Environmental concerns and conflicts have surfaced throughout human history, from the earliest settlements to the latest headlines. This comes as a surprise to many people because our emphasis in history has all too often focused on war and politics rather than environment, culture and development.
The evidence for a longstanding concern for environmental issues has been readily available in manuscripts, publications and historical archives. It can be found under labels like conservation, or public health, preservation of nature, smoke abatement, municipal housekeeping, occupational disease, air pollution, water pollution, home ecology, animal protection or many other topic areas.
The modern word “environmental” was developed as an umbrella to encompass a variety of related concerns, but the concerns and related conflicts are threaded through history like the underside of a tapestry — not always visible, but always part of the fabric of life.
A Mahatma Gandhi for the 21st century? Not exactly. Even so …
For one shining moment in Houston, Rex Tillerson, head of the world’s most powerful corporation, asked a Gandhi-like question. Speaking about climate change at the ExxonMobil annual meeting last week in Houston, Tillerson asked:
Environmental politics is often symbolic, so its no surprise that the symbolic legacy of most power figure in environmental history — Rachel Carson — has become highly contested.
She is, for some, the woman who turned a sleepy conservation movement into a green typhoon. For a few people, however, she is the symbol of environmentalism gone horribly wrong, a nightmarish figment of their fertile imaginations. And the most persistently contested areas of Carson’s symbolic afterlife involves a controversy over one pesticide ( DDT ) and one disease (malaria).
In the pugnacious facts-be-damned style of American extremists, Carson’s legacy is the nightmare of a worldwide ban on DDT that has (supposedly) killed Continue reading →
One reason the Keystone pipeline debate seems so frantic today is that the oil industry led us to believe that 2/3 of all the world’s oil was in the Middle East. We should have been talking about the abundance of oil all along, especially from so-called “unconventional” reserves like those in Canada that would be carried by the Keystone pipeline.
As a very young news reporter in Washington DC in 1979, I was invited to one of those think tank “luncheons” where everyone chats amiably about some imminent disaster. This one was about world oil reserves and the imminent collapse of the Persian Gulf.
Not surprisingly, all the speakers agreed that a shut-down of the Persian Gulf would be catastrophic and must be prevented at all costs. That is, all the speakers except one smiling Venezuelan named Alirio Parra, who was then oil minister. The bottom line was: Don’t worry. Venezuela has more oil in the eastern Orinoco than all the Middle East. And, he strongly implied, your petroleum geologists should be more honest with you.
I remember the shouts of outrage from the assembled policy wonks, one of whom yelled that there was “a journalist here” in the same tone that a Victorian preacher might caution: “ladies present.”
Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics who died Monday at the age of 87, is being lionized as the woman who tilted British domestic and economic policy to the right.
Less noted is how seriously she viewed the threat of climate change.
In a 1990 speech at the second World Climate Conference, in Geneva, Thatcher compared the threat of global warming to the Gulf War, which was then just escalating following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Thatcher, who spent 11 years as the United Kingdom’s prime minister, spent almost a quarter of her 2,500-word speech touting the importance of climate science and the UN body tasked with assessing that science. She called the work of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “remarkable” and “very careful.” Continue reading →
An aura of excitement and predictability surrounds the president’s annual State of the Union speech: A few days of hyped drama and TV punditry builds to a political Woodstock featuring generals, justices, senators, cabinet secretaries and Congress, all under one roof. Up in the balcony, the First Lady plays host to a few iconic, symbolic taxpayers who recently shared a heroic moment of fame with America.
If the past is prologue, the green talk and pageantry may be the only things delivered on the president’s lofty words this year on Feb. 12.
Environmentalists are on higher-alert than normal this year, after President Obama made a sweeping inaugural promise to tackle climate change, an issue he’d largely avoided during his first term…. More
Occasionally, the Great Question of America’s august place in the global order is best elucidated in a location far, far from the glare of kleig lights and the stares of Washington wonks. We then see the wisdom lurking within statehouse committees and cracker barrel country stores and signs painted on the sides of tobacco barns.
And the message: Get the US out of the United Nations. Look out for blue helmets in black helicopters. Most of all, these days: Beware of Agenda 21.
By Bill Kovarik Published in the Daily Climate and Environmental Health News
Richard Nixon would be 100 years old on Jan. 9, 2013, and on the anniversary of his birth, it’s tempting to portray the 37th U.S. president as a major environmental advocate.
That would be a mistake, for it would let modern-day politics trump an important history lesson.
Nixon said and did things about the environment that seem courageous from today’s perspective:
“Clean air is not free, and neither is clean water,” he said in his 1970 State of the Union address. “Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.”
Abraham Lincoln used to tell a story during the darkest days of the Civil War. Although the story was omitted from a recent movie about Lincoln, is still worth recalling.
The story goes like this:
When Lincoln was a young man in Illinois, in 1833, he was roused from his bed late one night by his frantic landlord. “Abe! Abe! Wake up! The day of Judgment has come,” the landlord shouted. Lincoln threw open the window and saw fearful neighbors in the road and, above them, a spectacular sky lit up by the Leonid shower of meteors. At first he shared their dismay. “But looking back of them in the heavens,” Lincoln said, “I saw all the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and immoveable and true in their places.
Thirty years later, Lincoln would tell this story to his generals and say, “No, gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.”
After the contentious media-driven politics of 2012, it often seems that nothing in our own times is fixed, immoveable or true in place. But that would be a misperception. We only need to look behind those falling stars to see so many of our grand old constellations still fixed and true in their places. Continue reading →
The moment when presidential candidate Mitt Romney provided millions of US Republicans with a belly laugh at climate science — Aug 30, 2012 — is destined for a place in the history books.
“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans,” said candidate Mitt Romney, pausing as the audience of Republicans howled with laughter at the absurdity of the promise. Romney continued: “… and to heal the planet. My promise — is to help you and your family.”
It’s one of those remarkable moments that speaks to the spirit of an age — in this case, an age of denial, of superstition, and of reckless, deliberate ignorance in the face of facts. It is a 1938 Munich moment, a stroll on Titanic’s ice-strewn deck in 1912. To use environmental history analogies, it’s like the Donora smog of 1948 or the Cuyahoga river fire of 1969 in that it could be a wake-up call. Continue reading →
¶ History of the Commons and today's environmental crisis is an excellent read in the May/June 2013 Utne Magazine.
¶ Saving the NJ Pine Barrens Writer John McPhee recalls the struggle to save a remnant of wilderness on the east coast. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 2013.
¶ Aldo Leopold is remembered by the editor of the Milwaukee Journal, March 2, 2013. The forester and conservationist articulated a "land ethic" in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac.
¶ Remembering Darwin Scientific American remembers Charles Darwin and his impact on science on the 204th anniversary of his birthday, Feb. 12, 2012.
¶ Shackleton crew's 1916 ordeal -- a perilous journey taken after their ship got stuck and sank in Antarctica -- is being reinacted by a group of British and Australian adventurers. (Associated Press, Feb. 10, 2013)
¶ First subway The London tube is 150 years old on Jan. 9, 2013. Mind the gap!
¶ Birth of the Clean Water Act Living on Earth interviews William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator, about the Clean Water Act of 1972. "it was a terrible time," Ruckelshaus said. "I remember the first time I moved to Washington and the air was brown as I’d go to work in the morning. There was no industry in Washington at the time, that was all automobile pollution." Dec. 28, 2012.
¶ Remembering Barry Commoner A biologist and activist best known for studying baby’s teeth to demonstrate that radioactive fallout from atomic weapons testing was getting into our food supply and endangering our health. Living on Earth, Oct. 5, 2012.
¶ Bodega nuclear fight Gary Pace of Sebastopol, California reflects on the 1960s fight over building a nuclear power plant on top of the San Andreas earthquake fault at the Bodega Headlands. "I often wonder how (environmentalists) found the outrageous hope that they could halt the building of a nuclear plant once the work had started and I ask for similar inspiration." Living on Earth, Sept. 28, 2012.
¶ Climate change drove early human migration, anthropologists believe. NPR, Sept. 20, 2012.
¶ Ancient deforestation created the Danube River delta 8,000 years ago, scientists have found. Sept. 14, 2012New York Times.
¶ Environmental injustice The Hawks Nest Disaster of 1930 - 33 is getting a new memorial. In the infamous incident, between 700 to 3,000 US workers were killed or severely injured for life after boring a tunnel through a section of pure silica without then-standard respiratory protection. Sept. 7, 2012, W.V. Gazette. Also see this People's Press 1935 article about the disaster.
¶ National mammal? Teddy Roosevelt V argues that the US should remember its conservation history by making the bison the country's national mammal. Sept. 4, 2012
¶ Environmental Future Postcards from the past show the world of the future in 2012 in all its dazzling glory, from air police stopping traffic to whales pulling carriages full of divers. Fast Company, Aug. 20, 2012
¶ Smog of History LA Times recaps an article about testing pollution control devices in the 1950s. Aug. 17, 2012
¶ Remembering the Radium Craze France's 19th century radium craze still haunts Paris, Reuters reports. "When the Franco-Polish Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie discovered the radioactive element radium in 1898, she set off a craze for the luminescent metal among Parisians, who started using it for everything from alarm clock dials to lipsticks and even water fountains." July 20, 2012
¶ Drought in ancient times The ancient Mayan water system was designed with drought in mind, as this New York Times article notes. Are there lessons for the modern era? July 17, 2012.