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The 24th UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) has just wrapped up in Katowice, Poland. The conference’s main objective was to reach a decision that will ensure full implementation of the Paris Agreement (the so-called Katowice Package) and further lower greenhouse gas emissions globally. However, reaching a decision that will appeal to all the signing-parties of the Paris Agreement is not a piece of cake, as different national actors are still tackling the issue of climate change at their own pace, while the discrepancy in terms of technological possibilities of controlling climate change between developed and developing countries is still enormous.
Climate change and environmental disasters at large possess an inherently transnational dimension. According to Lorenzo Natali, this transnational dimension stems primarily from their “hybrid character”: “The environmental disasters of the contemporary scenario are phenomena with uncertain boundaries. In a sense, they are ‘hybrid objects’—halfway between nature and culture, science and politics, human and non-human, global and local” (5). It is precisely because of their “hybrid character” that they require us to acquire “new modes of observation of the world, starting from our own collocation in the world in terms of space (local/global) and time” (5). The anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s, as well as contemporary activist groups fighting for the elimination of nuclear energy on a global scale can teach us how to do so.
From Local Struggles to Trans-Local Solidarity
The development of the anti-nuclear movement began during the 1950s, when the international community was still coming to terms with the 1944 atomic bombings of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With these bombings, the final stages of the Second World War left a bitter taste in the discourse on nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear energy which was circling within the scientific communities of some of the world’s most technologically advanced powers.
After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 1950s were characterized by an atmosphere of an increased awareness of the potential dangers of nuclear energy and proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is during this period that the first nuclear disarmament groups of a more political and/or institutional nature were formed. These included the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Peace Action, Greenpeace, Global Zero, Soka Gakkai International, and many more.
However, it is only during the 1960s that the anti-nuclear sentiment began taking a more activist and grassroots turn, developing in tandem with the counter-cultural movements that were thriving across the western world. The counter-culture of the 1960s, together with the increased investments in nuclear energy, “exerted a profound formative impact” on the early environmental and anti-nuclear movement (3). It is also during this period that anti-nuclear sentiments took up a transnational dimension; “The expense and the scale of the reactor projects proposed during the late 1960s made almost every nuclear plant an international undertaking” (4).
Cross-Border Collaboration between Germany, France, and Beyond
During the 1970s, opposition to nuclear energy became a mass movement and “grassroots activists developed a new, politicized sort of environmentalism […]: one capable of probing the boundaries of high politics” (4). Due to the fact that environmental disasters and pollution at large do not stop at the borders of individual nation-states, activists in Germany and France, which were equally affected by plans of building nuclear energy power plants on both sides of the Franco-German border, started developing a trans-local sentiment which successfully linked “geographically dispersed protest sites” (7). Activists from both sides of the border started participating in protests in German and French cities and, instead of conceptualizing the pollution affecting individual cities in France and Germany as a local problem, jointly demonstrated against further development of nuclear energy globally.
Thinking Globally; From Diablo Canyon to Tokyo
By the mid-1970s the anti-nuclear sentiment expanded across the borders of France and Germany: “communities close to prospective nuclear power stations in Austria, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and West Germany almost simultaneously found themselves asking very similar questions about the potential impact of nuclear energy on their health, environment, and way of life” (6). During the 1970s, environmentalists in Japan started developing a growing trans-local sentiment for activists in neighboring East-Asian countries affected by pollution caused by several factories in Tokyo which were dumping their waste into the waters of East-Asia (2). Similarly, in 1979 activists rallied against the construction of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California, United States. Activists all over the world were rapidly collecting information from various transnational spaces, appropriating protest strategies, and traveling to protest sites across the globe. Due to its global presence, the 1970s opposition to nuclear energy gradually grew into a full-fledged transnational movement against nuclear proliferation and use of nuclear technology.
The transnational mode of thinking is still present in anti-nuclear activist groups across the globe. The Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes (MCAN), one of Japan’s largest networks of anti-nuclear activists and groups, regularly protests against further development of nuclear energy not only in Japan but also the world. The group’s transnational character comes to the fore most vividly in their emphasis on supporting the elimination of nuclear energy globally and calling for support from activists outside of Japan (1).
Going Global, Going Green
With the ongoing debates on climate change and how to tackle it, the international political community will have to reconfigure its way of thinking about environmental degradation, and acquire a ‘global mode’ of thinking about climate change. Due to the hybrid character of environmental disasters as well as their tendency to spread across political and natural borders, anti-nuclear activists–from German and French activists protesting together against developments of nuclear power plants on both sides of the Franco-German border, to protesters in Tokyo fighting against the use of nuclear energy both in Japan and the world–can teach us how to think in a transnational manner so as to jointly tackle pressing environmental issues which are affecting us all.
1. “About us.” Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes. http://coalitionagainstnukes.jp/en/. Accessed 21 December, 2018.
2. Avenell, Simon. “Transnational Activism and Japan’s Second Modernity.” New Worlds from Below: Informal Life Politics and Grassroots Action in Twenty-First-Century Northeast Asia. Ed. Tessa Morris-Suzuki and EunJeong Soh. ANU Press, 2017. 77-98.
3. Bess, Michael. The Light Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France 1960-2000. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
4. Milder, Stephen. Greening Democracy: The Anti-Nuclear Movement and Political Environmentalism in West Germany and Beyond, 1968-1983. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
5. Natali, Lorenzo. A Visual Approach for Green Criminology: Exploring the Social Perception of Environmental Harm. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2016.
6. Tompkins, Andrew. Better Active than Radioactive! Anti-Nuclear Protest in 1970s France and West Germany. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2016
7. Tompkins, Andrew. “Grassroots Transnationalism(s): Franco-German Opposition to Nuclear Energy in the 1970s.” Contemporary European History 25. 1 (2016): 117-142.