The Historical Influences on the Modern Environmental Movement

The authors of this article discuss historical influences on the modern environmental movement in the areas of water and air pollution, deforestation, habitat destruction, and environmental disasters.

How do you think population growth has influenced the environmental movement?

Air Pollution

By Charles Lee, Emelie Chien, and Bernice Ding

During the "era of enlightenment" (from 1700 to 1800), populations in Western Europe began to protest the lack of clean air in central cities due to air pollution from dust, human activities, such as wood burning, and methane gas emissions from cattle and livestock. During the industrial revolution, mass production of goods and services led to new demands for natural resources, increased carbon emissions from coal burning, and widespread pollution from sugar cane burning.

From 1920 to 1940, while some scientists predicted increased levels of carbon dioxide would cause rising global temperatures, lawsuits demanded limits on the amount of sulfur dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, and several governments recognized the need to restrict factories from discharging atmospheric pollutants. The U.S. public health service (PHS) began checking air pollution levels in cities in the eastern United States. 

On July 14, 1955, the U.S. Congress enacted the Air Pollution Control Act, which it replaced with the Clean Air Act of 1963.

On April 22, 1970, Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) created the first Earth Day, to promote air and water cleanup, and on Dec. 2, 1970, Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In September 1976, the National Academies of Science issued a report that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were a threat to the ozone layer, which ultimately led to the discovery of an atmospheric ozone hole in Antarctica. 

In August 1987 46 countries signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals.

From the year 1990 to 2000, the U.N. reported that climate change, and that sulfur dioxide emission decreased by 40% between 1970 to 1990. In the 21st century, The U.S government deregulated many environmental acts such as the Clean Air Act in favor of industrial expansion in the U.S. In 2002, the German government announced plans for a massive increase in wind generation capacity over the next 25 years, which would produce energy supply, maintain a sustainable footing, and reduce national carbon dioxide emissions by 10% of 1998 level.

In 2003, the US government proposed "Clear Skies" legislation to Congress to replace the Clean Air Act which allowed three times more toxic mercury emissions, 50% more sulfur emissions, and hundreds of thousands more tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, all in favor of business and industrial expansion. Within the same year, the EPA rejected petitions from environmental groups to increase regulation of greenhouse gas emissions produced by vehicles. In 2004, Scientists published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that air pollution damages many Southern Californian children's lungs. In 2007, the EPA decrease the level of carcinogenic benzene allowed in gasoline to 1.3%, which will result in an 80% cut of 1999 toxic emissions levels by 2030. In essence, efforts to reduce air pollution is like a stock market chart moving up and down, but always going higher.


Water Pollution

In ancient civilizations in BC-1200 AC, India and Hindu cities tended to have less pollution due to strict religious codes of cleanliness, while Rome was known for its sewage-filled streets. By the middle age from 1200-1750, water pollution was less of a problem for dispersed populations that it would later become, in 1388 Parliament even passed an act forbidding the throwing of filth and garbage into ditches, rivers, and waters. By the enlightenment period from 1750 through 1830, there was a greater increase in pollution especially in the rivers as new technologies were created. Town gas from coal would drip tar into the rivers, vulcanized rubber plants discharged noxious chemicals directly into the streams. During the industrial revolution in 1830-1890, water pollution began carrying disease, no one knew exactly why until the 1880s.

Jacques Cousteau and Prince Rainier III of Monaco publicly opposed the French plan to dump radioactive wastes into the Mediterranean Sea which in turn lead France to not go ahead. Congress passed the Water Quality Act setting standards for states. Cuyahoga River caught flames 5 stories high from oil and chemical pollution, illuminating the extent of pollution and simultaneously igniting controversy over how much cleanup will be needed. From 1970 to 1980, water pollution was greatly decreased through a massive sewage treatment expansion program. Rivers which were once sewers began a gradual return from the grave. Congress passed the Soil and Water Conservation Act. From 1980 to 1990, a chemical spill in Basel, Switzerland created massive fish kill in the Rhine River through Germany, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Contamination cuts of drinking and irrigation water for millions of people and kills half a million fish. In 1992, Supertanker Braer spilled 26 million gallons of crude oil in the Hebrides islands. In 1993, Greenpeace observers photographed Russian ship TNT-27 dumping 900 tons of low-level radioactive waste off the east coast of Russia in the Sea of Japan, setting off an international diplomatic rift between Japan and Russia. In 2000, a lethal strain of the E. coli O157:H7 bacterium in drinking water kills nine people in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada. Until this year, there hasn't been any major issue concerning water pollution, which may mean that we are managing the waters better than before.



Deforestation has been a problem for almost all civilizations and societies all over the world. Timber and wood have so many uses and forests always seemed endlessly plentiful, timbering first began with the rise of civilization. However many civilizations quickly found out that their forests were disappearing, and deforestation led to the collapse of the communities in Israel and Jordan around 6000BC. By the 1500s, European countries were forced to switch from wood to coal since their forests were gone. Around the same time, Japan created the first system of wood management. In the 1800s, many forest protection societies were created, while at the same time countries start to realize their forests are an important part of their nationalism and encourage saving trees. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the US created a federal forest reserve of many million acres of forests and created many acts to protect their forests. In the mid-1900s, people began to become concerned with their forests, and some people would begin fighting to save their forests. Especially in India at the request of Gandhi they included forest and environment protection in their constitution. In 1962 Carson's book Silent Spring creates concern for environmental protection. By the late 1900's many people began to take action and participate in protests to save forests, even though some people were injured. Actions against logging ranged from the rain forest of New Zealand, to Alaska's National Forest, to trees in the Himalayas. Some of the protests work and some didn't, Mexico lost almost 3 million acres of forest and jungle every year between 1993 and 2000. Also often high government officials agree that destroying the forests was bad and have a large effect on the way the country acts on deforestation. Brazil's Environmental Minister resigned after failing to protect the Amazon forest. Overall deforestation is still a continuing problem and many people and organizations are still fighting against it.


Environmental Disasters

By Lily Ann Chen and Jordan Mech

From BC up until now there were numerous environmental disasters, however, not many of them were natural. Most of the environmental disasters that occurred were human-caused, such as events of industrial technology allowing for the Bhopal mass poisoning in India, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in Ukraine, and oil spills in the U.S.A. However, these environmental disasters have been decreasing as George Bush's presidency began with strong support for traditional energy options for oil, gas, coal, and nuclear disasters. Other improvement movements that have been a support in decreasing environmental disasters was public pressure to force change to occur. Organizations affiliated with the U.N. have been implementing different laws to protect the environment, to assure disasters that have occurred in the past will not take place in the future.



By Ching Fung, David Su, & Jack Sun

The history of legislation for environmentalism is long and drawn out. Ever since the beginning of civilization, people have voiced their want to protect the natural environment, for intrinsic values, sanitary values, or otherwise. It isn't a new idea that the environment offers services that humans need. However, the issue of legislation, politics -- authority intervention -- began in 256 BC, India, when one of the Seven Pillars edicts called for various animals to be protected. In 80 AD the Roman Senate passed a law to protect water stored during dry periods for release into streets and sewers. In a return to animal consideration, Bartholomew Chassenee of France became the first "animal rights attorney" on record in 1480. By the Industrial Revolution, the legislation's focuses shifted from animals to other forms of natural capital; in 1817 the US authorized the reservation of timberlands that produced hardwoods for naval stores. Emphasis on sanitation was evident in the UK's Factory Act of the 1820s which involved the appointment of inspectors that checked, among other aspects, sanitary practices. Also, in 1848, the UK's City Sewers Act encouraged paving, drainage, and cleansing. By 1922, the National Coast Anti Pollution League was formed, signifying another shift in environmental values. The US's Clean Air Act of 1963 continued this trend towards decreasing pollution, but the legislation was loosened somewhat in the 1970s due to warnings that overenforcement of strict pollution laws would lead to the collapse of entire industries. As more pollution studies continued, researchers began realizing the long-term dangers of overpollution and thus began the battle against climate change, which included the US's National Security Act of 1980 which required gasoline to be mixed with at least 10% alcohol to minimize pollution, as well as 1987's Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act, which forbade dumping of plastic materials in the ocean. Moving beyond domestic borders, the UN Antarctica treaty in 1991 prohibited excessive mining, pollution, and animal slaughter. By the 2000s, pollution became even more of a worry, and the EU responded by banning leaded gasoline in 2000, The US, going beyond simply banning negative products, assisted the wind energy industry by offering an extensive tax credit for wind energy production in 2002. However, the Bush Administration opposed many of the previously established acts such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and approved mountaintop removal mining in 2003, signifying an apparent shift from environmental to perhaps economic concern. In 2009, the US's EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) ruled that certain greenhouse gases, including CO2, should be regulated. Although collective environmental values have shifted over the centuries, it can be said with confidence that in the near future much of the legislation involved will relate to pollution and climate change.


Habitat Destruction

By Mandy McGuire and Karoliina Lehtonen

Habitat destruction is the collapse of a habitat either from human activities or natural disasters. 60,000 years before the present, scientists first discovered evidence of the use of fire to deliberately clear forests in Tanzania. This led to serious habitat destruction in the forests. In 6000 BC the deforestation in southern Israel and Jordan lead to a collapse of communities. Until 1200BC soil erosion was occurring around the world due to deforestation, and destroying habitats. In the middle ages, in 1388, parliaments passed a law forbidding the throwing of filth and garbage into ditches, rivers, and waters – thus improving sanitization in habitats. From the 1560s to the 1600s, the rapid industrialization in England led to heavy deforestation and an increase in the demand for wood, further endangering the forest habitats. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin noticed that the switch from coal to wood had preserved the remaining forest habitats, and encouraged other countries to do the same. During the industrial revolution, there was huge reform and building of cities, which lead to huge amounts of pollution being released into the atmosphere and endangering several habitats. Landslides are an example of natural habitat destruction and can destroy habitats by covering the ground with a layer of dirt, soil, rocks, or even snow. Organisms that escape a landslide are not able to return because of the lack of food and therefore the ecosystem is destroyed. An example of such an occurrence is the 1961 Vajont landslide. Humans play a huge role in habitat destruction as well. One of the largest examples of this is oil spills by large tankers transporting crude oil across the sea. Such incidents include the 1967 Torrey Canyon crash off the coast of England which spilled 29 million gallons, and the 1992 Supertanker Braer spill, when 26 million gallons were spilled in the Hebrides islands. Oil companies not only destroy habitats in the ocean but on land as well. Ogoni men and women stood up and protested in 1993 against Shell Oil Co. destroying hundreds of acres of their homelands in Nigeria. Another example of habitat destruction is when 3,000 tons of Taiwanese toxic waste was dumped in a field in Cambodia in 1998. Lastly, the most serious US environmental disaster east of the Mississippi River was when over 300 million gallons of coal sludge poured into a stream when a dam collapsed in Kentucky. It destroyed 100 miles of streams and killed millions of fish. Though habitat destruction has gotten much more attention recently and will therefore be slowed, habitats will always be threatened by human accidents and careless errors.

Source: IB Environmental Systems and Societies
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Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2021, 12:18 PM