Lesson Objectives:- Defining environment
- The environmental movement
- The Environmental Protection Agency
The environment includes both the natural world as well as the human-built world and societies. Human ingenuity and enterprise have led to the development of food-producing systems that can feed billions of people. Human beings have built infrastructures and energy systems to support civilizations.
However, this advancement has also come with hazards and costs. Burning fossil fuels has created air pollutants and raised the temperature of our planet for example.
There are two categories of negative impact: cumulative impacts and unintended consequences. Cumulative impacts include the effects of any activity done at scale or by a lot of people. For example, cutting down one tree does not have as negative of an impact as cutting down an entire forest. Unintended consequences involve the results of taking an action that can be detrimental. For example, using chemical pesticides helped control Dutch elm disease, but unfortunately, also killed large bird populations due to toxic levels of DDT.
The environmental movement in the United States had its early origins in the late 19th century when indiscriminate killing of animals and birds sparked public outrage. New conservation organizations such as the National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club were founded. John Muir founded the Sierra Club and also convinced President Theodore Roosevelt of the importance of preserving national parks and public lands such as Yosemite. President Theodore Roosevelt set up the first national parks, still in existence today.
During the Great Depression, conservation efforts helped restore the land and provide employment via the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the years following the Second World War, the country was focused on production and expansion. Little attention was paid to the environment though air pollution increased and populations of many bird species, animals and fish declined heavily.
It was in 1962 that the public became aware of the extent of the damage through Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring where she drew attention to the effects of DDT and the decline in many bird species nationwide, including the symbol of the United States, the bald eagle.
President Kennedy set up a committee to investigate the claims of Rachel Carson's book. The committee discovered her findings to be true and after public debate, DDT was officially banned and a new agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed in 1970. The EPA was expected to function independently of other agencies despite any pressures. The EPA passed many laws protecting wildlife and limiting pollution such as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Air Act of 1970, Clean Water Act of 1972, Endangered Species Act of 1973 and more.
In 1980, there was a hazardous waste problem in Love Canal, NY. The safety of drinking water for the public was a huge concern. A Superfund was created to help clean up the area and the Superfund Act passed to support the clean up of areas nationwide. From the 1970s onwards, many new environmental groups and organizations were founded due to concerns about the holes in the ozone layer, scientific studies that came out on acid rain, and global climate change. New policies were also put into effect to address these issues.
People and organizations that focused on environmental concerns became known as environmentalists and this movement was called environmentalism. Due to the EPA, Superfund and public awareness initiated by many environmentalists, pollution decreased and the air in U.S. cities and the water in lakes and rivers is cleaner than it was in the 1960s. The environmental movement was successful in addressing many pollution problems.
Despite its successes, the environmental movement has acquired many critics, especially from businesses and their special interest groups that oppose any regulation. It has also become a political issue.