Category Archives: about history

Reflecting on the battle for the nature

Environmentalism has become the front line in a global battle for the survival of the natural world, says The Guardian’s environmental news editor, John Vidal, on his retirement.

Two people in particular stand out in his short memoir published Dec. 23:  Wangari Maathai from Kenya, and Ken Saro-Wiwa of Nigeria.

Barack Obama and Maathai, 2006. (Wikipedia)

Barack Obama and Maathai, 2006. (Wikipedia)

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.   

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The toxic history of lead

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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.

You will observe, with concern, how long a useful truth may be known, and exist, before it is generally received and practiced on,” he said.

Although it hardly seems creditable, the useful truth about lead in the form of paint, water pipes, and leaded gasoline is still not practiced.

Lead is the oldest and best known of environmental hazards.For over two millennia, overexposure to lead was known to cause hallucinations and severe mental problems. Continue reading

Soft soap and fracking dangers

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.

This is particularly important in light of New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that a state health department study found that fracking is too dangerous for New York state  (as reported in the NY Times Dec. 17, 2014.)

At best, people will chalk the difference up to the old adage:  For every PhD, there is an equal and opposite PhD.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

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Leaded gasoline keeps coming back

Franklin. Wikipedia.

You will observe with concern, Ben Franklin wrote in 1786 how long a useful truth may be known  known and exist, before it is generally received and practiced on. 

Franklin mentioned lead poisoning as an occupational hazard for printing.  Yet 228 years later, we are still grappling with the issue.

The latest event sparking concerns is the conviction of four  Associated Octel  managers for bribery and conspiring to sell leaded gasoline despite bans.   (Octel is now Innospec).

According to the Serious Fraud Office of the UK government: Continue reading

Before we go to war for oil again …

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The oil octopus – a 19th century cartoon.

By Bill Kovarik

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.”

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Baleful history and the Balcombe protests

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:

The doom-mongers are like primitive tribes, firing flaming arrows at the sun at sunset in order to make it rise again the next day, which obviously ‘works’  because the sun does rise again.    Continue reading

New documentary on Environmental History


Fierce Green Fire is a long-awaited documentary based on the best-selling book by New York Times environmental journalist Phil Schabecoff.

A green Nixon doesn’t wash

Richard Nixon: Environmentalist?

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.”

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Abraham Lincoln and climate science

The Leonids of 1833

By Bill Kovarik
Published in Appalachian Voice

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

Environmental issues are part of history

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