Although writers have explored the relationship between humans and the natural world for centuries, they primarily viewed the environment as subordinate to the needs of civilization and human progress. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson began to reinterpret the significance of nature and our relationship to it.
Although not writing of pollution specifically, these writers laid the groundwork for an evolution in environmental thought and ethics in which the environment was seen as more than just a natural resource. For example, in Walden and other writings, Thoreau pointed out that our natural environment had far more to offer than material resources to be exploited. Rather, Thoreau noted that nature and the environment were sources of spiritual truth and support.
Although these writers and others, like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, helped educate the public about nature and the environment, one of the first "environmental" books published in the United States to include a discussion of pollution was Man and Nature. In his 1865 book, author George Perkins Marsh presented a comprehensive discussion of ecological problems brought on by the impact of human civilization, including the growing problem of water pollution.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, most writings about pollution focused on how industrial pollution was affecting those in the workplace. For example, Alice Hamilton, a University of Michigan Medical School graduate of 1893, conducted studies of occupational diseases, including those brought on by industrial pollution in the lead, rubber, and munitions industry. Her books included the 1925 work called Industrial Poisons in the United States, an early and compelling scientific look into pollution in the workplace and its effects on workers.
Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle exposed the horrendous working and living conditions of slaughterhouse workers in the meat packing industry of Chicago. His exposure of the unsanitary slaughterhouse conditions led to the first U.S. meat protection laws and raised public awareness of corporate greed and the plight of poorly paid workers and their families in dense, polluted sections of large urban areas.
Leopold's conversational essays compiled in A Sand County Almanac (1949) argued persuasively that nature is not a machine of interchangeable parts but an interdependent community and that humans are part of this community, not detached from it. Because we are part of it and have the power to impact it so profoundly, we have an ethical obligation to act in ways that preserve the integrity of the whole community. Leopold called this integration of science, aesthetics, and ethics "the land ethic" and it laid the practical foundation for systems thinking and the ecological perspective.
Few would argue that Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring was a seminal work that launched both a growing public concern about pollution and the modern environmental movement. First published in serialized form in the New Yorker magazine, Silent Spring was published in 1962 and exposed the dangers posed by numerous pesticides and fertilizers, including DDT. The book was a catalyst for a new view of industry and pollution that would overturn the long-held belief that scientific progress was always for the good.
Silent Spring' s publication set off a storm of controversy. The pesticide industry tried to suppress the book's publication and challenged its findings. Carson's book eventually led to a presidential commission to study the effects of pesticides. The commission verified Carson's findings, which eventually led to the banning of DDT in 1972. More importantly, the book led to a wave of public concern over the use of chemicals and pollution and how they impact the environment and life. When the Modern Library published its list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Century, Silent Spring was listed as the fifth-most-important book of the twentieth century.
As public concern and interest in the environment and pollution grew, more writers began to explore the possible catastrophic impact of everincreasing pollution. Many writers pointed out that it was important to look at more than the impact of specific chemicals and pollutants on the environment. For example, in his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich took the writings of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) about overpopulation and expanded them. Ehrlich stated that overpopulation not only would lead to widespread starvation in the world but also affected the environment by creating more garbage and other pollutants.
In his 1971 book The Closing Circle, social commentator and one-time presidential candidate Barry Commoner also placed the environmental message about pollution into a broader context as he connected the growth of technology to environmental degradation. Not only did Commoner discuss the environmental crises in terms of population and "affluence" but also provided in-depth looks at how growing population and advancing technology were the culprits behind such specific environmental problems as the hazardous air pollution in Los Angeles and the polluted waters of Lake Erie. Commoner argued three principles that became rallying cries of early environmentalists: Everything has to go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher and founder of the deep ecology movement, is another notable philosopher and writer who created a philosophy of how to deal with issues such as pollution. In a 1973 article in Inquiry magazine, Naess laid out her philosophy of shallow ecology versus deep ecology. Naess argues that a shallow ecology philosophy fights against pollution but continues to inadvertently support those who cause much of the world's pollution, namely those in healthy and affluent nations. Naess notes that deep ecology, on the other hand, focuses on changing the relationship between civilization and the natural world, not only by fighting pollution but also by establishing a philosophy of human respect for all species and nature. George Sessions played an important role in popularizing deep ecology in North America and its emphasis on biocentrism (nature-centered, not human-centered philosophy) and social justice from exploitation of poorer countries by affluent ones. Deep ecology argues that nature has inherent value apart from human use. It traces the destruction of nature to industrial society. Gary Snyder's poetry reflects deep ecology through sensual images.
In 1989, Bill McKibben, prolific nature writer and environmental commentator and historian, followed in the tradition of Silent Spring when he changed the public's deepest perceptions of the world with his book The End of Nature. McKibben brought to the forefront a public and policy discussion about the latest scientific evidence concerning pollutants such as acid rain and their impact on the greenhouse effect, the depletion of the ozone layer, and global warming. In the book, McKibben points out that industrial society with all of its pollutants has altered the chemistry of the atmosphere and changed the most elemental process of life everywhere. In the end, McKibben states that the only hope in stopping pollution and saving the environment is that people will come to fully understand the dangers caused by pollution and other environmental problems and make a conscious decision to live with less, thus creating less pollution.
About two years after McKibben's book was published, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit appeared on bookshelves. The book's author Al Gore, at the time a United States senator, states that a fundamental change in how we view the world and interact with it is necessary if we are to save the earth's ecology for future generations. Gore discusses the deteriorating quality of air, water, and soil due to a variety of pollutants, including those that cause a rise in carbon dioxide levels, which is leading to a deteriorating ozone layer. Like McKibben, Gore also points out that pollution problems are no longer local or regional but global. Because of Gore's high-profile career and place of power on the American scene, the book received worldwide attention from the public as well as political circles.
Like deep ecologists, ecofeminist authors, both men and women, are varied in their understandings of the philosophy. Nevertheless, all ecofeminists begin with the premise that the exploitive and abusive treatment of nature is linked to the patriarchal (male-dominated) exploitation and violence towards women. For example, see Susan Griffen's Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her for a discussion of the metaphors of "the rape of nature" and "virgin land," and "Mother Earth/Nature." Another theme of many ecofeminist writings is the rediscovery and celebration of the goddess that was once the center of earlier cultures and Native American spiritual teachings.
Sandra Steingrabber's popular book Living Downstream highlights the cumulative risks faced by river human and nonhuman communities living downstream from pollution. She argues for the responsibility of upstream communities to act environmentally responsible for their downstream neighbors.
Nature and environmental writing has exploded since the first Earth Day in 1970. This article presents just a few representative writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
Because of writers like Carson, McKibben, and many others, few people would argue that pollution is not a threat to the environment and the health of people and other species. More books and articles than ever are being written about pollution issues, and many writers are carrying on the legacy of Carson. For example, in 1996's Our Stolen Future, the authors discuss the various ways in which chemicals are disrupting human reproductive patterns and causing such problems as birth defects, sexual abnormalities, and reproductive failure. In 2002, Devra Lee Davis was nominated for the National Book Award in nonfiction for her book When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle against Pollution. In the book, Davis discusses how industry and government have conspired to conceal the true effects of pollution on public health.
Man and Nature (1865) by George Perkins Marsh; Early scientific look at the environment and how humans influence it, including the effects of human pollution on water
Industrial Poisons in the United States (1925) by Alice Hamilton; Scientific study of industrial pollutants and how they affect workers
Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson; Groundbreaking look at pesticides that helped create the modern environmental movement and led to government banning of DDT
The Closing Circle (1971) by Barry Commoner; Connected growth of technology to pollution and environmental degradation
The End of Nature (1990) by Bill McKibben; Helped raise worldwide concern over pollution, the greenhouse effect, and the depletion of the ozone layer
When Smoke Ran Like Water (2002) by Devra Lee David; National Book Award finalist that tells of government and industry coverups concerning the effects of pollution on the populace
carson, rachel. (1962). silent spring. boston: houghton mifflin.
caulfield, henry. (1989). "the conservation and environmental movements: an historical analysis." in environmental politics and policy: theories and evidence, ed. james lester. durham, nc: duke university press.
davis, devra lee. (2002). when smoke ran like water: tales of environmental deception and the battle against pollution. new york: basic books.
ehrlich, paul. (1968). the population bomb. new york: ballantine.
gore, al. (1992). earth in the balance: ecology and the human spirit. boston: houghton mifflin.
mckibben, bill. (1989). the end of nature. new york: random house.
naess, arne. (1973), "the shallow and the deep: the long-range ecology movement," inquiry 16:95-100.
netzley, patricia d., compiler. (1999). environmental literature: an encyclopedia of works, authors, and themes. santa barbara, ca: abc-clio.
thoreau, henry david. (1995). walden, or, life in the woods. new york: dover publications.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)">
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
"We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."
—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring">
"As crude a weapon as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life."
—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
"To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer."
—Bill McKibben, The End of Nature">
"The invention of nuclear weapons may actually have marked the beginning of the end of nature: we possessed, finally, the capacity to overmaster nature, to leave an indelible imprint everywhere all at once."
—Bill McKibben, The End of Nature
—Al Gore, Earth in the Balance">
"We can believe in that future and work to achieve it and preserve it, or we can whirl blindly on, behaving as if one day there will be no children to inherit our legacy. The choice is ours; the earth is in the balance."
—Al Gore, Earth in the Balance
—Theo Colborn, Our Stolen Future">
"When considering hormones such as estradiol, the most potent estrogen, forget parts per million or parts per billion. The concentrations are typically parts per trillion, one thousand times lower than parts per billion. One can begin to imagine a quantity so infinitesimally small by thinking of a drop of gin in a train of tank cars full of tonic. One drop in 660 tank cars would be one part in a trillion; such a train would be six miles long."
—Theo Colborn, Our Stolen Future