The History and Philosophical Changes of the Environmental Reform Movement: Events and Paradigm Changes That Led to the US EPA

The History and Philosophical Changes of the Environmental Reform Movement: Events and Paradigm Changes That Led to the US EPA

Donald J. Kern
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 35
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2711-5.ch002
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This chapter is an account that provides a chronology of the philosophical evolution of the human viewpoint from the perspective of the apex species on the planet. The gradual change from unrelenting growth and production towards one that embraces conservation, resource management, and the protection of populations from the consequences of rapid technological development came to a inflection point in the mid-20th century that resulted in a revised outlook on mankind's obligations to current populations, including other species, future generations, and Earth as a whole. The chapter will highlight the effects of the Industrial Revolution, expansionism, and the exploitation and mismanagement of resources from overuse and overharvesting of Earth's ecosystems. These practices led to tragedies that shifted the paradigm to environmental responsibility and accountability in the 20th century.
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The ancient ancestors of modern humans many eons ago ascended the evolutionary ladder becoming the apex species on Earth through their development of reasoning and cognitive abilities, which greatly increased their capacity to learn and pass on knowledge of the essential survival skills of harnessing natural resources and predator avoidance. The hominins that became modern humans were initially nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers. They domesticated animals for food and other resources and began a primitive agricultural practice known as the slash-and-burn method to create more reliable food sources from crops, which allowed for at least temporary settlements. The combined result was using cleared land for crops and the felled trees as an energy source. This delayed their movement for a time because cleared land (slashing removed competing flora) had only limited useful life until soils were depleted of necessary plant nutrients and could no longer support crops. The tribes then moved on to new land to repeat the process. This is one of the earliest examples of small-scale deforestation and the reduction of biodiversity in pursuit of agricultural interests.

Many scholars believe that in the Mesopotamian river valley around 5,000 years B.C.E., the first true agrarian practices started with hydraulic control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers providing irrigation of areas that had likely been only marginally suited for growing crops or grazing livestock without human environmental intervention. Harnessing and utilizing the seasonal floodwaters of the Nile River in Egypt was also a civilization-building environmental intervention about two millennia later. The city states of Greece and the Roman Empire continued the progression of agriculture and their population distributions reflected their advances which resulted in urbanization. Even before the modern era, some population centers had coalesced into densely inhabited areas such as Athens, Alexandria, and later Rome and smaller cities where deforestation and total human control of the environment gave birth to the first recognition of the concept of pollution, mainly regarding access to clean water and human sanitation issues in areas of high population density. The concept of Earth as a limited resource was still beyond the parochial and regional interests of people’s beliefs and of governments. The “wilderness” was essentially everywhere civilizations were not and possessed vast, seemingly limitless potential for exploration, subjugation of indigenous tribes, and exploitation of the resources without any possibility of completely exhausting them because there were always more frontiers for expansion. In Greek and Roman times, water diversion and irrigation advanced to the point where regional semiarid lands were now available for cultivation to support more urbanites (artists, philosophers, clergy, mathematicians, architects, builders, etc.) who were no longer connected to agriculture and could pursue other interests to advance the civilization even more rapidly.

Resources depletion and destruction are not new or unique to the 19th and 20th centuries or the result of the need to power the Industrial Revolution. Early overuse of resources manifested an awareness that timber was at least limited locally as trees were felled for boatbuilding, dwellings, and other construction, and were a mainstay energy source for cooking and early metals smelting. Deforestation was recognized early on as a process that required 20 years or more before reutilization was possible and only if replanting was undertaken because deforested land was subject to soil erosion and degradation if left without flora. In the Middle Ages and into recent centuries, Europeans realized they did not have sufficient timber resources and looked to colonial expansion to help alleviate the timber shortage as urbanization displaced more of the rural population to the urban centers and agricultural activities reduced forests.

Some European conquests in the Western Hemisphere also showed a complete and callous disregard for both the resources and the native civilizations. The Spanish Conquistadors devastated entire civilizations, the Aztecs and the Incas, in Central and South America through total military dominance and exploitation, introducing diseases for which the native populations had no biological defenses, all of which was justified by their Christian philosophy of marginalizing pagan peoples. Two centuries after its inception, the Industrial Revolution’s thirst for energy and other resources now elevated exploitive practices of the past to global levels for the first time. Finally, in the late 18th and 19th centuries came the recognition by some that the resources of the planet were indeed not unlimited and their overuse could result in more than localized irreversible destruction.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Hazardous Waste: Any material that is deemed no longer useful in commerce and for disposal that is dangerous in any way or presents a risk to human health or the environment.

Mutagens: Substances or types of radiation that can damage and cause changes in genetic compounds that control the functioning and reproduction of an organism. Mutagens usually alter DNA and cause the organism to mutate beyond what is a normal rate of change.

Reportable Quantity: An EPA published amount of a hazardous substance or waste that triggers a requirement for reporting storage or releases to the LEPC in a community, the state environmental enforcement authority, and the EPA.

Teratogens: Substances that can cause serious harm and genetic damage including birth defects to a developing fetus in humans or other organisms.

Toxicology: The branch of science that studies the harmful effects of substances on organisms and ecosystems.

Acutely or Extremely Hazardous Wastes or Substances: Wastes or substances that present an immediate threat of causing death or serious or disabling injuries to exposed persons.

Carrying Capacity: The amount of life that an ecosystem can support. Some scientists believe the earth’s carrying capacity for humans is about 10 billion which is about 30% more than the current population of 7.7 billion.

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