The Rise of Environmental Science

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The Rise of Environmental Science


Environmental science is the study of the natural processes that occur in the environment and how humans affect them. The ideas of environmental science are closely related to ecology, the branch of science that deals with the interrelationships of plants, animals, and the environment. At times, the two words have been used interchangeably, especially during the last part of the twentieth century.

The rise of environmental science as a discipline occurred in the last three decades of the twentieth century. Researchers had studied plants and animals, but concepts tended to stay in the academic realms of pure botany or zoology. People thus had little knowledge or interest in the environment.

A group of writers were responsible for the eventual change in this situation. The turning point was the publication of a book by Rachel Carson called Silent Spring. The book highlighted the damage done to the environment by pesticides. The vibrations of Carson's work resounded not only in academia but in the mind of the public as well. Like many movements of the counter-culture during the 1960s and 1970s, the environmental movement was driven by the public.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to be the overseer of this new movement. Such legislation as the Clean Air Act of 1970 and Clean Water Act of 1972 was driven by public demands for change. The movement expanded worldwide with the United Nations establishing an environmental arm in 1972.


Environmental issues focus on three major areas:

Resource use. Resources are anything in the environment used by people. Renewable resources are those that may be replaced in a short time, such as trees, wind, or sunlight. Non-renewable resources are not replaceable and include coal and oil.

Population growth. Up until about the year 1650, the world's population grew slowly. The explosion of the world's population is a major environmental concern.

Pollution. Any problem in the environment that has a negative effect is considered pollution. A problem's source may be something that greatly benefits humans.

Arriving at a classification of these environmental issues has been gradual. In the past, various elements of the natural sciences were not connected. Several scientists were involved in zoology and botany. Europeans such as Charles Darwin traveled the world studying exotic plants and animals. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) wrote Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he described how human growth fostered grave problems. The industrial revolution was a double-edged sword; while it created products to make life better at the same time it dumped waste into water and air.

American naturalists began a back-to-nature movement. John James Audubon (1785-1851), John Muir (1838-1914), William Bartram (1739-1823), and Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) in their famous expeditions from 1804 to 1806 evoked interest in the importance of nature.

No one group figured out that these living and non-living things were interconnected. Many factors, beginning in the 1960s, were necessary to conceive of the biotic whole.


Although several studies relating to what was happening in the environment were available, they were highly technical and gathered dust on university book shelves. A group of perceptive journalists, however, became interested and plowed through the "dull" science to bring the studies to life.

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) was one of these writers. Douglas, daughter of the editor of the Miami Herald, investigated the Miami River for a book assignment. She discovered that the river was part of the wilderness called the Everglades. With the real estate and population booms in Florida, the Everglades were being drained and exploited—a fact that would soon result in the cutting off of the water supply to South Florida. With a hydrologist, Gerry Parker, she devoured scientific studies, conducted interviews, and presented her findings in a book, The River of Grass, in 1947. The book was immediately a bestseller. Douglas worked through the last part of this century to promote environmental causes. When she died at the age of 108, she was still fighting to save the Everglades. Douglas was the first to write eloquent and descriptive prose about environmental concerns.

Rachel Carson (1912-1964) was both a scientist and writer and served as editor-in-chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services publications. To supplement her income, she wrote articles and books, translating her scientific knowledge into beautiful prose. When she received a letter from Olga Huckins of Duxbury, Massachusetts, describing how community spraying of DDT to kill mosquitoes had also killed the songbirds in her yard, Carson became interested. Her research into pesticides and their industry were published in the book Silent Spring, whose very title evokes the emotion of a spring without the sound of birds. She described how indiscriminate spraying of pesticides was poisoning our food and water and offered an outline how to stop this irresponsible use. Immediately, the book became a bestseller. Although she was dying of cancer, Carson threw herself into a campaign to influence legislation. The controversy that she created around the use of pesticides is still alive and well.

In 1962 the word "environment" was not in anyone's political vocabulary. People had complained about the terrible "smog" in cities such as Los Angeles, but the only mention of conservation in the 1960 Republican and Democratic Conventions was related to national parks and natural resources.

The public had no knowledge that their water was being slowly poisoned by pesticides. Criticism of Silent Spring and Carson was predictable. Major chemical companies branded Carson as a hysterical extremist. Claiming she used "emotion-fanning words," the industry attacked her credibility as a scientist. The book, however, still had great support. The message was out.

President John Kennedy asked for a special sub-committee to be created. When Senator Abraham Ribicoff heard Carson testify before the Senate committee, he recalled the words that Abraham Lincoln had used when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin: "So you are the lady who started all this." Carson was soon dubbed the lady who had started the environmental movement.

Due to concerns Carson had raised, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970. States had begun to pass their own confusing and often contradictory protection laws. President Richard Nixon established the EPA to digest these new laws and monitor them. Several responsibilities were spread out under different governmental departments, including the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Health Education and Welfare. This act brought environmental areas under one agency.

Environmental science as a discipline had not been previously known, the problems of the environment being complicated and involving complex scientific principles and techniques. Rene Dubos (1901-1982), a French-born biologist and ecologist, became interested in the "total environment" and by 1964 was a leading spokesperson for the fledgling environmental movement. He was an outspoken critic of what he considered a short-sighted outlook by most biologists. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet.

Another activist, Claire Patterson (1922- ), an American geochemist, alerted the public to the dangers of lead. While studying ocean plankton, he was shocked to find a dramatic increase in lead levels in the ocean. He set out to measure lead in the atmosphere and the polar ice caps as well as the oceans. From 1930 to 1960, gasoline from automobiles had thrown tons of lead particles into the air. These high levels were dangerous to all. Armed with Patterson's research, environmentalists successfully lobbied for the Clean Air Act of 1970.

The 1970 Clean Air Act sought to combat pollution from industry in addition to motor vehicles. The responsibilities for enforcing the act were given to the states and each state had to submit an implementation plan. An early success in this endeavor was getting automobile manufacturers to install catalytic converters, thereby reducing emissions 85%. From 1970 to 1990, air pollution in the United States declined by one-third. During the 1980s, the pollution standards index improved.

The 1990 Clean Air Act amended the 1970 act and covered interstate as well as international problems involving Mexico and Canada. This act gave new enforcement power to the EPA. The newly flexible programs were market based, offering choices and incentives. In 1980 the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also called Super-fund, provided billions of dollars for cleaning up abandoned waste dumps.

The creation of environmental science led to the development of a highly technical discipline. Its vocabulary is specific and laden with bureaucratic jargon. For example, "criteria air pollutants" are those pollutants that have a quantitative measurement set for a geographical region. There also are sets of primary standards to protect health as well as secondary standards to prevent property damage, such as that caused by acid rain. Overall, the 1990 act included 189 hazardous air pollutants. In 1997 the EPA changed the air quality standards for smog, called ground level ozone, as well as for particulate matter (PM), including soot, dust, and smoke.

Following on the heels of the Clean Air Act of 1970 came the Clean Water Act of 1972. The Ohio's Cuyahoga River, laden with toxic pollutants, had burst into flames, incensing the public. This act was designed to protect lakes, rivers, wetlands, and coasts from pollution. The Clean Water Act's requirements have prevented more than 900 million pounds of sewage and chemicals from entering the nation's water. Nevertheless, more than 2,000 beaches were closed in 1994, and warnings about fish contaminated with mercury have been issued in over 1,500 areas. Polluted run-off and the destruction of wet lands continue to be problems. The complex monitoring system needed to enforce the Clean Water Act requires scientific applications in such new fields as limnology (the study of lakes) and oceanography.

Numerous groups have also arisen in support of environmental interests, including the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and Green-peace. Some of these organizations have gained notoriety through their tactics.

While the U.S. conscience was piqued for action, the United Nations organized an environmental conference in Stockholm in 1972, leading to the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP). Projects such as cleaning the Mediterranean, protecting water, combating deforestation, and banning ozone-depleting materials were started. Many countries, however, questioned the scientific basis for environmental concerns. The largest intergovernmental conference in history met in Rio de Janiero in 1992 to discuss the preservation of natural resources.

Much of the resulting debate and publicity has focused on the destruction of the rainforests in Central and South America. Drawing attention to the rain forests has been an amazing success, tugging at the heart strings of young and old alike. Environmental problems, however, also affect farmlands and cities. South America, for example, has had many such environmental problems. Among these problems are the struggles of indigenous peoples against petroleum groups in Equador and rubber tappers in Brazil.

Environmental pollution is also a legacy of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. Shortly before its fall, 45 million protesters in Eastern Europe demanded the end of Communist rule and mismanagement of the environment. The area, ranging from Poland to Romania to the Czech Republic, is the most polluted in the world. Adding to this debacle was the Chernobyl nuclear explosion of 1986. Eastern Europeans began to organize in 1995 with hundreds of "green" (environmental) organizations working to reverse decades of neglect. Elsewhere, in 1997 a group of biologists founded the Green Belt Movement to encourage restoring forests in Kenya and other African nations. Other nations are following suit.

The idea of planet Earth as a total environment continues as part of the environmental movement. Finding appropriate policies to address the worldwide issues of resource use, population growth, and pollution will be the challenge of the twenty-first century.


Further Reading

Archer, Julie. To Save the Earth. New York: Viking Penquin, 1998.

Brooks, Paul. Rachel Carson at Work. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1998.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1962.

Collinson, Helen, editor. Green Guerillas: Environmental Conflicts and Initiative in Latin American and the Caribbean. A Reader. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996.

Douglas, Marjorie Stoneman. The River of Grass. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 1985.

Dubos, Rene. Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet. New York: Norton, 1972.

Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.