Modern Environmental History

The sixty-plus years since the end of World War II is the period of interest in our discussion. This period represents the fruition and the pinnacle of technological progress and its attendant ills. It is also during this period that people began to see for the first time that there was a cost to the progress everyone was enjoying. The idea that technology itself is at best a double-edged sword or at worst an evil monster without any benefits began to take hold of the popular imagination. People began to see the same technology that brought so many improvements in daily life to ordinary people as producing negative side effects on the environment and on other aspects of the quality of human life.

Pollution of the air and water, an increase in the rate of chronic diseases, overpopulation (often a result of improved agriculture and increasing life span as well as decreasing infant mortality), exhaustion of natural resources, extinction of species, the loss of natural beauty by development, and many other associated problems began to reach the consciousness of the public by the 1960s. One of the first wake-up calls to the dangers facing humanity from the unrestrained use of technology to control the environment was the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

The public perception that certain things were getting worse was not wrong. In the London smog of 1952, at least 4,000 people died from the intense pollution episode, and breathing the foul air was a terrible experience. Occupational exposures to asbestos, bischloromethyl ether, beta-naphthylamine, vinyl chloride, nickel, beryllium, and radiation claimed thousands of lives. In Japan, water pollution by mercury and arsenic caused terrible suffering. Hunters reported a decrease in game; fishermen couldn't find fish in poisoned lakes and streams. Frequent oil spills from tankers caused ecological havoc. Meanwhile, the United States and Europe saw an increase in death from cancer and heart disease. Although American and British scientists discovered in the 1950s that tobacco smoking was a major cause of death, the tobacco industry successfully prevented public awareness of this fact for many decades with a campaign of lies, slander, and highly paid publicists (see chapter 9). This campaign cost the lives of millions of citizens.

The air of industrial cities like Pittsburgh was dangerous to breathe. Los Angeles developed its own special brand of smog. Food quality, which had improved tremendously for the average citizen compared with half a century earlier, now became a new issue. The very additives that at the turn of the century had saved lives by helping to preserve food from bacterial decay were seen as unnatural chemical products with at best unknown toxic-ity. Food colorings, flavorings, the use of hormones in meat products, and other issues related to food safety led to the growth of natural and organic foods as a healthier alternative to industrially processed food.

With the advent of atomic energy, a whole new class of environmental concerns arose related to the effects of environmental radiation. Nuclear fallout from bomb testing, the effects of accidents such as at Chernobyl, radon in homes, even the possibility that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) coming from electric power lines might cause health problems—all became issues of public concern. After a decade or more of increasing awareness and activism on issues of environmental health and conservation, the first Earth Day was celebrated as a political event in the United States in 1970.

By the early 1970s, a movement in Western Europe and the United States had begun to push for an improvement in environmental quality. This movement began as a spin-off of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, but as it grew it took on its own flavor and even color, at least in Europe, where in most countries political parties based on environmental quality issues became known as "The Greens.''

Twenty years later, a similar outpouring of public sentiment about exactly the same issues occurred in Communist Eastern Europe, which as we will see in chapter 7, had a major impact on the fall of the Communist system. In the years that followed, governments in the United States, Europe, and Asia, under strong pressure from citizens, began enacting legislation designed to control and reduce environmental hazards. The United States established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and gave it regulatory and enforcement power.

The 1970s saw major changes in the political, legal, and scientific atmospheres related to the human environment and quality-of-life issues in the United States. A series of legislative initiatives were enacted to roll back and control the damage being done to the environment. Federal agencies such as the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began to promulgate regulatory measures to reduce toxic emissions from automobiles, control hazardous exposures to workers, limit effluents from smokestacks into the air and from factories and power plants into the water, and test new chemicals for toxic or carcinogenic activity. A strong conservationist movement lobbied for and obtained new rules designed to prevent overdevelopment and protect rare wildlife such as the American bald eagle. As scientists discovered new hazards (lead, benzene, chlorofluorocarbons, radon, asbestos), regulations were passed to prevent their production and/or to limit their use.

After two decades of activism and growing awareness of the serious environmental and resource problems facing humanity, the 1980s seemed to be a period of retrenchment and retreat. By 1980, the U.S. government had put so many new regulations into effect that a reaction set in, and Ronald Reagan was able to campaign successfully against the general trend of what he called "overregulation" and the zeal of "government bureaucrats" at the EPA and other agencies.

But once in office, Reagan and his allies in industry and the antigovern-ment right wing discovered that a new culture of environmentalism had taken over the hearts and minds of a majority of the American people. The Reagan administration tried to destroy the EPA with the appointment of Anne Gorsuch as EPA administrator. But despite the general popularity of the president and public support for his program of decreasing governmental regulations, it turned out that the people (and not just liberal Democrats) actually liked the new regulations that were successfully reducing air pollution, industrial accidents, smog, and the number of unsafe products.

The attempt by right-wing and proindustry lobbyists to destroy the EPA met with spectacular failure (see chapter 8), and the regulations remained in force. Over the next two decades the effects of those regulations became clearer, as did our air and water. The simple truth is that they worked. The administration learned a surprising lesson from this experience: the public did not want to lose the environmental-quality gains produced by legislative and regulatory initiatives such as the Clean Air Act.

Congress and the public were not supportive of Gorsuch's and the administration's obvious attempts to first disempower and eventually dismantle the EPA. By the end of the Reagan era, despite many reverses in many areas, the clock on environmental progress had not been turned back as far as many had feared. Industry, once it was forced to clean up its act, did so. It wasn't cheap or easy, but it happened anyway, and new, cleaner (and also more efficient in many cases) ways of doing business became the standard operating procedure. In this book, I will document the detailed changes that were wrought on our air quality, water quality, conservation, ecology, and health.

I do not claim that everything is getting better. Some things are not getting better, and some things are getting much worse. But contrary to the messages of so many books, articles, and documentaries, not everything is getting worse, and we need to learn from our successes as much as from our failures. One of the most important lessons to learn from the past half century is that things do not get better by themselves. Rarely does any improvement in human life occur spontaneously. In most cases, a great deal of work, effort, and sometimes struggle with opposing forces is required.

The important point is that these efforts do pay off. For example, for many years economists and sociologists maintained that recycling could not work because people would never accept the burden of routinely separating garbage. In fact many folks did grumble and protest about having to use separate containers for paper, glass, and garbage. But the reality is that recycling has become, despite this inconvenience, common and natural in most Western countries. Human beings may be creatures of habit, but history has shown that these habits can be changed.

As of today, the culture of environmentalism has spread from a small group of activists to encompass most of society. The majority of schools teach treating the earth with respect, museums feature exhibitions on na ture, and TV specials on public and commercial channels promote the environmentalist message. Recycling and saving resources are generally considered absolute ideals. The general public awareness that the human environment can be degraded to the point of causing human misery is one of the main factors that has prevented or reversed such degradation throughout the world.

As a few recent books and articles have remarked (notably in The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg, discussed in more detail in chapter 10), the environmental movement has plenty of flaws, some of which I will discuss in chapter 10. But if we think about what would have happened if organizations such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Worldwatch Institute, etc. had never existed; if Silent Spring had never been written; if scientists had not published their research on the toxicity of lead or the dangers to the ozone layer; if Earth Day had not been organized; if schoolchildren had not been taught the mantra "save the earth''; if recycling had not become a household word; if the EPA had not been given tough powers of enforcement; or if the media had been suppressed in its reporting (even if not always accurately) of environmental and health crises, we can imagine that we would be standing today in a filthier, deadlier, and much more hopeless world.

How can I say this? I feel confident making this statement because the experiment has been done. We know what happens when a modern industrial society has no policy of environmental or public-health protection, when citizens cannot raise their voices against the industrial pollution that is killing them and their children, when the press says nothing, when there are no active environmental groups, and when scientists can neither study nor report on their findings.

All this has happened. It happened in Communist Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the results are both horrifying and illuminating. As I will discuss in chapter 7, the disastrous record of the Communist states during the 1970s and 1980s, the same period when Western environmentalists were struggling and eventually winning their battles, leaves no doubt as to what our own society would have been like if we had allowed our own industrial leaders (who happened to be capitalists instead of Communists, which as it turns out, makes no difference) to have their way, as did the commissars of Soviet industry. It will be a long time before the terrible legacy of environmental destruction waged in the name of progress in Russia and its satellites will be ameliorated.

In some cases (not ever seen in the West), the damage has reached the stage of irreversibility. There but for the grace of God, the environmental activists who put on the pressure, the scientists who did the research to find the facts, the regulators who had the courage to persevere in the face of tremendous opposition, and the corporate managers and engineers who developed and implemented the technology to clean things up, would have gone all of us.

Public health and the environment are everyone's concern, but they also form academic and scientific disciplines. I have been a professor of both environmental health and public health for many years, and I am very familiar with the strictly scientific as well as the public-policy aspects of these fields. Ultimately everything we say about the general issue of where we stand in the world today, how we got there, and where we are going—from the health effects of particulate air pollution to genetically modified foods— must relate back to scientifically valid data and conclusions. This means that the subject matter of this book falls squarely into what the late Stephen J. Gould called the "Scientific Magisterium'' as opposed to the "Magisterium of Faith,'' where spiritual scholarship and ideas reside.

It is important to make this distinction because there are many people who choose, for reasons having nothing to do with logic or factual reality, to believe or behave in ways that are based on faith. Nothing in this book should be taken as an attempt to persuade or dissuade such people about anything, because I agree with Gould that that is not the purpose or province of science. Before proceeding further, therefore, it would be helpful to discuss a few things about how science in general, and environmental science in particular, works.

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