Our story



24 februari 2015

Milieudefensie has been in action for 40 years. Since 1971, the organisation has been working toward a sustainable world, a place where life is good and where the limits of the earth are respected, a world that benefits all its inhabitants. Over the past 40 years, there has been many different developments in the field of environment and the environment within society. Here we give a summary of the history of Milieudefensie.

  • Establishment – In the wake of the Club of Rome
  • The 70s – Alarm, Rhine water, atomic waste, Kalkar, car-free Sunday and even back then... Schiphol
  • The 80s – Polarisation. nuclear energy, Chernobyl, rainforests, the hole in the ozone layer and acid rain
  • The 90s  – Professionalisation, Sustainable Netherlands, Sustainability versus Distribution Country 
  • The 21st century – Cooperation, green space, organic farming/factory farming, globalisation, climate and even now … traffic and air traffic



Club of Rome
It was researchers rather than campaigners that who were present at the birth of Milieudefensie. In the early 1970s, the Club van Rome, an international group of authoritative researchers and major industrialists, shook up the world with an ominous message: if humankind did not take measures to combat the population explosion, environmental pollution and resource waste, we would be facing a suffocating future filled with hunger and misery.

This warning made a huge impact, in the Netherlands too, because the negative consequences of our prosperity was becoming increasingly apparent: fish were disappearing from the rivers, the inner cities were choked with cars, the beaches were full of tar and there were buildings and smokestacks everywhere.

Milieudefensie Council
It was against this background that a group of concerned people in the Netherlands founded the Milieudefensie Council in January 1971. It was an erudite club, with twelve professors on the advisory board. It’s founding was sealed with the publication of a translation of ‘Blueprint for survival’ by the British magazine The Ecologist. It was printed on the very first batch of recycled paper, specially produced for Milieudefensie by paper manufacturer Van Gelder.

Despite this somewhat elitist beginning, in a short time Milieudefensie grew into a grassroots organisation: open and democratic, with its roots in the community. By the end of 1972, Milieudefensie had 8,000 members and officially became an association/vereniging. It also became the Dutch member of the global environmental network Friends of the Earth International, also established in 1971.


The 1970s

The Fifth Runway Forest
Many campaigns from the first years are, remarkably enough, still relevant today, or have again become relevant, 30 years later. For example, in the early 1970s Milieudefensie protested the construction of a fifth runway at Schiphol Airport by planting a forest there: ‘The Fifth Runway Forest’. In 1972 the airport already had big plans: expansion to 60 million passengers per year. It hasn’t yet gone that far; today Schiphol ‘only’ moves somewhat more than 40 million passengers per year.
The plans for a fifth runway were put in cold storage but re-emerged in the early 1990s. Milieudefensie again planted a ‘protest-forest’, the Bulderbos [Thunder Forest], on the site of the future runway. For years this served as a troublesome obstacle for Schiphol. The forest was not expropriated until the end of 2001. The fifth runway – the Polderbaan – has now been in use for several years and, as predicted, causes noise and environmental problems in the surrounding area. And we now have to fear for a sixth, seventh and eighth runway at Schiphol.

Oil crisis
In the early 1970s, successful protests were held against the pollution of the Rhine river and closing off the Oosterschelde [Eastern Scheldt estuary]. As a result, the Rhine indeed became cleaner and the Oosterschelde got its famed storm surge barrier. After the oil crisis ended in 1973, Milieudefensie campaigned for a car-free Sunday every month, and collected as many as 160,000 signatures in support. The campaigners of the time could never have anticipated that it would take another 30 years, under renewed pressure from Milieudefensie, for the car-free day to be held – and so far this is only once a year, at European level.
A modest but noteworthy success story is the ‘yes/no’ letterbox sticker requesting no printed advertising matter be delivered. Milieudefensie has been promoting and distributing these stickers on a large scale since 1976.
Borssele and Kalkar
Anti-nuclear protests characterised the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1972, Milieudefensie submitted 2,500 letters to protest the opening of the nuclear energy plant in the town of Borssele. Milieudefensie established groups, including the ‘Stroomgroep Stop Kalkar’ [Stop Kalkar Power Group], which called on people to refuse to pay the increase in their energy bills and thus to halt the construction of the nuclear energy power station in the German town of Kalkar (a joint Dutch-German project). Many protests followed – which, in the spirit of the times, were usually organised by an unofficial network of many protest groups. Milieudefensie stood out mainly in the mass demonstrations. In 1978, they mobilised 40,000 people to demonstrate against an ultracentrifuge factory in Almelo and in 1979, 25,000 people demonstrated against the storage of radioactive waste in underground salt domes.

Thanks to this widespread resistance, support for nuclear energy dissipated and only two nuclear energy plants remained in the Netherlands. Kalkar was never put into operation and is now an amusement park. A nuclear plant in Doodewaard was closed down in 1996. Only Borssele is still in operation. The plant should have been closed in 2004 but the recent revival in nuclear energy under the Balkenende government has allowed it to remain open until 2033.

The 1980s

Demonstrations against nuclear energy (and in support of wind and solar energy) remained a major feature of the early 1980s. But Milieudefensie’s leading role was becoming overshadowed within the increasingly radicalised anti-nuclear movement. Protests were hardening. The massive demonstrations at the Doodewaard nuclear plant in 1981 became a battle between demonstrators and the police riot unit. The peaceful blockade of a forest in Amelisweerd (1982) ended in brutal police action.

Image Problem
After that, the public’s interest in the environment came to an abrupt halt. Interest shifted to the issues of peace, economic cuts and unemployment. Despite distressing reports about clear-cutting in the rainforests, acid rain killing forests and the hole in the ozone layer, Milieudefensie saw its numbers decline. It was partly the organisation's own fault. Compared with the previous period, Milieudefensie made a rather superficial impression in the early 1980s. The emphasis was on consciousness-raising campaigns and ‘close-to-home’ issues such as the use of toxins in our public gardens, glass recycling bins, deposits on bottles. And what to think of the ‘Keep it pure’ campaign, protesting imitation dairy products? Nevertheless, this was also the period in which the first spectacular ‘climbing protests’ were seen. In 1984, activists hung a record-length banner with the text ‘Stop Acid Rain’ on the smokestack of the Amercentrale power station in Geertruidenberg.

The turning point came in 1986 with the Chernobyl disaster. The world was shocked into facing the truth of what environment movement had been warning for years. For the next few years, interest in the environment was rekindled and Milieudefensie’s membership doubled. Its campaigns also acquired more depth.

New Élan
During these years, Milieudefensie campaigned against ozone-damaging CFCs in aerosol cans, PVC in packing materials (a source of toxic dioxides during incineration) and the cadmium in yellow plastic beer crates. The beer crates were a case of ‘better late than never’: the promised recycling, reclaiming the cadmium from the plastic, didn’t get going until late 2003. In 1988, the ‘Heart for the Rainforest’ campaign was started, collecting an unprecedented number of signatures – 400,000 – to convince the government to take measures to stop the use of tropical timber. Milieudefensie also stood up for clean agriculture, green energy and recycling. To combat acid rain, demonstrations were held for less and cleaner motor traffic as well as at Shell. Mandatory catalytic converters on cars and an international ban on CFCs are some of the victories from this successful period.

Local Groups and Consumers
Since its founding, Milieudefensie has enjoyed support from local groups – known at the time as core groups. They participated in nationwide actions but also focused on local environmental issues. In 1974, there were twelve local groups; by 1994 this had grown to 119. At present that figure has shrunk somewhat.

Consumers haven’t been forgotten either: The ‘MilieuTelefoon’ [Environmental Telephone Help Line], established in 1987 (the line became independent in 1997 and renamed ‘MilieuCentraal’), answered thousands of environmental questions each year. In that same year Milieudefensie moved from its crowded quarters on the Tweede Weteringplantsoen to Damrak 26 in Amsterdam.

Cares for Tomorrow
The alarming report ‘Zorgen voor Morgen’ [Cares for Tomorrow: 1988] from the RIVM (the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) confronted the Netherlands with the hard facts: strict measures would be required to preserve the environment for future generations. The next year the Dutch government presented the National Plan for the Environment (NMP), which promised reforms running up to the years 2000 and 2010 – unfortunately, these regulations looked good on paper but most were simply buried in a drawer.

The 1990s 

Sustainable Netherlands Action Plan
Milieudefensie also charted its own way to a sustainable future, such as in the Sustainable Netherlands Action Plan (1992). This detailed for the first time how each person on earth would be able to enjoy a considerable level of prosperity without depleting nature and the environment, so that enough would be left for future generations. Our Action Plan found its way all over the world and influenced thinking on environmental policy in countries both within and beyond the European Union. A European version of this Action Plan was completed in early 1995, under the auspices of Milieudefensie.

In the 1990s a professionalisation of the environmental movement took place. The term ‘professional activism’ was coined, often used in a derogatory sense to describe organisations like Milieudefensie and Greenpeace. But most people realised that the environmental awareness developing in all layers of society needed stimulation by expert knowledge and tenacity to solve the problems. The general public continued to have confidence in nature and environmental organisations and membership soared to record heights. Involvement also came from an unexpected source: in 1997 Milieudefensie became a beneficiary of the National Postcode Lottery, which is still a major source of funding today.

Distribution Economy
However, the environment slid way down the political agenda in the 1990s. The two consecutive social-liberal coalition governments (nicknamed ‘Purple’) gradually let market forces dominate care for the environment. ‘A good environment starts with us all’, they advertised on TV. But politicians and the government set a bad example.

They merely paid lip service to the greenhouse effect, and they got no further than voluntary trade in emission rights. By declaring the Netherlands to be a ‘distribution economy’, a centre for distribution throughout Europe, the Purple government set a course in which a clean and pleasant environment took a backseat to economic growth. A great deal was expected from the transport sector in particular. With the economy booming, old, outdated plans for mega-projects were readdressed. The cabinet openly gave up efforts to limit motor traffic. Public transport was for the most part consigned to the whims of the free market.

Schiphol Mainport
The government wanted to make Schiphol Airport into a 'mainport' – one of the top five European airports. Milieudefensie opposed this plan. Since flying is the most polluting form of transit, a larger Schiphol simply would cause too much noise pollution and safety risks. In 1993 Milieudefensie started its 'Schiphol is big enough’ campaign to limit the expansion of the airport. Today, Milieudefensie is still working for reasonable environmental limits for air traffic. Although growth can’t be prevented, Milieudefensie, in collaboration with area residents, have acquired a strong position. Sooner or later, may we at least hope, the airport will be treated as a normal business and kept within bounds.

More Collaboration
During the 1990s, environmental awareness was at a high level, and the energy level was even higher. This changed the role of the environmental movement: education and consciousness-raising became less necessary. Instead of campaigning against pollution and polluters, the accent was placed on campaigns in support of sustainable alternatives: organic products, sustainably produced timber, recycling, energy savings, etc. Milieudefensie focused more often on businesses and enterprises to stimulate enthusiasm for these alternatives.

The covenant that Milieudefensie signed with the potato farming sector in 1993 to reduce its use of pesticides was a milepost. In 1997, Milieudefensie made an agreement with Philips on recycling electrical appliances. In 1999, Milieudefensie sat down with Schiphol as part of the ‘TOPS Negotiations’ [Tijdelijk Overleg Platform Schiphol], unfortunately without result.

In the mid-1990s, the ‘Heart for the Rainforest’ campaign formed an alliance with the Gamma home improvement chain to switch to sustainably managed forests (with the FSC trademark). Following their lead, many other large home improvement stores got behind sustainable forestry. Unfortunately, recent studies have found that promises made in the past by most concerns have now been watered down and wood from non-sustainable sources is once again widely available. The Dutch Intratuin and Gamma chains won the dubious ‘Dull Axe Award’ in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

New Developments

Broad-based movement
Soon after the start of the 21st century, Milieudefensie underwent important changes. In early 2000 a merger with the nature and environmental organisation Stichting Natuur en Milieu fell through at the last minute, mainly due to financial uncertainties. Milieudefensie then decided to shape itself into the ‘broadly based environmental organisation’ that had been envisioned by the merger. They chose activities which emphasised ‘partnering with people’, to show politicians and the government that a large number of people supported a green and healthy environment. In 2005 the organisation moved from the Damrak to its present location on the Nieuwe Looiersstraat in Amsterdam.

Balkenende I-III
In 2002, attention for the environment and the environmental movement came from the wrong direction. The murder of political public figure Pim Fortuyn by someone with links to the environmental movement was certainly a factor in this. But the seeds were probably sown by the changing societal climate following 11 September 2001 and the anti-environmental policies of the US administration under President Bush. The Dutch Balkenende Cabinets I to III set the environmental clock back by 20 or 30 years in many regards. Public transit deteriorated, budgets were cut for sustainable energy, huge amounts were spent on building new motorways, support for factory farms remained unchanged, open space was given no protection and there was a true revival in interest for nuclear energy. This made it increasingly obvious how precarious our achievements are.

For Milieudefensie these were the four busiest campaigning years in its history. The consistent course that it held to was an asset. In a period when many environmental organisations saw their member totals falter, Milieudefensie’s membership doubled: from 43,000 members and donors at the start of 2000 to more than 85,000 by the end of 2006.

Worldwide Environmental Crisis
International environmental 9policy was also in crisis. Environmental laws were increasingly being subordinated to trade interests. A typical example was the UN sustainability conference in Johannesburg (summer, 2002), intended to act decisively in the area of sustainable development. It instead became a week of blatant promotion for international free trade. Although the Kyoto Protocol finally went into effect in early 2005, the small savings in greenhouse gas emissions it called for would do little to stop global warming. The Climate Change Conferences in Montreal (2005) and Nairobi (2006), intended as a follow-up to Kyoto, produced only cautious agreements. Fortunately, resistance to selling out the earth and the supremacy of the free market was growing internationally: the alter-globalisation movement. Even at the top, there were a few who dared to stick their necks out, such as the former vice president of the United States, Al Gore, who in October 2006 visited the Netherlands for the premiere of his film on climate change: An Inconvenient Truth.

The coming decades are a crucial period, where it will be seen whether the world is capable of making vigorous efforts to turn the tide. Naturally, Milieudefensie is at the vanguard – principled, constructive and nonviolent. And with your support we will continue to be successful!

Short Summary of Recent Campaigns
Since the mid-1990s, the Netherlands has been getting more and more congested with roads, residential neighbourhoods and industrial parks. For this reason, in 1999 Milieudefensie made the preservation of open, green space a primary focus, with the ‘Open Space and Landscape’ Campaign. Halting plans for a huge transport centre (MTC) in the river country near Nijmegen was the first in a series of resounding victories. Unfortunately, the Spatial Planning Policy Document (2004) has placed more pressure on nature and the landscape than ever. Construction is permitted nearly everywhere – acreage for new business terrain in particular is out of proportion to the real need. The National Ecological Network – a linked chain of nature reserves – is being chipped away at. And national landscape such as the Green Heart are threatened from all sides.

In 2000, the ‘Agriculture and Food’ campaign was started, which brought more EKO-certified (food grown without pesticides) products into supermarkets and convinced foodstuff manufacturers (Bonduelle, Hak) to put organic products on the market. In 2005, campaigns to publicise the level of pesticides found on fruit and vegetables at supermarkets achieved the desired result. At present a campaign is being carried out in collaboration with JMA to deal with factory farms once and for all, making use of a new method: a citizens’ initiative.

The ‘Globalisation’ campaign also was started in 2000, focusing on two themes: deforestation and Dutch companies involved in environmental abuse abroad (with Shell as the most notorious example). This campaign also scrutinises institutes such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

The ‘Climate and Energy’ campaign (2001) carries out a tenacious struggle to spur governments to adopt more climate regulations. Since 2006, this campaign has been making efforts to make the banking sector’s investment practices more climate-friendly.

Since the demise of the Bulderbos, the Traffic campaign has been working on the sorely neglected issue of public transport. When in 2004, satellite data showed that the air over the Netherlands was some of the most polluted in the world, ‘The Netherlands Is Gasping for Breath’ campaign was started. With this, Milieudefensie brought attention to the importance of clean air as both a vital environmental and health issue in the Netherlands.

In 1999, Milieudefensie started close collaboration with the existing youth organisation Jongeren Milieu Actief [JMA: Young Environmental Activists]. For several years in succession, the youth group scored well with ‘The Bet’, a CO2 savings campaign, and ‘Miss Koop’ [Bad Buy], a campaign spotlighting useless products and packaging. Presently JMA is working on a citizens’ initiative to combat factory farming.

The short ‘Hazardous Materials’ campaign (2004-2005) started off with a tour of traffic bottlenecks at high-risk hazardous materials (chlorine, ammonia, LPG) transport locations and later succeeded in making agreements to keep harmful materials out of cosmetics.