A Mahatma Gandhi for the 21st century? Not exactly. Even so …
For one shining moment in Houston, Rex Tillerson, head of the world’s most powerful corporation, asked a Gandhi-like question. Speaking about climate change at the ExxonMobil annual meeting last week in Houston, Tillerson asked:
An aura of excitement and predictability surrounds the president’s annual State of the Union speech: A few days of hyped drama and TV punditry builds to a political Woodstock featuring generals, justices, senators, cabinet secretaries and Congress, all under one roof. Up in the balcony, the First Lady plays host to a few iconic, symbolic taxpayers who recently shared a heroic moment of fame with America.
If the past is prologue, the green talk and pageantry may be the only things delivered on the president’s lofty words this year on Feb. 12.
Environmentalists are on higher-alert than normal this year, after President Obama made a sweeping inaugural promise to tackle climate change, an issue he’d largely avoided during his first term…. More
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Occasionally, the Great Question of America’s august place in the global order is best elucidated in a location far, far from the glare of kleig lights and the stares of Washington wonks. We then see the wisdom lurking within statehouse committees and cracker barrel country stores and signs painted on the sides of tobacco barns.
And the message: Get the US out of the United Nations. Look out for blue helmets in black helicopters. Most of all, these days: Beware of Agenda 21.
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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The moment when presidential candidate Mitt Romney provided millions of US Republicans with a belly laugh at climate science — Aug 30, 2012 — is destined for a place in the history books.
“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans,” said candidate Mitt Romney, pausing as the audience of Republicans howled with laughter at the absurdity of the promise. Romney continued: “… and to heal the planet. My promise — is to help you and your family.”
It’s one of those remarkable moments that speaks to the spirit of an age — in this case, an age of denial, of superstition, and of reckless, deliberate ignorance in the face of facts. It is a 1938 Munich moment, a stroll on Titanic’s ice-strewn deck in 1912. To use environmental history analogies, it’s like the Donora smog of 1948 or the Cuyahoga river fire of 1969 in that it could be a wake-up call. Continue reading →
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Clean Air Act US President Lyndon Johnson signs first version of Clean Air Act in US on this day in 1963, seven years after a similar act was passed in Britain.
Nuclear fission discovered On this day in 1938, German scientists Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner performed a crucial experiment that showed it was possible to transform one element (in this case uranium) into another (barium). The experiment, conducted in Sweden (Hahn and Meitner had fled Jewish persecution in Germany) helped focus other work in nuclear chemistry. After WWII, Hahn joined other scientists in demanding controls on nuclear weapons.
Scientists and inventors
First flight The Wright brothers make the first flight in a heavier-than-air craft at Kitty Hawk, N.C. on this day in 1903. (Wikipedia entry:) Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
"Piltdown Man" discovery is announced on this day in 1912 by amateur archeologist Charles Dawson in Britain. The fossil supposedly represents the "missing link" between humans and apes but was exposed as a hoax in 1953. The hoax is historically significant because it involves the often debated issue of human evolution and because it took more than 40 years for it to be resolved.
Scientists and inventors
Christopher Polhem, founder of the Swedish "mechanical laboratory," is born this day in 1661. The laboratory was one of the first institutions for training engineers in the world and was the predecessor to the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology.
Yesterday In Environmental History
1497Rounding the Cape of Good Hope The intrepid Portuguese explorer Vasco De Gama rounds Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the African continent. Commanding three ships, De Gama continues sailing to India on this day in 1497, opening a direct sea route to Asia from Europe. The return trip is marked by misfortune when De Gama fails to heed local knowledge about the monsoons and loses half his crew in a journey back across the Indian Ocean.
1707Mount Fuji last recorded eruption is this day in 1707.
1863 George Santayanaborn on this day in 1863. He is best remembered for this aphorism: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"
1901 Margaret Mead was a shining example of the role women can play in leading public opinion to support the environmental cause. She was a strong supporter of Earth Day and was president of the North American Nongovernmental Organizations Concerned with the Environment.
1960Park Slope air disaster takes place on this day in 1960 when a United and a TWA flight collide over Staten Island, New York.
1974Safe Water Drinking Act signed into law on this day in 1974 by US President Gerald R. Ford. The federal regulations include elimination of lead fittings in plumbing and mandatory testing for a wide range of contaminants by local water authorities.
2008Arctic meltdown A study released at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco on this day in 2008 warns that rapid melting in the Arctic is underway, and that methane from the permafrost and ocean floor is starting to accelerate the effects of climate change. This is one of the first indicators of a "runaway" greenhouse effect actually taking place.
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.