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:
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 →
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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 →
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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 →
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First west to east voyage through Canada's Northwest Passage departs Vancouver 23 June 1940 and arrives at Halifax on 11 October 1942.
Tomorrow In Environmental History
Activists & environmentalists
David McTaggart, one of the founders of Greenpeace, was born on this day in 1932 in Canada. He was the chairman of Greenpeace International from 1979 to 1991. McTaggart got involved because (according to his Greenpeace biography) "he was outraged with the French Government's decision to cordon off a vast swath of international waters in order to conduct their nuclear testing program in the Pacific. He renamed his 12.6 meter sailing craft "Greenpeace III" and sailed to the zone surrounding Moruroa Atoll. McTaggart observed international law in establishing his anchor position, but ignored the French Government's unilateral declaration of the area as a forbidden zone. The presence of his boat, at a position downwind from the planned blast, forced the French government to halt its test. A French Navy vessel eventually rammed the boat to end the embarrassing situation. McTaggart repaired his boat and returned a year later. He was physically beaten by French military personnel, who denied the charge, claiming that McTaggart's ship had already left the area. One of McTaggart's crew had photographed the beating, however, and the film, which was smuggled out of French custody with the crewmember, proved the French had been lying. The photographs were widely published, and the story drew further criticism to the French nuclear testing program." He retired and was killed in a car accident on March 2001 near his home in Italy. Te Vaka dedicated the song "Sei Ma Le Losa" to McTaggart.
St. Vitus Dance epidemic breaks out on this day in 1374 in Aachen, Germany and spreads throughout Belgium and the Netherlands. Dancers could not control themselves and sometimes danced for months on end, sometimes dying of exhaustion or heart attacks. Hundreds of people at a time might be affected. The dancing mania is well known in history with periodic outbreaks until the mid-20th century. Yet it is a mystery, and its cause may be simply social, involving behavior that would otherwise be prohibited in a rigid Medieval society. Or the cause may have involved mass poisonings from contaminated grain.
Yesterday In Environmental History
1969Coyahoga River catches fire on this day in 1969, sparking a new wave of environmental concern in the US. The event was not unusual -- the Cuyahoga and most other urban rivers and harbors were known to catch fire from oil and chemical pollution. But media attention helped to focus public opinion on the growing problem of water pollution.
Ellen Swallow Richards is profiled in March, 2017 Nautilus Magazine as "the woman who gave us the science of normal life." Richards first became active in environmental issues in the 1870s and was an important early voice in the Progressive reform movement at the turn of the 20th century.
Pollution regs saved lives says Michael Greenstone in this Sept. 24, 2015 article in the New York Times. Although some people want to repeal the Clean Air Act, air quality regulations have averted tens of thousands of premature deaths, Greenstone says.
LA's first big smog on July 26, 1943 is the subject of this Wired article. Of course, there had been many previous smog incidents, but mostly involving coal in Europe and the industrialized eastern US. As Peter Dykstra notes on the radio program Living on Earth, it was the first smog caused by automobiles.
Exxon Valdez anniversary Twenty five years ago, on March 24, 1989, a negligent oil industry and a drunken tanker captain and ruined a pristine corner of America. Here's what it looked like.
LA smog siege, 1979 Sera Segal-Alsberg wears mask designed to filter out airborne particles during Los Angeles smog alert on June 29, 1979.
¶ 1970 Clean Car Race is reported in MIT Technology Review in August, 2013. The cleanest car, among the electrics and hybrids, was a modified internal combustion engine.
¶ Buffalo soldiers In the late 19th century and early 20th century, black cavalry troopers patrolled Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in California. A new book describes their role. (Chicago Tribune, June 18, 2013).
¶ History of the Commons and today's environmental crisis is an excellent read in the May/June 2013 Utne Magazine.
¶ Saving the NJ Pine Barrens Writer John McPhee recalls the struggle to save a remnant of wilderness on the east coast. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 2013.
¶ Aldo Leopold is remembered by the editor of the Milwaukee Journal, March 2, 2013. The forester and conservationist articulated a "land ethic" in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac.
¶ Remembering Darwin Scientific American remembers Charles Darwin and his impact on science on the 204th anniversary of his birthday, Feb. 12, 2012.
¶ Shackleton crew's 1916 ordeal -- a perilous journey taken after their ship got stuck and sank in Antarctica -- is being reinacted by a group of British and Australian adventurers. (Associated Press, Feb. 10, 2013)
¶ First subway The London tube is 150 years old on Jan. 9, 2013. Mind the gap!
¶ Birth of the Clean Water Act Living on Earth interviews William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator, about the Clean Water Act of 1972. "it was a terrible time," Ruckelshaus said. "I remember the first time I moved to Washington and the air was brown as I’d go to work in the morning. There was no industry in Washington at the time, that was all automobile pollution." Dec. 28, 2012.
¶ Remembering Barry Commoner A biologist and activist best known for studying baby’s teeth to demonstrate that radioactive fallout from atomic weapons testing was getting into our food supply and endangering our health. Living on Earth, Oct. 5, 2012.
¶ Bodega nuclear fight Gary Pace of Sebastopol, California reflects on the 1960s fight over building a nuclear power plant on top of the San Andreas earthquake fault at the Bodega Headlands. "I often wonder how (environmentalists) found the outrageous hope that they could halt the building of a nuclear plant once the work had started and I ask for similar inspiration." Living on Earth, Sept. 28, 2012.
¶ Climate change drove early human migration, anthropologists believe. NPR, Sept. 20, 2012.
¶ Ancient deforestation created the Danube River delta 8,000 years ago, scientists have found. Sept. 14, 2012New York Times.
¶ Environmental injustice The Hawks Nest Disaster of 1930 - 33 is getting a new memorial. In the infamous incident, between 700 to 3,000 US workers were killed or severely injured for life after boring a tunnel through a section of pure silica without then-standard respiratory protection. Sept. 7, 2012, W.V. Gazette. Also see this People's Press 1935 article about the disaster.
¶ National mammal? Teddy Roosevelt V argues that the US should remember its conservation history by making the bison the country's national mammal. Sept. 4, 2012
¶ Environmental Future Postcards from the past show the world of the future in 2012 in all its dazzling glory, from air police stopping traffic to whales pulling carriages full of divers. Fast Company, Aug. 20, 2012
¶ Smog of History LA Times recaps an article about testing pollution control devices in the 1950s. Aug. 17, 2012
¶ Remembering the Radium Craze France's 19th century radium craze still haunts Paris, Reuters reports. "When the Franco-Polish Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie discovered the radioactive element radium in 1898, she set off a craze for the luminescent metal among Parisians, who started using it for everything from alarm clock dials to lipsticks and even water fountains." July 20, 2012
¶ Drought in ancient times The ancient Mayan water system was designed with drought in mind, as this New York Times article notes. Are there lessons for the modern era? July 17, 2012.