ENVS 101 WW & WX & WY - Objective Two

Unit 1: Introduction To Environmental Science

Objective Two: To describe how environmental science emerged historically.

2.0 In the Beginning, Well Close

Humans have been altering nature or the natural environment for a long, long time. Prehistoric hunters used fire to clear fields to attract wild animals to the young and tender shoots of grass and other types of vegetation. Human interaction with, and deliberate use, of the natural environment goes back a long way. At some point, though, concerns about the indirect or unintended impacts of human use of or interaction with the environment began to emerge.

In the thirteenth century, we began to see concern expressed in England about the unintended impacts of using wood and coal to heat homes. This smoke from wood and coal fires, both within and outside the house, is perhaps the earliest recorded example of pollution. Over the next several hundred years, legislation, parliamentary studies, and literary comments appeared sporadically in England. By the early 1800's the smoke nuisance in London and other English cities was of sufficient public concern to prompt the appointment in 1819 of a Select Committee of the British Parliament to study and report upon smoke abatement.

Nonetheless, the number of air pollution incidents continued to increase. In 1873 an air pollution episode occurred in London where several thousand people died and in the autumn of 1909 in Glasgow, Scotland it was estimated that 1063 deaths were attributed to noxious air conditions. Concern about air pollution culminated in December 1952 in London, when the deaths of some 4,000 people were attributed to an air pollution incident.

2.1 Early Environmentalism in the U.S.

Meanwhile, overseas in the United States, it was probably the Indians that really were the first "environmentalists" in this country. Chief Seattle Duwamsih Tribe of the state of Washington wrote a letter in 1855 to then President Franklin Pierce about the U.S. government's offer to buy tribal land. He wrote "If I decide to accept your offer, I will make one condition. The white men must treat the beasts of this land as brothers. I am a savage and do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive. What is man without beasts? If all the beasts are gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected."

Between the period 1832 to 1870, a number of American writers warned that America's forest, grasslands, and wildlife resources were being depleted and degraded at an alarming rate, despite the culturally prevailing view at the time was that nature and environmental resources in this country were inexhaustible. These included folks like George Catlin, Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Law Olmstead, Charles W. Eliot, Henry David Thoreau, and George Perkins Marsh.

The first formal act of environmental protection occurred in 1872, when Congress set aside two million acres of forest in northwest Wyoming. These two million acres later became Yellowstone National Park. The federal government continued to play an active role in environmental protection. Between 1891 and 1897 Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland set aside millions of acres of public land from timber cutting.

A little over 100 years ago in 1892, California writer by the name of John Muir founded a group to protect a grove of old growth redwood trees. That group, called the Sierra Club, is still very much active in environmental protection today. Just shortly after in 1905, a group of private citizens established another group to protect the environment. The focus of this group, the National Audobon Society, was to protect wildlife.

In the early part of this century, during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, the federal government established wildlife refuges and sanctuaries and set millions of acres aside. To manage these new lands, Congress established the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. National Park System and the National Park Service.

So, the earliest initiatives at environmental protection in the United States were initiatives concerned with land and species conservation. The word "conservation" comes from the Latin term "consevere" which means to preserve or protect. Our country's earliest environmentalists, people like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, worked to preserve natural and pristine parcels of land and identify unique species of plants and animals, thereby protecting nature, in other words "the environment", for future generations.

2.2 Why the Mid-Century Blues Weren't Green

Just prior to the Great Depression, during the administration of Herbert Hoover, millions of acres of federal land which had been set aside earlier in the century were returned to the states or sold to private interests for economic development purposes. Old growth forests were logged and ecologically sensitive areas strip mined for their mineral resources. When things went bust in 1932, during the Great Depression, it became advantageous for financially strapped landowners to sell their land at low prices to the federal government. So in effect, the federal government embarked on a large land acquisition program.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, he realized he had huge surpluses of two important resources. The first was land, which had been recently acquired by the federal government. The second was labor. Millions of folks were out of work. Roosevelt's plan was simple. Let's employ these folks to help manage this land and so he established the Civilian Conservation Corp, or C.C.C. as it became known. The C.C.C. cleared trails, planted trees, developed parks, and carried out all kinds of land conservation projects. In 1933, to correct some of the massive erosion problems that had ruined many of the farms of the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service was established.

Between 1940 and 1960, there were few federal conservation projects enacted. The U.S. was involved in several consecutive armed conflicts beginning with World War II, followed by the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The only real notable event during this period, from an environmental perspective, occurred in 1948 in the town of Donora, Pennsylvania. Airborn pollutants from several factories stagnated over the town and several people became ill and twenty people died. The Donora incident became the major pollution incident in the United States.

2.3 The Sixties

In the 60's, interest in environmentalism in the United States begins to take off again. In 1962 a biologist named Rachel Carson wrote a book entitled "Silent Spring" in which she described the dangers of industrial pollution. There was a huge public response to this book and Rachel Carson is largely credited by historians today for kicking off the modern, or current, period of U.S. environmentalism.

Several other writers began writing about environmental topics during the mid to late 1960's, and public and political interest in environmental issues continued to grow. In the late 1960's, a group of organizers got together and planned a national environmental "teach-in" for April 22, 1970. This one day celebration of the environment became the first "Earth Day" and some 20 million Americans participated.

Politicians were quick to note this new issue of concern to their constituents and, in 1970, passed the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA as it is known. NEPA gave the federal government the authority to set minimum standards for environmental protection, which the individual states then were required to enforce.

To clear the air of air pollution, Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 and to stem the time of water pollution, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. The United States Environmental Protection Agency was established to administer these new regulations. To control the flow of pollution on land, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was passed in 1976. What was different about this period of legislation was that, rather than being focused on a particular parcel of land or an individual species as the environmental initiatives passed during the late 1800's and early 1900's had been, this new era of environmental legislation was focused on environmental systems at a national scale.

In total, between 1970 and 1980, Congress enacted two dozen pieces of federal legislation many of which are still in effect. During the 1970's we also experienced two oil embargoes which made people aware of the importance of energy as a resource.

2.4 Environment Goes Global

The focus of environmental concerns between 1960 and 1980 were national scale issues focused on specific environmental media - air, land, and water - or systems. The 1980's ushered in a new era of environmentalism, transboundary environmental issues, and so environment issues moved from a national to international and global scales.

By early 1980s, there was growing awareness that human societies were becoming increasingly more interdependent and linked and also because the world could not maintain the population and economic growth it had seen in the 1970's. There simply weren't enough resources for everyone and there was a growing awareness of the ability of humanity to fundamentally alter the earth's natural support systems. In 1982, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, or N.A.S.A., published a report in which the concept of "global change" became linked with the environment. The report stated "This is an unique time, when one species, humanity, has developed the ability to alter its environment on the largest (global) scale and to do so within the lifetime of a single species member. This report is concerned specifically with changes that may affect the habitability of the earth: the ability of the planet to support communities of plants and animals, to produce adequate supplies of food, and to sustain and renew the quality of air and water and the integrity of the chemical cycles essential for life".

The term "global change" refers to global environmental change and since 1982 many different approaches and definitions of global change have been proposed. Despite the differences of all these approaches and definitions, however, there are some common elements. The essential characteristics of global change are;

Global change refers generally to the effects of human activity on the landscape, sea-level and ocean circulation, the atmosphere, and terrestrial and marine organisms, superimposed on naturally-occurring changes.

Objective Three
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Copyright  2001 Lynn Middleton
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Updated:  January 2004  

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