About Maathai: The message she brought was that any debate about the natural world should not just be about science and parts-per-billion of obscure gases, or about genes or kilowatts, but must include developing countries and be rooted in justice, equity and the situation of the least advantaged. She went on to win the Nobel peace prize, and the planting of trees became a worldwide symbol of political hope and community regeneration.
The recent outrage over lead contamination in the water supply of Flint, Mich. reminds us of how much is known about the history of lead poisoning.
In 1786, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter about the harmful effects of lead. In describing the problem in distilleries and the printing trades, Franklin noted how resistant people can be when it comes to understanding public health and environmental issues.
Some day soon, an oil & gas industry representative will probably tell a journalist, or a politician, or a concerned parent: “Fracking water is as safe as dish soap. Check out the 2014 University of Colorado study.”
And of course that will be horribly wrong, but very few people will know why.
Information about world oil reserves has been skewed for political purposes. Until very recently, everyone believed the Middle East has 2/3 of all the world’s oil. But in fact, the Middle East has only 2/3 of a narrow politically defined category called “proven” reserves. How is it that we were so badly misinformed?
As a very young news reporter in Washington DC in 1979, I was invited to one of those think tank “luncheons” where the speakers chat amiably about the next imminent disaster. This one was about world oil reserves and the possible 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. All the speakers, that is, except one smiling Venezuelan named Alirio Parra, who was then the country’s oil minister. The bottom line of his talk was this: Don’t worry. Venezuela has more oil in the eastern Orinoco region than all the Middle East. And if this seems surprising, he said, 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.”
An historian is always hopeful when stumbling across an appeal to history in the popular press. But more often than not, an historian is disappointed.
Take, for example, one particularly baleful reaction to the Balcombe fracking protests in the UK this August of 2013. That the protesters were a superstitious lot, lacking any sense of history, is an argument employed by Daily & Sunday Express columnist, Niel Hamilton.
Although it must be read in its native ‘red-top’ context to be fully enjoyed, here are a few of Hamilton’s ‘lessons’ of history:
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 Abraham Lincoln and climate science
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 been 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 Continue reading Environmental issues are part of history