will rise by another 200 million inhabitants.

Worse, the vast majority of these will crowd into already congested areas.

Europe was not always this way. In the 18th century 80% of the population was still employed in agriculture and lived in the country. Then the industrial revolution radically altered the situation.

In highly industrialized European countries the agricultural population is now less than 20%. In the future the percentage will tend to fall yet further — perhaps as low as 3.2%.

The Netherlands is a case in point. In this densely packed nation, a land with a great tradition of agrarian activity, the percentage of the population employed in agriculture decreased from 45% in 1850 to 9% in 1968. It is estimated that this figure will be reduced to about 3% by the end of this century. And in only a few years' time it is expected that the built-up areas between Amsterdam and the Belgian frontier will form a single city.

In France, the trend is much the same, even though a larger percentage of Frenchmen are rural dwellers.

In France no less than 150,000 people working in agriculture leave the land every year to move to the cities. If the trend continues, the number of inhabitants of the towns, large and small alike, will have doubled by 1985. More than four fifths of the population will be concentrated in towns and cities by that date.

An interesting statistic is that almost 60% of Parisians are born in the country. Even though a relative depopulation of the heart of the big cities is occurring in France, there is at the same time a strong increase in suburbanization.


"Artificial Civilization"

This enormous "implosion" into cities and their sprawling unplanned suburbs has created, as Prince Albert called it, a "completely artificial civilization" for most Europeans.

People's horizons have become extremely limited as they are further removed from natural surroundings.

In a Council of Europe publication, parts of European suburbia were described as "individual houses, small, mediocre and monotonous, surrounded by tiny garden plots which are the only outlet for the personal taste of each owner, expressed in the idiosyncratic arrangement of his scrap of kitchen garden, his patch of lawn, his few yards offence, with the result that these dreary plots combine the worst features of uniformity and diversity alike."

This perceptive report added:

"The final decline of the area resulting from this nondescript concentration of separate houses is difficult to prevent, precisely because this type of housing fulfills the deepest dreams of the great majority of the population in certain countries. In France, for instance, an enquiry elicited that 82 percent of the French prefer small houses to flats, and the devotion to a small garden may well be attributed to the resurgence of a peasant past which, in a population only recently urbanized, is never far distant."

Such type housing, unfortunately, is also the dream of most Britons as well. Over 40% of the population in the United Kingdom is jammed into six giant conurbations.

This, realize sociologists, is simply no way to live.


Chaos in the Countryside

Concurrent with the rush to the cities has been a phenomenal rush out of the cities into the countryside for holidays and recreational activities. Affluence, too, fuels the rapid growth in leisure.

An entire session at the Strasbourg conference was devoted to the detrimental impact of leisure activities upon Europe's ecology.

New roads and airports rip up thousands of acres of greenery every year, much of it to fill the tourist and recreational requirements of affluent, highly mobile, urban escape-seekers.

The total number of automobiles in the 17 Council of Europe nations has increased from 21 million to nearly 50 million in only seven years!

Increasing numbers of human feet, sometimes even motorcycles, trample the fragile ecology of coastal sand dune areas of England and Denmark. Parts of the Mediterranean coast are becoming overdeveloped tragedies.

Haphazard construction of both summer and winter homes worries officials of Europe's most scenic lands. In Norway and Sweden, increasing second home development in mountain areas not served by sewage systems has resulted in considerable pollution of local streams. In Norway, less than 3 percent of second homes are connected to a common sewage system.

"We cannot postpone decisions any longer. The burden of responsibility rests squarely on us and our generation."


The following are excerpts of a speech given by His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at the opening ceremony of the European Conservation Conference in Strasbourg, France, February 9, 1970.

People realize that the last hundred years have witnessed a scientific and technological explosion. Most people are now aware that there has also been an increase in human population to almost plague proportions.

What is less obvious perhaps is that this fall-out from the technological explosion has littered Europe with immense industrial complexes belching pollution into the air and into the water; while the increase in human population has created cities bigger than the world has ever known and intense over-crowding in almost all parts of the country.

Between them technology and mankind have created a vast network of road, rail and air transport systems and a problem in refuse and waste disposal which has completely defeated our efforts to control it.

For generations agriculture has been a partnership with nature. Today the pressure to increase output is so intense that farmers have to grasp at every chemical and mechanical means of increasing production and they have to bring every available acre into use. Intensive research helps them to destroy pests and weeds, but their destruction inevitably interferes with some long established delicate food chain. Today factory methods have taken over in crop and animal production.

This combined assault on the land, on the air, on the water and on the last food supplies of wild populations is rapidly destroying a large number of other living things and threatening many more which are not immediately useful or profitable to man.

Above all we have got to face the unpalatable fact that the conservation of our environment is going to cost a very great deal of money, and the denser the human population becomes the more expensive it will be. Destruction of wildlife cannot be reversed. We cannot postpone decisions any longer. The burden of responsibility rests squarely on us and our generation.

Even without any further research we know enough to be able to put many things right. We also know quite enough to be able to say in which direction research programs should be aimed. More research is certainly needed but we must at all costs guard against the temptation to allow research programs to become excuses for doing nothing else. Research and action must go on at the same time.

It is just as well to recognize that any measures taken to protect our environment will be unpopular in some quarters and they will inevitably cut across national boundaries. They will certainly be condemned as unwarranted interference or for preventing necessary development. Some will be politically inconvenient. Others will be dismissed as administratively awkward.

The problem which confronts this Conference, which confronts Europe and indeed the whole world, is to decide what restrictions are necessary to protect our natural environment from our own exploitation. It is totally useless for a lot of well meaning people to wring their hands in conference and to point out the dangers of pollution or destruction of the countryside. If no one is willing or capable of taking any action, it will be a waste of time and effort to establish even the most brilliant advisory body if there is no way of putting its advice into effect.

This great Conference itself will mean nothing at all — in spite of the wisdom of its distinguished members — if it does not lead to practical conservation measures in every European country. All its discussions and resolutions will quickly disappear into the polluted atmosphere, if this meeting doesn't produce more closely organized international co-operation between responsible and effective government departments. All the impassioned speeches will be so much effluent under the bridge unless it is followed by drastic political action. Time is fast running out and it remains to be seen whether those in political authority can shoulder their responsibilities in time and act quickly enough to relieve a situation which grows more serious every day.