The Environmental Movement
5: The Environmental Movement
Asocial reform movement involves large numbers of ordinary citizens from all walks of life banding together to achieve change and fight injustice. Many reform movements throughout U.S. history have been designed to improve society by aiding one segment of the population. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, brought about many legal protections for African Americans. The women's suffrage movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries secured voting rights for women. The environmental movement, however, has sought to benefit all of humanity by improving and preserving the natural world.
The term "environment" refers to the surroundings of a living being that affect that being's health and survival. Environment includes air, land, water, plants, and animals. The environmental movement has sought to protect the natural world through a number of initiatives, including reducing pollution, conserving natural resources, preventing endangered species from becoming extinct, and shielding natural areas from destruction or overdevelopment.
Like many social reform movements, the environmental movement in the United States does not have a specific start or end date. Debates about environmental concerns like the best methods of farming and the most efficient use of natural resources, among other issues, began early in the country's history and will continue far into the future. Many historians mark the beginning of the environmental movement as a social and political force with the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. From the beginning, Earth Day had multiple purposes: a protest against harm done to the environment, a teaching tool, and a celebration of nature, among others. These efforts represent the goals of the entire environmental movement. The movement flourished throughout the 1970s and continued to be an influential force into the twenty-first century. Working to enact changes through laws and court decisions, environmental activists work to change the way people think and behave.
Environmental issues in early America
The earliest debates about the environment in the United States began with the nation's first settlers. When Europeans first arrived on the shores of the New World, they viewed the wilderness of North America as something to be tamed. They had come from older, long-established countries and were a bit overwhelmed by the vastness and the wildness of America. They initially considered the region's natural resources and wildlife to be abundant, even limitless. If they needed wood to build a new town, they cut down an entire forest, confident that their supply of lumber would never run out. If an animal pelt would bring a good price, hunters would kill the animal.
WORDS TO KNOW
- The diversity of plant and animal species within an ecosystem. The term also refers to diversity within a species or diversity among a number of different species.
- The protection and managed use of natural resources and wilderness areas.
- The study of the relationship between an organism and the entirety of its surroundings.
- A community of plants and animals that live in balance with one another.
- The surroundings of a living being that affect that being's health and survival.
- The state of a species that has died out.
- food chain:
- Sequence in which one organism is the food source for the next organism, which is the food source for the next organism in the chain. (Example: grass-rabbit-fox.)
- fossil fuels:
- Energy sources that were formed hundreds of millions of years ago from the fossilized remains of plants and animals.
- global warming:
- Theory that an increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, resulting from pollution, has begun to cause a warming of Earth's climate.
- The natural environment of an animal or plant.
- A person who studies nature or natural history.
- A form of oxygen; forms a layer in the stratosphere that filters out harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun.
- Safeguarding an area of the natural world from undue human interference.
- Related organisms that are capable of breeding with one another.
An example of how white settlers viewed the animal population as limitless can be seen in the story of the American buffalo. Mighty herds of the animals once roamed the plains in the West. Many groups of Indians hunted buffalo, using the meat for food and the hides for clothing and shelter. They understood that the buffalo helped them to survive, and they hunted sparingly. Then white settlers began heading west. Soon, the settlers came to realize that buffalo hides could be turned into quality leather. Thus, a great demand was created for the hides.
According to Alvin M. Josephy Jr. in 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians: "The price of buffalo hides had shot up, and almost overnight the southern plains had filled with hide hunters, killing buffalo by the hundreds of thousands. It was an obscene period. Between 1872 and 1874, the hunters … slaughtered almost four million of the great beasts." When the hunters killed the buffalo, however, they just skinned the hides, leaving the carcasses to rot in the sun. The slaughter continued into the 1880s, reducing the population from thirty million to about one thousand. The loss of the buffalo had a devastating effect on Native Americans.
Native Americans viewed the land and its resources much differently than the white settlers did. To the Native Americans, the land was their temporary home. It was not something to be conquered or owned. Many tribes used resources wisely, understanding that their survival depended on the survival of the other creatures around them. Laurence Pringle summed up this fundamental difference in The Environmental Movement: From Its Roots to the Challenges of a New Century. Native Americans "saw themselves as part of the natural world—nature's partners. Europeans saw themselves as separate and above the natural world—nature's masters."
The notion of taming the wilderness has persisted in the United States. However, some people began to notice early in the nation's history that resources like timber can be depleted if not used wisely. They also recognized that allowing cattle to graze excessively in one area can destroy a grassland. As many early Americans continued to push westward, developing and shaping the land to suit their needs, some citizens expressed a desire to preserve the wilderness. They feared the harmful effects humans could have on the natural world.
Such fears were heightened by reports from travelers who had come from the European continent. These travelers told of landscapes devastated by farming and building, as well as pollution clouding the water and air in the newly industrialized western Europe. They warned Americans to avoid the same fate. Throughout the nineteenth century came the earliest expressions of what would become the environmental movement: concerns about conserving natural resources, preserving and protecting areas of wilderness, and controlling industrial pollution.
A number of visual artists and authors in the nineteenth century called attention to the wonders of nature and the extraordinary beauty of the American landscape. George Catlin (1796–1872) had been trained as a lawyer but abandoned that career to spend his life painting scenes of Native Americans and wildlife in the Midwest and on the western plains. Awed by the magnificence of the western landscapes, Catlin expressed a concern about the preservation of these lands. During a trip to the Dakotas in the 1830s, he suggested the idea of the government setting aside and protecting land for use as a national park. This idea was realized forty years later with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
Admiration for the American wilderness was also expressed by artists in the Hudson River School, a group of painters who created landscapes of New York's Hudson River Valley as well as the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains. Many of the Hudson River artists wished to connect natural beauty with godliness. This idea was also expressed in the writings of American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). In his works, he encouraged people to live in harmony with nature. One of Emerson's students, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), spent more than two years living alone in a cottage on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. From that experience, Thoreau wrote Walden; or, Life in the Woods, a classic of early environmental writing that praised a simple life in true harmony with nature.
The first conservationists
The term "conservationist" refers to a person who wishes to save and protect natural resources or wilderness areas. But conservationists have differed throughout the years over the purposes of such preserved areas. Some conservationists take a purist approach to the cause, believing that areas of natural beauty should be preserved as they are, with minimal human intervention. These activists believe that such areas should be protected from development by businesses even if they are rich with natural resources that could be used to build homes or produce electricity. Others promote conserving wilderness areas for human recreation, including hiking, boating, fishing, and hunting. Still others believe that protecting nature and promoting business interests can be compatible. For example, humans can develop the land, exploit its resources, and live on it while still conserving it. As long as the land is managed carefully, a policy described as wise use, it can be used for long-term economic gain as well as for human recreation. The tension between these various types of conservationists has continued through the generations.
George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882) was an extremely influential naturalist, lawyer, diplomat, and politician. He was elected to several terms in the U.S. Congress, and he served as an ambassador abroad. Marsh traveled all over the world, and wherever he went he made keen observations of the natural world. In 1864 he published Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. In the work, he warned that abuse of the land could cause permanent damage. Marsh noted the harm caused when humans upset the delicate balance of nature, pointing out, for example, that killing certain insect-eating birds resulted in a huge increase in the numbers of unwanted insects. This idea of the interconnectedness of nature, widely accepted today, was relatively new in Marsh's time. Considered by some to be the father of the modern American conservation movement, Marsh awakened people to the importance of protecting natural resources. Humans will inevitably have an impact on nature, Marsh explained; it's simply a question of whether that impact is positive or negative.
Another critical figure in the early days of the conservation movement was John Muir (1838–1914). Born in Scotland, Muir was raised in an intensely religious household in the United States. He spent most of his adult life traveling through wilderness areas of North America and South America, from Alaska down to the rain forests near the Amazon River. Muir spent many years studying Yosemite Valley in California, theorizing that the towering land forms there had been carved by glaciers. The theory was disputed at the time but has since been supported by much scientific evidence. Muir also made several trips to Alaska to study glaciers, making a significant contribution to the understanding of glacial activity.
In the late 1880s, Muir showed a journalist the destruction taking place from sheep grazing and other activities in Yosemite. The series of magazine articles that followed united the public in a call for government protection of the natural beauty of Yosemite. In 1890 that area was designated Yosemite National Park. Muir campaigned for the creation of several other national parks as well. He formed friendships with powerful people, including U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–09), who went on to enact a number of policies protecting American wilderness and wildlife. In 1892 Muir and several colleagues founded the Sierra Club to try to "do something for wildness and make the mountains glad," as quoted on the Sierra Club Web site. Muir's numerous books and hundreds of magazine articles have influenced many students of the environment since his day. His work awakened people to the idea of wilderness areas as national treasures that should always be protected.
Like John Muir, George Bird Grinnell (1849–1938) was a naturalist and conservationist who spent much of his life traveling throughout the American West. He devoted many years to studying and spending time with western Native American tribes. He wrote several influential books about these tribes and served as an advocate for Native Americans. Grinnell was an owner and the editor of Forest and Stream, a magazine for those who hunted, fished, and loved the great outdoors. After a trip to the Yellowstone area, Grinnell became alarmed at the widespread destruction of game animals there. Thus, he dedicated himself to the issue of wildlife conservation. He also worked to protect bird species, establishing the Audubon Society in 1886. Named for renowned naturalist John James Audubon (1785–1851), the national society struggled financially, but local offshoots flourished. Eventually, the organization became the National Audubon Society in 1905.
Grinnell's concern for wildlife conservation led to his involvement in the formation of the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. An organization for conservationists and outdoorsmen, the club included Theodore Roosevelt among its ranks. The members of this club wanted to promote certain standards among hunters, limiting the number of animals that could be taken at one time and preventing the wholesale slaughter of wild creatures. They pointed out that unethical hunting practices would drastically reduce the populations of many animals. In addition, these conservationists appreciated the beauty of an untamed landscape and wished to preserve areas of wilderness for future generations. Grinnell played a significant role in the passage of an 1894 law prohibiting the killing of game in national parks. He was also largely responsible for the establishment of Montana's Glacier National Park in 1910. His dedication to the nation's parks was recognized in 1925 when he became president of the National Parks Association.
The conservation president
President Theodore Roosevelt loved hunting and camping and cared deeply about preserving areas of wilderness. Known to some as the "conservation president," Roosevelt relied heavily on the counsel of his environmental advisor, Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946). A forestry expert, Pinchot advocated conservation of all natural resources. Both Pinchot and Roosevelt believed that wise use of such resources would benefit citizens, industries, and the environment itself. During his presidency, Roosevelt brought millions of acres of woodlands under the protection of the U.S. Forest Service. In addition, he set up fifty federal wildlife refuges, places where wilderness areas are managed and protected. Wildlife refuges are havens for animals, including many endangered species, and they attract many human visitors as well. In some refuges, people can hunt and fish. Although these activities may seem contradictory to the purpose of a wildlife refuge, hunting and fishing are carefully regulated in these protected areas to avoid excessive damage to animal populations. Many conservationists promote hunting as beneficial to some habitats, helping to keep certain animal populations from growing too large. Allowing hunting in such areas, some argue, helps maintain a healthy wildlife population.
Roosevelt also promoted the passage of the 1906 Antiquities Act and proceeded to stretch that law to protect places of great natural beauty. The Antiquities Act was intended primarily to protect areas of archaeological interest (sites that might yield artifacts from the past) from thieves. But Roosevelt used this law to protect a wide variety of sites. For example, he used the law to designate the Grand Canyon in Arizona and many other sites as national monuments. A number of such monuments were later made into national parks, thereby protecting them from business interests and making them available for the general public to view and enjoy. Roosevelt increased interest in the conservation movement by emphasizing the importance of preserving wilderness areas for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations.
Aldo Leopold: wilderness advocate
Aldo Leopold (1887–1948), an influential conservationist, helped to introduce to the public the idea of preserving wilderness areas that would be free of human development. These areas would include no roads, no buildings, just natural wilderness. His theories about conservation altered considerably throughout his life. As a young man, Leopold worked for the U.S. Forest Service for many years. Although some national forests were designated as protected wilderness areas, others were set aside for the logging industry or for private ranchers to use as grazing lands for cattle. Leopold initially supported such uses of federal lands. Yet after many years of educating himself about all aspects of the environment, he began to write and speak publicly about a shift in his thinking. He came to support the idea of preserving some wilderness areas not for logging, grazing, or human recreation, but simply as beautiful, untamed wilds. Leopold was a founder of the Wilderness Society (1935), an organization that, years later, was instrumental in the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which in part established such primitive areas.
Leopold also experienced a shift in his beliefs regarding hunting and wildlife conservation. He believed at one time in his life that the populations of certain predatory animals, like wolves, should be minimized so that the populations of their prey, like deer, could flourish. A large deer population, he felt, would be a positive development for hunters. His studies of wildlife led him to dispute such theories, however. He concluded that predators served a useful function, helping to keep a healthy balance in their habitats. For example, without wolves to keep the deer population of a given area in check, the number of deer steadily grew. The deer then had trouble finding enough food to eat, encountering problems like disease and hunger. The deer consumed so much of the plant life in their attempt to survive that other plant-eating animals began to have trouble finding enough to eat.
Leopold helped familiarize people with the term "ecology," in part through his course on wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin. Ecology refers to the study of the relationship between an organism and the entirety of its surroundings. In his writings and speeches, Leopold heralded a new direction for the conservation movement. He approached his study of nature from a scientific perspective, helping to attract scientists from various disciplines to the subject. In turn, this helped make the conservation movement more legitimate in the eyes of the general public. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, a well-known collection of his essays released a year after his death, was a powerful influence on the public's thoughts about the environment. Using sound scientific principles as the basis of his theories, Leopold helped people see that many different facets of the environment are connected to and dependent upon one another.
The movement's early years
After President Roosevelt left office, protection of the environment became a lower priority for the government. The nation's involvement in and recovery from World War I (1914–18) and the Great Depression (1929–41) made environmental protection seem less important to many citizens. Membership in conservation organizations continued to grow, however, and activists continued to fight for protections. A 1934 law required all adult hunters of ducks and other water fowl to purchase a federal duck stamp. The duck stamps served as annual hunting licenses, with 98 percent of the purchase price benefiting national wildlife refuges. The duck stamp program continued into the twenty-first century. During its first seventy years of existence, the program raised more than $500 million to purchase more than 5 million acres of wildlife habitat. The stamps are bought each year not just by hunters but by art lovers, nature lovers, and others who wish to contribute to the preservation of wildlife areas and wetlands.
The man behind the passage of the duck stamp law, J. N. "Ding" Darling (1876–1962), also made his mark on the conservation movement in other ways. He helped organize local conservation clubs into a group that became the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). In the early twenty-first century, the NWF was the largest environmental organization in the nation, with more than four million members. Some of the members are hunters, but many more are simply people who appreciate and want to protect the natural world.
After World War II (1939–45), the United States entered a period of economic prosperity and rapid progress. Science and technology were revered by Americans, many of whom believed that few challenges existed that could not be addressed by scientific advancements. Automobiles became affordable to a greater number of people. This led to the expansion of the nation's roadways and an increase in demand for gasoline. A postwar baby boom and a surge in immigration meant an explosion in the nation's population. To accommodate the population increase, suburbs expanded rapidly, sprouting up on lands formerly used for farming. More and more products purchased by consumers were disposable rather than reusable, with convenience being the primary goal. By the end of the 1950s, some of the negative effects of these changes became apparent. Citizens became increasingly concerned about the dangers posed to humans by such hazards as air and water pollution.
Several key publications at that time raised awareness of the emerging environmental movement, a movement that had grown out of and expanded upon the older conservation movement. These works were particularly influential among college students, a segment of the population that continued to play a decisive role in the movement throughout the next several decades. One such publication was Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Another was the first ecology textbook, Fundamentals of Ecology, published in 1953. The single most influential environmental book released at that time, however, was Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson (1907–1964).
Released in 1962, Carson's Silent Spring aroused a storm of controversy. She wrote of the harmful effects of long-lasting pesticides, like dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), which had been used to control pest insects, like mosquitoes and lice, in many countries. Farmers used DDT to control insect damage to their crops. The pesticide was also used in parts of the world where insects spread dangerous diseases, like malaria and typhus. DDT was praised for saving millions of lives and was hailed for its lasting effectiveness. But it remained poisonous long after it had been sprayed.
Carson, an aquatic biologist, had worked for the government and written books about the environment. She became interested in the potential dangers of insecticides after hearing reports of birds and fish being harmed by the chemicals. She researched the subject for several years before publishing Silent Spring. Writing in a passionate, poetic style, Carson explained that DDT and other long-lasting pesticides had become part of the food chain. The chemicals, remaining on plants and in water after sprayings, were ingested by small animals, which were then eaten by larger animals, including humans. Carson pointed out that these so-called pesticides killed not only harmful insects like mosquitoes but also creatures that were not pests, such as bees, fish, and birds.
Using such poisons in large quantities without knowing exactly what the long-term effects would be for humans and other animals was foolish, according to Carson. Later discoveries about these ill effects showed that Carson was right to worry. She had expressed concern about DDT's affect on birds' reproductive systems. Other scientists confirmed that exposure to DDT devastated the reproductive abilities of certain birds, particularly those that fed on DDT-infested fish. The toxic chemical weakened their ability to make strong eggshells.
Carson also pointed out that insects developed resistance to many pesticides, which would lead to the ongoing development of ever-stronger chemicals to kill these pests. She suggested that most farmers could apply far less of the pesticides to their crops and still reap the chemicals' benefits. She also promoted the notion of farmers controlling pest insects by introducing their natural enemies, such as birds or other insects, to their fields.
Even before its release, Silent Spring drew harsh criticism from several areas. The chemical companies that manufactured pesticides objected for obvious reasons: Carson's claims threatened their profits. Government officials, scientists, professors at agricultural colleges, and public-health officials also criticized Carson's book. She had dared to question the scientific community and raised difficult questions that most people preferred not to confront. Her critics dismissed her book as the work of an alarmist and hysteric. Some observers note that these critiques were likely based on her gender. She was a female scientist working in a profession comprised mainly of men.
Carson wrote Silent Spring, as well as her other best-selling books on nature, in a dramatic, even poetic style. Her opponents pointed to this style, and her lack of a Ph.D. degree, as evidence that Carson was not a legitimate scientist. In spite of the opposition to it, Silent Spring had a tremendous impact on the general public. Many people began to think for the first time of the potential harm to the environment brought on by chemicals. In addition, many people began to make the link between their own health, and that of future generations, and the health of the natural world. Published at a turbulent time in American history, when unrest existed over the Vietnam War (1954–75), women's rights, and civil rights for African Americans, Silent Spring made a strong impression on the public.
Carson died in 1964, less than two years after her book was released. She did not live to see the significant developments in environmental protection over the following years. These actions included the banning of DDT in the United States in 1972 and the establishment of the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Environmental events of the 1960s
Throughout the 1960s, the young environmental movement gained steam, raised up by growing support from the public and several new pro-environment laws. In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which is designed in part to protect certain natural areas from the interference of human beings. Designated wilderness areas are free of roads and permanent structures; no cars or other motorized vehicles are allowed. Even bicycles are forbidden. People can walk the trails and camp out within a wilderness area, but the basic idea is for visitors to experience an unspoiled wilderness without leaving any trace of their presence.
In the mid-1960s, a government plan to construct a dam spurred environmentalists to action and infuriated many citizens. In 1966 the Sierra Club waged war with the federal government when it learned about plans to build a dam and flood the Grand Canyon. The government's plan involved the construction of a dam to produce hydroelectric power, electricity generated by the force of flowing water. Under the leadership of executive director David Brower (1912–2000), the Sierra Club ran a series of highly effective full-page advertisements in the New York Times protesting these plans. After these advertisements appeared, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) suspended the Sierra Club's tax-exempt status, which meant that donations to the organization were no longer tax-deductible. Brower felt certain that the Sierra Club's public protests of the government's plans to flood the Grand Canyon had led direcdy to this suspension, though the government denied it. Rather than discourage donations, however, this move by the IRS had the opposite effect. Membership in the Sierra Club grew rapidly and so did the organization's power. Two years later, the government abandoned its plan to flood the Grand Canyon.
During the 1960s, one issue that came to the forefront of public awareness was overpopulation. Paul Ehrlich, a founder of the organization Zero Population Growth, wrote The Population Bomb. In the book, he raised alarm about the rapidly expanding global population. In addition to aggravating problems such as poverty, disease, and homelessness, population explosions also put tremendous stress on the environment. The needs of a growing population—including food, housing, schools, clothing, and other products—would require an increase in construction, an expansion of farmland, and greater production of consumer goods. All of those things have negative consequences for the natural world, including an increase in air and water pollution. A troubling symbol of the nation's polluted waters arose in 1969. At that time, the Cuyahoga River, a tributary of Lake Erie that runs through Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire because it was so polluted by chemicals from nearby industrial plants.
Kids Who Made a Difference
Significant environmental support in the United States and elsewhere has come from young people. Many kids study environmental issues in school and are inspired to become involved in the movement. The book Acting for Nature: What Young People around the World Have Done to Protect the Environment, written by Sneed B. Collard III, details the ways kids from all over the world have tackled environmental problems in their communities.
At the age of twelve, Andrew Holleman of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, learned of a developer's plans to build a new neighborhood on the site of a wilderness area near his home. Andrew often visited this area to walk through the woods, fish in the stream, and enjoy the quiet pleasures of nature. He decided to try to do something to stop this new development. He began with a visit to his local library, where he learned of a law in Massachusetts prohibiting development of wetlands. He then discovered that more than half of the future site of this new neighborhood was classified as wetlands. Andrew and others in his community wrote letters to politicians, filed petitions, and alerted the media to the situation. After many months, Andrew's fight had been won. The developer backed out of the plan to develop the wetlands.
In 1992, a toxic spill into the Ebro River in northeastern Spain made the water unusable for humans and deadly for the fish and other creatures living in the water. Two thirteen-year-old girls who lived nearby and loved spending time on the banks of the river felt a sense of mourning for the river. Judith Pérez and Miriam Burgués Flórez decided to take action. They planned a march for their school and another school in a nearby town and set about making posters and devising slogans. As the students concluded their march, they were surprised to be joined by hundreds of parents, teachers, and additional students. The march drew attention from the press, and Judith and Miriam capitalized on that publicity to secure meetings with politicians and other officials. Cleanup of the Ebro began soon afterward. Many of the citizens in the nearby communities had a new appreciation both for the river and for the ability of ordinary citizens to effect change.
The Endangered Species Act
One of the most significant issues of the environmental movement has been the fight to protect animal and plant species from becoming extinct. A species is a group of related animals or plants that can breed with one another. Animals from one species cannot mate and produce offspring with animals from a different species. Throughout the history of life on Earth, new species have evolved and many existing species have become extinct, which means that every member of that species has died off. As populations have grown in the United States and humans have taken over more and more territory and industries have expanded, numerous animal and plant species have been rapidly driven to extinction or nearly so.
As residential neighborhoods expand farther and farther out from a city center, animal and plant habitats are destroyed to make way for homes, schools, and businesses. In addition, chemical pollution from such sources as factories and cars has dirtied the air, water, and land. Such pollution not only harms humans but also vast numbers of fish, birds, mammals, and other organisms. Some species, when their habitat is damaged or their food source is diminished, can simply go elsewhere and adapt to the change. Other species require a specific type of environment or food and cannot survive if their habitat is destroyed. Such species face a far greater threat of extinction.
In an attempt to slow down the rate of extinction, Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966. However, this law only applied to fish and wildlife, and only to species native to the United States. The Endangered Species Conservation Act, passed in 1969, broadened coverage to offer greater protection to larger numbers of animals. The 1969 law, for example, extended protection to crustaceans and mollusks; crustaceans include shrimp and lobster, and mollusks include clams, oysters, and mussels.
Another law passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act, further strengthened protections for endangered species. The law established two distinct categories for animals in jeopardy: endangered and threatened. According to the Web site of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that runs the endangered species program, "An 'endangered' species is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A 'threatened' species is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future." In addition, the act broadened coverage to include U.S. and foreign species, as well as all species of animals and plants that had been determined to be threatened or endangered. Although some changes were made to the 1973 law in subsequent years, the basic provisions were still in effect in the early twenty-first century.
The Endangered Species Act protects the listed animals and plants by making it illegal to harm their habitat; to kill, injure, or capture any of them; to buy or sell them; or to transport them across state or national boundaries. In addition, the law requires government agencies to work toward an endangered species' recovery, and it allows federal agencies to acquire land for that purpose. The work of federal agencies, in combination with the efforts of such nongovernmental organizations as the World Wildlife Fund, has had a significant impact on several species. The bald eagle, which is the symbol of the United States, has increased its numbers in many parts of the United States. It still faces considerable threat due to loss of habitat, but its status has improved from endangered to threatened.
Although the Endangered Species Act has helped many species, it has also been criticized for not doing enough. The process of placing a species on the endangered list is very thorough and therefore takes a long time. Once a species is on the list, it may take additional months or even years to develop a recovery plan. Without such a plan, the fate of the species will not improve. The Endangered Species Act has also been criticized for doing too much, developing protections for a species even when those protections may have a negative impact on the economy of a community. Some people feel that species should only be protected if it can be done without harmful consequences for humans. In other words, if protecting a species means a loss of jobs because a new housing development cannot be built, or a loss of income because people are prevented from fishing in a certain area, then that species should not be protected.
A heated debate has raged over logging of the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, home to many animal and plant species. Some have argued that parts of these forests, which include trees that are several hundred years old, should be cut down for timber. Others have declared that these old-growth forests are a national treasure. They note that destroying them would result in a great loss for humans as well as cause the devastation of certain species, including the threatened northern spotted owl.
A Fragile Balance
An ecosystem is a community of plants and animals that live in balance with one another. Examples of an ecosystem are a desert, a pond, or a forest. The balance in an ecosystem can be quite delicate. Changes to the environment, including the introduction or disappearance of a species, can devastate an ecosystem. Within an ecosystem, different plants and animals perform different functions. Scientists don't always know what each species' function is, but they have observed several examples illustrating that when something upsets the balance in an ecosystem, far-reaching and unexpected consequences can develop.
During World War II, for example, brown tree snakes were brought to the island of Guam from the Solomon Islands. The population of these snakes grew quickly, and they ate vast quantities of birds. It wasn't long before they had driven three species of birds into extinction. When the bird population decreased, the insects that had been those birds' food source flourished. The explosive growth of the insect population has resulted in the widespread destruction of plant life on Guam.
An attempt to manipulate an ecosystem in Africa to increase the fish population in a lake backfired. Officials believed that taking Nile crocodiles out of an African lake would result in an increase of fish in that lake for people to eat. To their surprise, they found that the number of edible fish actually began to decrease after the crocodiles were removed. It turned out that when the crocodiles were in the lake, they ate a number of inedible fish, known as "trash" fish. When the crocodiles were gone, the trash fish increased in number and ate tremendous amounts of food fish, leaving less for the people of the region to eat.
Nature is filled with abundant examples of wide-ranging negative consequences for an ecosystem thrown out of balance. Predicting the outcome of a disruption in an ecosystem can be quite difficult. Many environmentalists feel that human beings have an obligation to preserve all that they can in the natural world to help maintain the balance.
Several amendments have been made to the endangered species law since 1973 that have weakened it, including a provision that allows a special high-level government committee to decide if a particular endangered species should be saved when its protection conflicts with human needs. Many environmentalists worry that such provisions will lead to widespread extinctions, with unforeseen and possibly negative consequences for all living creatures. A number of scientists have pointed out that human beings are part of habitats. Thus, if the soil, water, or air is too polluted for one animal species to thrive, then it most likely is too polluted for humans as well.
Earth Day, 1970
Many people mark the beginning of the environmental movement by the celebration of Earth Day in 1970. That year, and every year since, two Earth Days have been celebrated. One Earth Day, first celebrated on March 21, 1970, was designed to celebrate the wonders of the natural world and warn of abuses to its fragile ecosystems. An ecosystem is a community of plants and animals that live in balance with one another. This Earth Day is generally known as International Earth Day. It is also referred to as the equinoctial Earth Day because it is celebrated on the vernal equinox, the day in March that marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day, the hours of daylight are roughly equal to the hours of darkness. This balance of day and night inspired the organization to plan an annual celebration to focus on the importance of maintaining Earth's delicate balance. In addition, the vernal equinox seemed an appropriate day to celebrate the Earth as spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. International Earth Day was first suggested by activist John McConnell (1915–) in the fall of 1969 in San Francisco, California. McConnell obtained the support of the United Nations (UN), which continues to mark the day each year with the ringing of the UN Peace Bell.
A number of countries as well as several communities in the United States celebrate International Earth Day on the vernal equinox each year. But throughout much of the United States, Earth Day is celebrated annually on April 22. This event originated on April 22, 1970, about a month after McConnell's Earth Day. The April 22 Earth Day was initiated by Gaylord Nelson (1916–2005), a Democratic senator and environmental activist from Wisconsin. From the beginning of his career in the U.S. Senate in the early 1960s, Nelson had worked to bring environmental issues to the top of the national agenda. During 1969 Nelson created a nationwide grassroots event to educate citizens about environmental problems and to celebrate the natural wonders of the planet. April 22 was chosen as the date in part because it coincided with Arbor Day, a tree-planting holiday begun in the late 1800s. In addition, Nelson chose that date because he hoped that college students would play a major role in Earth Day activities. He knew that by April 22, students would be done with spring break and not yet studying for final exams.
Inspired by the success of "teach-ins" conducted primarily by university students across the country to raise opposition to the Vietnam War, Earth Day was planned as a string of events throughout the nation. As quoted in USA Today, Nelson stated that he "wanted a demonstration by so many people that politicians would say, 'Holy cow, people care about this.'" People did care, and some twenty million participants joined in local events to show their concern. Two thousand colleges and universities, about ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and citizens in hundreds of communities across the country held celebrations, demonstrations, educational seminars, and local cleanups of rivers and parks. The U.S. Congress closed for the day so politicians could participate in local events. Earth Day succeeded so well because "it organized itself," Nelson once said according to USA Today. "The idea was out there and everybody grabbed it." The widespread citizen participation in Earth Day festivities sent a clear signal to the government: a significant environmental movement had arisen, and the people were demanding change.
The 1970s: The Green Decade
During the 1970s, key changes regarding the environment emerged from the federal government. The gains made by the environmental movement during this period led some to dub the 1970s as the Green Decade. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1970 to regulate pollution affecting air, water, and land. Before the EPA, no federal agency had existed that could coordinate the nation's approach to cleaning up polluted areas. The EPA was faced with trying to clean up the messes that had been made in generations past as well as setting policy that would make for a cleaner future.
Congress passed a number of significant environmental laws during the 1970s. The Clean Air Act of 1970 called for the EPA to regulate the emission of airborne contaminants. The purpose of the law was to reduce pollutants in the air that could cause harm to human beings and to the environment. Two years later, in 1972, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed. After a number of amendments were added to it in 1977, the law became known as the Clean Water Act. This law required individuals and companies to obtain permits before releasing any pollutants into a body of water. It also placed limits on the amount of toxic substances that could be released into water by plants or factories. The goals of the Clean Water Act included making waterways clean enough for humans to use for recreational activities like swimming and fishing.
Other laws passed during the 1970s attempted to reverse the damage that had been done to the natural world. These laws included regulations on pesticides, noise pollution, and toxic substances. Several new laws in the 1970s offered protections to creatures of the land and sea. The National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 greatly expanded the land to be preserved as wilderness areas in national parks.
Two major oil shortages in the 1970s contributed to an energy crisis that added a new facet to the emerging environmental movement. Energy required for heating and cooling homes, schools, and businesses accounted for a significant percentage of all the energy consumed in the United States. More and more citizens began focusing on ways to conserve energy. New homes featured better insulation and more energy efficient windows. New appliances boasted greater efficiency as well. As gas prices rose, many drivers began conserving gas by driving less, carpooling or taking mass transit, or investing in a car that could squeeze more miles out of each gallon of gas.
Despite the positive steps taken by citizens and lawmakers during the 1970s to protect the environment, a number of alarming incidents occurred during that era. Such happenings reminded Americans that environmental dangers still lurked and that problems remained to be solved.
In 1978 a Niagara Falls, New York, neighborhood known as Love Canal began making headlines for the fight its residents were waging against the government and a large corporation. The neighborhood, including hundreds of homes and an elementary school, had been constructed on top of a former toxic waste dump that had been used by the city of Niagara Falls and by a company called Hooker Chemical. Residents, unaware of the former use of their land, had long noticed the unpleasant smells and unusual substances that occasionally seeped up into their yards and basements. After a local paper reported that the homes and school had been built over a chemical waste site, resident Lois Gibbs began a petition drive in the neighborhood to get the school board to close the elementary school. She believed that the buried chemicals were causing harm to residents. In an essay on the EnviroArts: Orion Online Web site, Gibbs recalled going door to door, collecting signatures: "It became apparent, after only a few blocks of door knocking, that the entire neighborhood was sick. Men, women, and children suffered from many conditions—cancer, miscarriages, stillbirths, birth defects, and urinary tract diseases."
Soon the New York Department of Health began to investigate the site. It was determined that 239 families close to the dump site had unsafe levels of chemicals in the air inside their homes and in their yards. Those families were soon evacuated at the government's expense, but the hundreds of remaining residents, farther from the waste site but still in contaminated areas, had to wage a lengthy battle for relocation. Love Canal residents worked together to pressure lawmakers and political candidates, protesting at political conventions, granting interviews to news outlets, and publicly challenging candidates regarding their positions on toxic-waste cleanup. The state and federal governments eventually agreed to relocate all of the Love Canal families and to begin cleaning the site.
The Love Canal disaster prompted the U.S. Congress to pass a law in 1980 known as Superfund, which set up a toxic-waste cleanup program for the nation's most polluted sites. The Superfund law further dictated that the party responsible for the toxic waste had to pay for its cleanup. Based on the Superfund law, the U.S. government sued Hooker Chemical's parent company, Occidental Chemical Corporation, which eventually was forced to pay the U.S. government more than $125 million for cleanup of the site. Occidental also had to pay nearly $100 million to New York State and $20 million to settle a class-action lawsuit the residents had filed. Although the Superfund law seemed to provide a framework for the nation's worst polluters to pay for toxic-waste cleanup, it has proven to be a law that is difficult to enforce, and therefore has aroused considerable controversy. Loopholes in the law have allowed many corporate polluters to avoid responsibility for cleanup, and many sites remain toxic while complicated court cases go on for exte
Another incident in the late 1970s served to heighten citizens' anxiety about hazards to their health and that of the environment. It was an accident at the nuclear power plant known as Three Mile Island. Nuclear energy comes from a controlled chain of nuclear reactions, described as such because they take place in the nucleus of an atom. These reactions generate tremendous power and can be an effective energy source as well as an incredibly powerful weapon. The energy generated at nuclear power plants provides massive quantities of electricity, but nuclear reactions also generate a great deal of harmful radioactive waste. People are exposed to small levels of radioactivity in everyday life, from X rays, for example, or microwave ovens, or from naturally occurring radioactivity in Earth's crust. Exposure to significant levels of radioactivity, such as the levels existing in spent nuclear fuel, causes problems for all living beings. Humans exposed to high levels of radiation can develop a number of cancers as well as heart disease and genetic disorders that can then be passed on to future generations.
The radioactive waste generated at nuclear power plants can remain dangerous for time periods ranging from a few days to thousands of years. Such waste must be stored very carefully until it is no longer radioactive. The difficult question of how and where to store this waste has plagued the nuclear energy industry and has worried citizens since the earliest days of nuclear power plants. Another grave concern is the possibility of an accident at a nuclear power plant. One of the primary problems that could result from a malfunction at a nuclear power plant is the release of harmful levels of radiation. Such an incident could have devastating consequences for all organisms within a certain distance of the power plant, and the harmful effects can last for many years.
During the 1970s, nuclear energy was championed by some as the solution to the nation's energy problems. Advocates praised nuclear energy because it was abundant and could potentially be produced inexpensively. Only after the incident at Three Mile Island did concerns about the safety of nuclear power become widespread. Early in the morning on March 28, 1979, a series of problems, including worker error, design flaws, and equipment malfunction, occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The result was a partial meltdown of the core of the nuclear reactor and the release of massive quantities of radioactive waste into the containment building, a thick-walled structure that housed the reactor and was designed to hold in any leaked waste.
As government officials and the company that operated the plant investigated the extent of the problem, nearby residents lived in fear that the accident would lead to disaster. After a few days, the problems at the plant were brought under control, though citizens learned that some radiation had escaped into the atmosphere. No deaths were directly attributed to the Three Mile Island incident, but some reports have shown a higher rate of cancer among residents living close to the plant. The unit where the accident occurred was permanently shut down, and much of the leaked radioactive waste was removed for storage elsewhere. Cleanup of the site officially ended in 1993, with the total cost adding up to almost one billion dollars.
Although the Three Mile Island incident was not nearly as disastrous as it could have been, it did have a chilling effect on the nation. In addition, public support for nuclear power dropped dramatically. The government instituted a long list of improvements designed to heighten the safety of nuclear power plants and the effectiveness of plant workers. These changes made nuclear power safer, but they also increased the cost of constructing new plants. In addition, attempts to build new plants met with stiff opposition from local residents fearful of another accident. As a result, no new nuclear power plants have been authorized for construction since the Three Mile Island incident.
Complexities of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries
The 1970s saw an abundance of environmental laws and massive growth of the environmental movement. Every initiative undertaken by the movement, however, was fought by corporations seeking to protect their business interests. Improving the air and water quality meant that a number of industries had to spend money to reduce their polluted waste. Saving endangered species sometimes meant that a strip mall or housing project could not be built, or that the logging industry had to cut down fewer trees. During the 1980s and 1990s, big business exerted ever greater pressure on the government to loosen environmental regulations. At the same time, as scientists grew increasingly knowledgeable about global environmental problems, new issues surfaced that many experts felt severely threatened the health of the planet. The American environmental movement faced tremendous challenges, including educating the public about complex scientific theories, seeking cooperation across international borders to solve global environmental problems, and facing down the pressures of large corporations and, in some cases, a government opposing their efforts.
In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) generally sided with big business on environmental issues, believing that the government should impose fewer regulations on corporations. During his time in office, Reagan presided over budget cuts for environmental research and the EPA, and he worked to minimize antipollution restrictions for industry. The Reagan administration favored the use of public lands for logging or mining rather than preserving such land as wilderness areas. Disturbed by the government's policies, millions of citizens became active in the environmental movement, swelling the ranks of numerous organizations. Increased participation in the environmental movement helped to show lawmakers that many citizens took such issues very seriously. However, opposition to environmental initiatives was strong enough that accomplishments came about only after a long struggle.
One of the significant issues that became the subject of much debate in the 1980s was acid rain. Back in the 1950s, scientists had discovered that, in some regions, the surfaces of some buildings and statues were being eroded by air pollutants. In addition, certain bodies of water had been affected by these pollutants, causing the deaths of fish and other water creatures. They traced these problems to a higher-than-usual level of acid in the rain falling in these areas. Rainwater is normally slightly acidic. But experts learned that air pollution, primarily sulfur dioxide from coal-burning power plants and secondarily nitrogen oxides from car exhaust, resulted in unhealthy levels of acid in precipitation, including rain, sleet, snow, and fog. Acid can also appear in the atmosphere in "dry" form, in gases and dust.
Whether wet or dry, acid can be carried great distances by the wind. In the United States, the prevailing winds move from west to east, resulting in a far greater concentration of acid rain in the northeastern
Greenscamming and Other Deceptions
As more and more people began to identify with the goals of the environmental movement in the 1980s and 1990s, many businesses developed creative ways to improve their image or to trick the public into thinking they supported environmental causes. A number of businesses that have been under fire for pollution or other harmful activities have hired public-relations firms to help them craft an environmentally friendly appearance. Such companies spend a great deal of money on advertising and marketing campaigns that emphasize minor concessions they have made to the environmental cause. For example, they might print materials on recycled paper, while ignoring major violations, such as dumping toxic waste. This tactic is known as greenwashing, after the term "whitewash," which refers to covering up something unpleasant.
Another tactic commonly used by anti-environmentalists is to create an organization with a name that sounds environmentally friendly but is actually opposed to environmental policies. This approach is known as greenscamming. These organizations sometimes choose a name or logo very similar to that of an established environmental group to create confusion. Such names are intended to sound like the name of a group that would promote conservation or perhaps wildlife protection. Instead, such organizations are often politically conservative groups designed in part to weaken endangered species or other environmental laws.
In his book The Environmental Movement, Laurence Pringle describes a type of greenscamming known as astroturf, a name taken from the artificial grass used in sports arenas. This term refers to groups that pretend to be grassroots organizations, meaning their members are ordinary citizens. In fact such groups are composed of powerful lobbyists or business executives with an anti-environmental agenda. For example, a group in the early 1990s called People for the West! sought to make more public land, such as parks, available for mining or for grazing livestock. Pringle points out that, in 1992, twelve of the organization's thirteen directors were executives in the mining industry.
The term "greenscamming" also refers to politicians who present themselves as pro-environment during election season (by participating in a local cleanup, for example, or distributing campaign literature touting the importance of protecting the environment) and then vote to weaken environmental laws once in office. Some anti-environmental businesses promote a green-friendly image by donating money to a local community project or to an environmental group. Such money is considered well spent if it convinces the public that this company helps to protect the natural world.
As schools have increased environmental education programs, businesses have sought to counteract these programs by distributing their own materials to students. Oil companies, electric utilities, and chemical companies are among many industries that have created programs for schools that deliver information about an environmental topic from the perspective of that industry. Such materials are offered free of charge, a gift few public schools would turn down. Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, examined more than one hundred examples of corporate-created materials. Pringle wrote of the results of this study, which found that "about 80 percent contained blatant bias [obvious prejudice], commercial pitches, inaccuracies, or often all three."
states. Densely populated areas were also affected due to the high number of cars being driven there. In some high-elevation areas in the Northeast, the acid content of lakes and ponds rose dangerously. Many aquatic creatures and plants did not survive, causing a subsequent decline in the wildlife that fed on those organisms. Forests were affected as well, with many trees dying or unable to reproduce.
During the 1980s, environmental groups as well as some local and state governments pushed for pollution controls that would reduce the acid levels in rainwater. They met with considerable opposition by several industries, including coal-mining companies, utility corporations that burned coal to produce electricity, and car manufacturers. Such opponents claimed that not enough was known about the causes of acid rain to begin solving the problem. An additional complication to reducing acid rain was the regional nature of the problem. Some areas of the United States were heavily affected while others were not. In some cases, the industries producing the most pollution were not located in the regions most affected, and those industries were reluctant to pay to resolve a problem in another locale.
After many years of pressure on both sides, lawmakers amended the Clean Air Act in 1990, forcing industries to reduce emissions of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide. With the help of the Environmental Defense Fund and other organizations, a number of creative solutions were devised to help companies reduce harmful pollutants without excessive cost. Within a few years, sulfur dioxide emissions were reduced, though emissions of nitrogen oxides continued to pose a problem. Newer car models emit fewer pollutants, however, and as time goes by, fewer and fewer older models are on the roads. Acid rain continues to be an issue, but it has been surpassed in the public awareness by other pressing environmental hazards.
Among the most widely debated environmental issues in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has been the depletion of the ozone layer. A thin layer of ozone is concentrated in the stratosphere, about twelve to twenty miles above Earth's surface. Ozone, which is a form of oxygen, performs an important function by filtering out harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. Without the ozone layer, radiation from the sun would make life on Earth an impossibility.
During the 1970s, scientists discovered that, in some parts of the world, the ozone layer had begun to thin. They suspected this thinning might be the result of emissions from human activity, and two American chemists, F. Sherwood Rowland (1927–) and Mario Molina (1943–), theorized that a chemical compound known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, could be the culprit. CFCs were used in a number of products, from aerosol spray cans to styrofoam to refrigerators and air conditioners. Rowland and Molina showed that CFCs could be broken down by ultraviolet light, an action that released chlorine. Chlorine would then destroy ozone molecules. Furthermore, it was determined that the CFCs that had been released into the air stayed in the stratosphere for as long as one hundred years, with the total amount building up year after year.
More and more scientists supported Rowland and Molina's theory, and activists began pressuring the U.S. government to ban the use of CFCs. In 1985 scientists discovered an alarming thinning of the ozone, or an ozone hole, as it's commonly called, over Antarctica, indicating that the ozone layer was depleting faster than originally calculated. Depletion of the ozone layer, by allowing greater amounts of ultraviolet light to reach Earth's surface, leads to an increase in skin cancer, immune system problems, and cataracts, which are vision-obscuring films that cover the lens of the eye. Scientists have warned that ultraviolet rays can cause significant damage to other life forms as well.
In spite of vigorous protests from CFC-producing industries, 150 nations eventually signed the Montreal Protocol, which called for CFCs to be gradually phased out. Ozone depletion continued throughout the 1990s, though scientists expected the dramatic reduction in the use of CFCs worldwide to slow down the depletion rate considerably.
Perhaps the most controversial and hotly debated environmental issue of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is global warming. The scientific theory behind global warming states that an atmospheric increase of certain gases that result from human activity—like carbon dioxide, methane, and CFCs—has begun to cause a warming of Earth's climate. The sun's rays heat Earth's surface, and then that heat is radiated back into the atmosphere. Certain trace gases in the atmosphere, known as greenhouse gases, trap the energy from that heat and warm the atmosphere. Several greenhouse gases, like water vapor and carbon dioxide, occur naturally; others have been generated or markedly increased by human activity. The burning of coal, oil, wood, and natural gas adds massive quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The fueling of cars, trucks, and jets; the operation of manufacturing plants; and the logging of forests all result in increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Most scientists believe that the increased presence of greenhouse gases will lead to a small but significant climate change. Even a slight change in Earth's average temperatures can have a far-reaching impact. Sea levels around the world have risen over the past half-century, and further increases in temperature could cause a greater rise, resulting in the flooding of coastal regions. Many scientists point to global warming as the cause of an increase in the number and severity of hazardous weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. Some regions might benefit from higher temperatures, while others would suffer from excessive heat and drought. Global warming's long-term effects on Earth's ecosystems are not yet known, though scientists generally agree that it would benefit all life on Earth to slow down the current pace of global warming.
Industries responsible for the production of greenhouse gases have waged a public-relations war against prevailing theories on global warming. They have hired their own scientists to dispute the generally accepted evidence of the rate of climate change, causing confusion for the general public about whether global warming is an issue at all. Most scientists do believe that the rate of temperature change is a cause for alarm. A number of nations around the globe have agreed, banding together to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. This agreement calls for all participating nations to cut their hazardous emissions gradually over the course of several years. President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) announced his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol after becoming president in 2001. President Bush stated that he opposed the protocol because he felt it was a flawed agreement, but his administration failed to present an alternative. The United States is the leading source of carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for approximately 25 percent of the total.
One proposed way to decrease greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions is to reduce the world's dependence on fossil fuels, which include coal, natural gas, and oil. Fossil fuels provide about 90 percent of all commercial energy used throughout the world. These energy sources are used for fueling cars, trucks, and airplanes; for heating and cooling homes; and for providing power to homes, businesses, and factories. These energy sources are called fossil fuels because they were formed millions of years ago from the fossilized remains of plants and animals.
One of the primary concerns regarding fossil fuels is that there is a limited supply of each: once they have been used up, they are gone forever. In addition, fossil fuels are connected to serious environmental problems. Mining for coal can have a devastating impact on the landscape, leaving scars like deep holes and mountains with their tops shaved off. Coal mining also produces toxic waste that pollutes waterways. And the burning of coal, primarily used to produce electricity, releases massive amounts of harmful gases, like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as toxic metals, like mercury, into the atmosphere. Mercury can collect in water, build up in fish, and cause serious health problems in animals all the way up the food chain, including humans. Burning coal also releases large amounts of radioactive elements into the atmosphere.
Drilling for oil can cause damage to land and ocean habitats. The main concerns about oil, however, come from the dangers of transporting it and the harmful effects of burning its by-products, primarily gasoline. High-profile oil spills have illustrated the massive damage that oil can cause to wildlife and to entire ecosystems. And the harmful emissions from gas-burning engines of cars and trucks constitute the largest source of air pollution in U.S. cities. Natural gas, while generating fewer harmful emissions when burned, poses problems similar to that of oil. Drilling for natural gas can be destructive to wildlife habitats, and burning natural gas results in emissions of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill
A number of major oil spills have devastated waterways and shores throughout the world. One of the most infamous oil spills took place on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker collided with Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound. Part of the Gulf of Alaska, Prince William Sound is an area of extraordinary natural beauty. The rich wildlife of the area includes numerous shore birds, fish, whales, and sea otters.
When the Exxon Valdez grounded on the reef, oil began spilling into the waters of the sound immediately. A total of eleven million gallons poured into the water. Early attempts at cleaning up the oil were slow and inefficient, and the oil slick continued to spread. Within a few days, the oil covered an area of five hundred square miles. Worse, a storm on the night of March 26 brought oil onto the shores and mixed the oil with water, causing a mixture that is much harder to clean. By the end of June, the slick covered nearly six thousand square miles.
The effects of the oil spill on wildlife were severe. Spring is the time of year when migratory birds return to Prince William Sound, and each day for weeks after the spill, thousands of birds arrived. The best efforts of volunteers could not stop the birds from landing in the oil-covered water, where their feathers became covered with oil. Once that happened, the birds could no longer fly and became vulnerable to predators. Swallowing the toxic oil also proved deadly to the creatures of the sound. The sea otters, which had once been close to extinction but had bounced back through preservation efforts, died in large numbers. Volunteers worked around the clock trying to rescue and clean affected animals, but they could only save a small fraction. Hundreds of thousands of birds died, including close to two hundred bald eagles. More than five thousand sea otters and hundreds of harbor seals also died.
After years of court battles, Exxon was ordered to pay several billion dollars for the cleanup and as a settlement for residents affected by the spill. The captain of the ship, Joseph Hazelwood, is believed by many to have been negligent the night of the spill, in large part because he left control of the ship in the hands of other officers rather than overseeing the navigation through the sound himself. He also tested positive for alcohol hours after the incident.
To the naked eye in the early twenty-first century, the waters of Prince Island Sound and the shores around it no longer showed the mark of the millions of gallons of oil spilled there in 1989. But scientists believed some areas remained contaminated. Of the dozens of wildlife species damaged by oil, several remained diminished in number following the devastation of the Exxon Valdez spill.
Renewable energy sources
Many environmental activists and scientists have spent years exploring and promoting alternative and renewable energy sources, including harnessing wind, water, the heat of the sun, and the heat at Earth's core to produce electricity and other types of power. The power generated by the sun is called solar energy, while the power generated by Earth's core is called geothermal energy.
Another significant potential source of renewable energy is biomass, which refers to all organic material. Biomass includes plants and animals as well as products that come from these organisms, such as wood from a tree, or waste from an animal. Biomass contains energy that can be released through burning, like the heat that comes from burning wood, or through other methods. Plant crops such as corn and sugar cane, for example, can be processed and fermented to produce ethanol, a fuel that can be mixed with gasoline or used on its own to power car engines. Ethanol burns more cleanly than gasoline, emitting fewer harmful air pollutants. Another alternative fuel derived from biomass is biodiesel, which can be made from plant oils or animal fats. Biodiesel can even be made from recycled grease used to fry foods at restaurants. Any diesel engine, such as those in buses, large trucks, and many boats, can run on biodiesel, which is often blended with petroleum diesel. Like ethanol, biodiesel is cleaner than petroleum-based fuel, releasing fewer emissions that are harmful to humans and that contribute to global warming.
Even trash can be used to generate power. Some power plants, known as waste-to-energy plants, burn trash to create steam, which can then be used to produce electricity or heat for buildings. In addition, organic trash, including lawn clippings, food scraps, and animal waste, produces methane gas as it rots. That methane gas can be collected and used for energy production rather than being released into the atmosphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas and contributes to global warming. Another potential renewable energy source involves the use of hydrogen, an element that exists in great abundance in the air and in water. Scientists continue to explore safe and cost-effective ways to convert hydrogen into fuel because burning hydrogen produces far fewer pollutants than burning other types of fuel. Often, renewable energy sources have proven to be more expensive or difficult to harness than the energy from fossil fuels, but many experts believe the limitations and dangers of fossil fuels make the use of alternatives essential.
Many environmentalists feel that the most pressing concern at the start of the twenty-first century is not global warming but the loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the richness of plant and animal species within an ecosystem. The term also refers to diversity within a species, or diversity among a number of different species. As the world's population continues to expand, bringing with it new homes, buildings, roads, and communities, wildlife habitats are increasingly threatened. Plant and animal species are being driven into extinction at a rapid rate, and the extinction of one species in an ecosystem can have a drastic impact on the remaining species. The irreversible nature of extinction, and the unknown effect an extinction can have on other species, has led many environmentalists to place preservation of habitat, and therefore of biodiversity, at the top of their agenda for change. The more diverse an ecosystem or a species is, the more stable it is and the greater its chances for survival.
The many faces of the environmental movement
From its earliest days, one segment of the environmental movement has captured a great deal of publicity and attention: the radical wing. Some environmental organizations have taken an extreme approach to the issues, favoring direct confrontation with opponents as a means to effect change. For some activists, this has meant chaining themselves to trees in old-growth forests to discourage loggers from clearing that land. In 1997 a young activist named Julia Butterfly Hill (1974–) attempted to prevent logging of California redwoods by climbing 180 feet up into one of the great trees and refusing to come down. She stayed in the tree for just over two years, attracting international attention by her nonviolent approach to confrontation. Ultimately, the lumber company sold the land and the tree was saved. As a result, Hill was able to end her tree-sitting protest.
Some radical environmentalists have opted to reject nonviolence, choosing instead to draw notice to a cause through more dramatic means. Activists associated with the underground group Earth Liberation Front (ELF) set fire to several buildings at a ski resort in Colorado and to the office of a forestry company in Oregon. The organization Earth First! has also engaged in illegal acts of sabotage, targeting large companies viewed as enemies of the environment. Mainstream environmental groups, while they may agree with the goals of radical organizations, generally condemn their more extreme and illegal acts.
Many environmental activists have attempted to effect change through involvement in an ecologically motivated political party known as the Green Party. Inspired by Green parties in Europe, American activists formed a national Green movement during the mid-1980s. Many in the movement believed that the most effective way to protect the environment was to gain political power through the establishment of a national political party, a third-party alternative to the mainstream Democratic and Republican parties.
The Greens, as they are commonly known, gained national prominence during the 1996 presidential election, when they persuaded well-known consumer advocate Ralph Nader (1934–) to run as their candidate. Promoting what the Greens call "ecological wisdom" as well as other progressive political issues, Nader captured a great deal of attention but less than a million votes. Running again as the Green Party candidate in 2000, Nader earned nearly three million votes. With that election, the Greens demonstrated their potential to become an influential factor in the American political landscape, though the organization has been weakened by an internal split. As of 2001, the Greens split into two parties, the Green Party of the United States (GPUS) and the Greens/Green Party USA (G/GPUSA).
Although some environmental battles have been fought by radical fringe groups, and some by large, established, well-organized groups, a number of others have been waged by small groups of local citizens standing together to protect their communities. These local efforts, sometimes described by the nickname NIMBY (not in my backyard) have yielded numerous small victories like preserving a wildlife habitat, preventing the construction of a toxic-waste dump, and improving the quality of local waterways. The sum of all such community projects has been a substantial improvement in the health of the natural world and an increased awareness on the part of the average citizen of the impact each person can have on the environment.
The environmental movement has encountered numerous obstacles since its emergence in the 1970s. As environmental issues have become more complex, the obstacles have grown and the outlook has become less hopeful. The movement has accomplished significant change, however, substantially altering the way citizens view the world around them and live their everyday lives. New construction of homes and other buildings reflects the need for conservation, reflected in energy-saving windows and insulation as well as water-conserving toilets and showerheads. Household appliances, including refrigerators, washing machines, and dishwashers, are designed to be energy efficient as well. Recycling has become a habit with many citizens as more and more communities require that residents separate newspapers, glass, metal cans, and plastic from the rest of their garbage.
Although many environmentalists believe that car companies have not done enough, the industry has responded to concerns about harmful emissions and fossil fuels by producing cars that get better gas mileage and emit fewer pollutants. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, many automotive companies had begun production of hybrid cars that are powered by gasoline and electricity and use far less gas than traditional cars. The challenges facing the environmental movement in the new century are great, but many believe that the cause has won an important struggle because it has raised the general public's awareness of the importance of protecting the fragile balance of life on Earth.
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