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Environmental History

Environmental history

Much of human history has been a struggle for food, shelter, and survival in the face of nature's harshness. Three major events or turning points have been the use of fire, the development of agriculture, and the invention of tools and machines. Each of these advances has brought benefits to humans but often at the cost of environmental degradation . Agriculture, for instance, increased food supplies but also caused soil erosion , population explosions, and support of sedentary living and urban life. It was the Industrial Revolution that gave humankind the greater power to conquer and devastate our environment . Jacob Bronowski called it an energy revolution, with power as the prime goal. As he noted, it is an ongoing revolution, with the fate of literally billions of people hanging on the outcome.

The Industrial Revolution, with its initial dependence on the steam engine, iron works, and heavy use of coal , made possible our modern lifestyle with its high consumption of energy and material resources. With it, however, has come devastating levels of air, water, land, and chemical pollution . In essence, environmental history is the story of the growing recognition of our negative impact upon nature and the corresponding public interest in correcting these abuses. Cunningham and Saigo describe four stages of conservation history and environmental activism: 1) pragmatic resource conservation; 2) moral and aesthetic resource preservation; 3) growing concern over the impact of pollution on health and ecosystems; and 4) global environmental citizenship.

Environmental history, like all history, is very much a study of key individuals and events. Included here are Thomas Robert Malthus, George Perkins Marsh, Theodore Roosevelt , and Rachel Carson. Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, Malthus was the first to develop a coherent theory of population, arguing that growth in food supply could not keep up with the much larger growth in population. Of cruel necessity, population growth would inevitably be limited by famine , pestilence, disease, or war. Modern supporters are labeled "neoMalthusians" and include notable spokespersons Paul Erlich and Lester Brown.

In his 1864 book Man in Nature, George Perkins Marsh was the first to attack the American myth of superabundance and inexhaustible resources. Citing many examples from Mediterranean lands and the United States, he described the devastating impact of land abuse through deforestation and soil erosion. Lewis Mumford called this book "the fountainhead of the conservation movement," and Stewart Udall described it as the beginning of land wisdom in this country. Marsh's work led to forest preservation and influenced President Theodore Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot .

Effective forest and wildlife protection began during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency whose term of office (19011909) has been called "The Golden Age of Conservation." His administration established the first wildlife refuges and national forests.

At this time key differences emerged between proponents of conservation and preservation. Pinchot's policies were utilitarian, emphasizing the wise use of resources. By contrast, preservationists led by John Muir argued for leaving nature untouched. A key battle was fought over the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park , a proposed water supply for San Francisco, California. Although Muir lost, the Sierra Club (founded in 1882) gained national prominence. Similar battles are now being waged over petroleum extraction in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and mining permits on federal lands, including wilderness areas.

Rachel Carson gained widespread fame through her battle against the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Her 1962 book Silent Spring has been hailed as the "fountainhead of the modern environmental movement." It has been translated into over 20 languages and is still a best seller. She argued against pesticide abuse and for the right of common citizens to be safe from pesticides in their own homes. Though vigorously opposed by the chemical industry, her views were vindicated by her overpowering reliance on scientific evidence, some given surreptitiously by government scientists. In effect, Silent Spring was the opening salvo in the battle of ecologists against chemists. Much of the current mistrust of chemicals stems from her work.

Several historical events are relevant to environmental history. The closing of the American frontier at the end of the nineteenth century gave political strength to the Theodore Roosevelt presidency. The 1908 White House Conference on Conservation, organized and chaired by Gifford Pinchot, is perhaps the most prestigious and influential meeting ever held in the United States.

During the 1930s, the drought in the American Dust Bowl awakened the country to the soil erosion concerns first voiced by Marsh. The establishment of the Soil Conservation Service in 1935 was a direct response to this national tragedy.

In 1955, an international symposium entitled "Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth" was held at Princeton University. An impressive assemblage of scholars led by geographer Carl Ortwin Sauer, zoologist Marston O. Bates, and urban planner Lewis Mumford documented the history of human impact on the earth, the processes of human alteration of the environment, and the prospects for future habitability.

The Apollo moon voyages, especially Apollo 8 in December 1968 and the dramatic photos taken of Earth from space, awakened the world to the concept of "spaceship earth." It was as though the entire human community gave one collective gasp at the small size and fragile beauty of this one planet we call home.

The two energy price shocks of the 1970s spawned by the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution fundamentally altered American energy habits. Our salvation came in part from our horrific waste. Simple energy conservation measures and more fuel-efficient automobiles, predominantly of foreign manufacture, produced enough savings to cause a mid-1980s crash in petroleum prices. Nonetheless, many efficiencies begun during the 1970s remain.

The Montreal Accord of 1988 is notable for being the first international agreement to phase out a damaging chemical, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). This was a direct response to evidence from satellite data over Antarctica that chlorine-based compounds were destroying the stratospheric ozone shield, which provides vital protection against damaging ultraviolet radiation .

Key accidents and corresponding media coverage of environmental concerns have powerfully influenced public opinion. Common themes during the 1960s and 1970s included the "death of Lake Erie," the ravages of strip mining for coal, the confirmation of automobile exhaust as a key source of photochemical smog , destruction of the ozone layer, and the threat of global warming. The ten-hour Annenberg CPB project, Race to Save the Planet, is now common fare in environmental science telecourses.

Media coverage of specific accidents or sites has had some of the greatest impact on public awareness of environmental problems. Oil spills have provided especially vivid and troubling images. The wreck of the Torrey Canyon in 1967 off southern England was the first involving a super-tanker, and a harbinger of even larger disasters to come, such as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The blowout of an oil well in California's Santa Barbara Channel played nightly on network television news programs. Scenes of oilcovered birds and muddy shorelines were powerful images in the battle for environmental awareness and commitment.

The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted with petroleum waste that it actually caught fire twice. Love Canal , a forgotten chemical waste dump in Niagara Falls, New York, became the inspiration for passage of the Superfund Act, a tax on chemical companies to pay for cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites. It was also personal vindication for Lois Marie Gibbs , leader of the Love Canal Homeowners Association.

One air pollution episode in New York City was blamed for the deaths of about 300 people. In response to another in Birmingham, Alabama, a federal judge ordered the temporary shutdown of local steel mills.

The loudest alarms raised against the growing use of nuclear power in the U.S. were sounded by the combination of the 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor in Pennsylvania and the subsequent (1986) Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station disaster in the Ukraine.

Media coverage and growing public awareness of pollution problems, has led to widespread support for corrective legislation. A large body of such legislation was passed between 1968 and 1980. Especially notable were the National Environmental Policy Act , which created the Environmental Protection Agency , clean air and water acts, Superfund, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act . The latter required miners to reshape the land to near its original contour and to replace topsoil , both essential keys to the long-term recovery of the land.

Earlier noteworthy legislation includes the establishment in 1872 of Yellowstone as the world's first national park ; establishment of national wildlife refuges, forests, and parks, and the agencies to oversee them; and the creation of the Soil Conservation Service. The Wilderness Act of 1964 sought to set aside government land for nondestructive uses only.

Much has been accomplished, and environmental issues now command widespread public attention. A list of books, journals, environmental organizations, and relevant government agencies now fills six pages of small print in one popular environmental textbook. Nonetheless, important challenges lie ahead in the pursuit of a quality environment that will tax environmental organizations, government policymakers, and voters.

Some key issues for the future can be grouped into the following four categories. 1) Rapidly increasing costs as control standards reach higher and higher levels. The inexpensive and easy solutions have mostly been tried. Solving the air pollution problems within the Los Angeles basin is a prime example of this challenge. 2) Control of phosphates and nitrates in our waterways will require increasing commitment to tertiary (or chemical) sewage treatment plants. We may also find it necessary to reroute all urban runoff through such plants. 3) Solutions to the global warming problem, if supported by ongoing scientific research, will require alternative energy strategies, especially as large, newly emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, and other countries seek a growing share of the total energy pie. 4) There is a growing conservative trend and related hostility to environmental concerns among our younger population. Consequently, the need for meaningful environmental education and dialogue will only continue to increase.

[Nathan H. Meleen ]



The American Experience. "Rachel Carson's Silent Spring." Boston: Public Broadcasting System, 1993.

Cunningham, W. P., and B. W. Saigo. Environmental Science: A Global Concern. 4th ed. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1997.

Marsh, G. P. Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. 1864. Reprint, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Miller Jr., G. T. Living in the Environment. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1996.

Thomas Jr., W. L., ed. Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

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