Trends in the Environmental Sciences since 1950

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Trends in the Environmental Sciences since 1950


In the 1960s the environmental movement gained strength and direction, first in the United States and then in many other nations. Increasing knowledge of the environment and the impact of humans on it led to increasing clamor for regulations protecting areas such as wetlands, rainforests, the oceans, waterways, endangered species, and the atmosphere. In addition to marked environmental changes, these regulations and other measures have changed many aspects of industry, and environmental concerns have repeatedly been raised as issues in international trade discussions and similar venues.


Some say that environmentalism began with Henry David Thoreau's (1817-1862) books, written in the 1840s and 1850s. Others claim that John Muir (1838-1914) in the latter decades of the nineteenth century helped to start the modern environmental movement, preserving lands for posterity rather than simply writing about them. Still others feel that Rachel Carson's (1907-1964) 1962 book, Silent Spring launched the environmental movement. Each of these claims has some justification, and it may be most accurate to point out that the environmental movement has been born in stages. Thoreau taught us to see and appreciate nature, Muir helped us to realize that nature is not endless, and Carson showed us that humans can destroy nature.

The first part of the twentieth century was a time of human civilization exerting dominion over the earth. Giant dams, spreading cities, bridges, railroads, airports, skyscrapers, canals, tunnels, and more were built with enthusiasm and endless optimism. By taming the planet we were making it better, safer, more productive, and more comfortable for people. This phase of boundless optimism in technology and relative lack of concern about its potential ill effects began to wane in the wake of World War II, but any concerns were more like nagging second thoughts rather than full-fledged worries. Part of the reason for this was political and economic; post-war Europe was struggling for survival and did not have the luxury of worrying about the environment, Japan was occupied and had virtually no economy, the Soviet Union was under totalitarian control, and the United States was too flush with new-found power to care much about the environment.

This started to change, however, in the 1960s, as Europe recovered, Japan built its economy, and the U.S. was caught in turmoil and doubt. With an unpopular war in Vietnam, activists in the U.S. were ready to believe that other governmental policies might be equally illconsidered. Silent Spring raised the specter of DDT and other insecticides poisoning the planet, and significant degradations of water quality and air quality led Richard Nixon (1913-1994) to form the Environmental Protection Agency in response. The EPA, in turn, helped to enforce a number of new laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Wetlands Protection Act.

As awareness of the importance of biodiversity grew, the Endangered Species Act was passed, offering protection to many plants and animals that were threatened with extinction. This also led to the realization that many plants and animals in other parts of the world were endangered due to deforestation, primarily from slash-and-burn agriculture that is practiced in many less-developed nations. With this realization came an understanding that we did not fully understand the impact on an entire ecosystem of removing some individual species through extinction. E.O. Wilson's (1929- ) studies of island biogeography spurred the work of others who helped to elucidate some of these dependencies, and efforts have been made to encourage nations hosting large tracts of rain forest or threatened species to take measures to conserve them for the future.

In the 1980s global warming and ozone depletion were recognized as potential problems. Man's burning of coal, petroleum, and wood added carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, helping to trap the Sun's heat and threatening to turn Earth into a sauna. Global warming activists painted pictures of melting ice caps, violent weather, and spreading deserts driving people from the coasts and causing crops to fail. It remains to be seen whether these scenarios will come to pass, however, because there is still considerable debate over whether or not Earth is actually warming and, if so, if pollution is the actual cause. The retreat of many mountain glaciers and the partial collapse of parts of the Antarctic ice sheet suggest that global warming may have arrived, but it must be remembered that Earth is currently in an interglacial period of an ice age and, as such, these changes may be expected.

The case for depletion of the ozone layer is stronger, because it seems definitive that the chemicals found in the stratosphere are capable of causing ozone destruction and are created only by man-made products. In this case the concern is that loss of ozone over heavily inhabited regions could lead to an epidemic of skin cancer and could severely impact native plants and animals not adapted to survive in high-UV (ultraviolet radiation) environments.

The other major environmental concerns raised in 1970s and carried forward through the 1990s include those of nuclear power, nuclear war, and radioactive waste. Originally billed as a great advance, nuclear power started to lose its luster as concerns about nuclear war heated up. The accidents at Three Mile Island (which actually resulted in very low radiation doses to any members of the public) and Chernobyl (which had a significant impact on the local environment and health) only served to confirm fears of nuclear power as an unsafe technology. In addition, research into the comet impact that likely killed the dinosaurs led to the concept of a global winter sparked by massive dust clouds. This, in turn, led to the idea of a "nuclear winter" that, in the wake of a nuclear war, could further cripple humanity. Finally, many people were led to believe that there was simply no way to safely store nuclear waste. These three factors led many to raise heartfelt concerns about the safety of all things radioactive.


The impact of the environmental movement has been tremendous and has been tremendously varied. This movement has raised an enormous amount of controversy because so many of its proposals deal with issues that could cost billions of dollars to clean up and/or prevent, and that address phenomena that are sometimes subject to continuing scientific debate. On the one hand, we can point to cleaner skies and water and see that environmental regulations have led to considerable good. On the other hand, we can also point to global warming and ask if the money spent to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is well-spent when there is still no clear scientific consensus as to whether there is a warming trend and, if so, if it is man-made.

Equally problematic is the net effect of many civil engineering projects from earlier in the twentieth century. For example, the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams in the United States have substantially affected the Colorado River and parts of the Grand Canyon. However, they provide electricity and water to a sizable population, and the reservoirs impounded by these dams provide recreation to many people and a home to many fish.

Another impact of the explosive growth in environmental concern is the accountability of governments to their citizens in such issues. As a case in point, the U.S. Department of Energy has been taken to task on many occasions as the nation became informed of a number of environmental transgressions growing out of the nuclear weapons program. Environmental release, both accidental and deliberate, of both toxic and radioactive materials led to massive efforts to characterize and remediate these sites, as well as paying restitution to the most affected people in nearby communities. This same level of awareness has spread to other governmental sites, including former military bases. While these environmental restoration projects have been very expensive, they have also led to the growth of the environmental restoration industry and the development of many new tools for such remediation projects.

Environmental issues have been added to many seemingly unrelated political agendas. The North American Free Trade Agreement was delayed because of environmental concerns, and a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle was disrupted by environmentalists (and others) concerned about the possible impact of global free trade on the environment. Other issues, such as attempts to ban tuna fish from certain nations that do not practice "dolphin-safe" netting practices, have led to international trade disputes. Meanwhile, the World Bank has often made a priority of requiring some environmental concessions of nations hoping to borrow funds.

At this point, it is probably safe to say that the environment is measurably better in most of the developed world because of the hue and cry raised by the environmentalists over the past 40 years. The environmental movement has, without a doubt, played an important role in addressing the most serious pollution problems that faced us in the last half of the twentieth century. It is also true that some environmental initiatives may simply be premature, enacted without clear scientific justification and without the consensus of the scientific community. In any case, as we move into the twenty-first century, humans will continue to be faced with the problems of how best to protect and preserve the planet's natural resources while also accommodating the needs of a technology-based society.


Further Reading

Adams, Douglas. Last Chance to See. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Harr, Johathan. A Civil Action. New York: Random House, 1995.

Lyons, Janet and Sandra Jordan. Walking the Wetlands. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1989.

Quammen, David. The Song of the Dodo. New York: Scribner, 1996.

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Trends in the Environmental Sciences since 1950

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