Sustaining Our Futures

10 Sustaining Our Futures

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Learning Outcomes

After reading this chapter, you should be able to

• Describe and compare two past environmental movements in the United States. • Identify modern tools and resources for solving the world’s environmental problems. • Describe how environmentalists such as Ray C. Anderson, Jaime Lerner, and Wangari Maathai

shaped modern environmental efforts. • Describe environmental actions taken by citizens in Meadville, Pennsylvania.

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Section 10.1 Past Environmental Movements

Over the past nine chapters, you have seen that our environmental challenges are numerous and daunting. You have learned about the sixth mass extinction and the accelerating loss of our planet’s biodiversity. You have also read about the exploitation of the Earth’s resources and the production of new forms of hazardous waste, and you have explored perhaps the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced in climate change. These challenges dispropor- tionately impact populations that have contributed very little to our global problems and, together, threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of global citizens.

All of this can seem overwhelming, but hopefully you also feel compassion for the world around you and motivation to make things better. This final chapter will focus on harnessing these feelings along with your creativity to develop long-term solutions and plot a course forward. We will begin by discussing past environmental movements so that we can identify strategies that worked well (or did not work well) in the past. Then we will highlight a variety of approaches that could be used to build the next environmental movement, one that might very well save the planet and preserve future generations.

10.1 Past Environmental Movements

The United States has contributed to its fair share of environmental problems, but the coun- try has also seen some remarkable environmental successes. The American conservation movement and the modern environmental movement were two periods of U.S. history that saw the development of multiple groundbreaking environmental reforms. These two periods influenced sustainable development and environmentalism all over the world and continue to shape local environments today. Examining the successes and failures of these two move- ments will help us identify useful strategies going forward.

The American Conservation Movement The American conservation movement (or simply the conservation movement) describes a period from roughly 1850 to 1920 when U.S. citizens responded to environmental challenges that arose out of the Industrial Revolution. In the 19th century new, mechanized industrial processes stimulated economic growth, and the populations of American cities swelled as workers flocked to urban areas for manufacturing jobs. Not surprisingly, the growing cities and expanding economies began to take a toll on surrounding environments. Industry polluted air, water, and soil, and new levels of consumption overtaxed environmental systems. During this period, much of the northeastern United States was logged to meet lumber demands and to free up space for food production. Sanitation and health also became major issues as trash and human excrement polluted drinking water and overwhelmed city infrastructures.

These conditions caused Americans to begin experiencing nature in new ways. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his classic essay “Nature” in 1836, which presents nature (in contrast to soci- ety) as a place of healing and spiritual growth. In 1854 Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous book Walden, which describes his time living in a secluded cabin on Walden Pond in Massa- chusetts. The book warns about the dangers of a rapidly modernizing world and promotes the use of natural spaces to cultivate self-reflection and self-reliance. Emerson and Thoreau were

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Section 10.1 Past Environmental Movements

just the beginning of a wave of writers and phi- losophers called transcendentalists, who believed in the goodness of nature and warned against the forces of society that corrupt.

The transcendentalists did more than just inspire environmental enthusiasts; their ideas helped mobilize a generation of American citizens around the idea of environmental conservation. In one famous example, transcendentalist writer John Muir convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to expand Yosemite National Park during a 3-day camping trip. The two developed a lasting friend- ship, and Roosevelt would go on to protect approx- imately 93 million hectares (230 million acres) of public lands (about 11% of the United States) and solidify his status as one of the most environmen- tally conscious presidents in U.S. history.

While transcendentalist artists were busy gen- erating a new narrative about nature, another unlikely environmental champion was gaining momentum in the private sector. By the late 19th century, newly built railroads had opened up huge

swaths of the western United States to a growing class of wealthy Americans who wanted to explore the nation’s natural wonders. There was money to be made in the budding tourism industry, so railroad companies like the Northern Pacific Railway, Southern Pacific Railroad, and the Great Northern Railway began promoting national parks and other tourist destina- tions. Several railroad companies contributed directly to the creation of national parks and other protected areas by lobbying the U.S. government. Without railroads, national treasures like Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Yosemite, and Glacier National Park might never have come into being.

In addition to designating protected areas, the federal government also created a number of institutions to manage U.S. land and resources in socially and environmentally responsible ways. These efforts to conserve wild places and protect natural resources constituted the American conservation movement, and together they ensured that Americans had access to food, water, and nature for generations to come.

The Modern Environmental Movement The modern environmental movement refers to a series of environmental reforms that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. However, its origins can be traced back to a period of rapid economic growth after World War II. During this period, high levels of employment and new technologies dramatically increased consumption. The development of DDT meant that U.S. farmers could produce more food. Scientists harnessed the power of the atom for nuclear power plants and provided the country with affordable and reliable electricity. As the economy expanded and citizens achieved new levels of wealth, a growing middle class

Underwood Photo Archives/SuperStock Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point in Yosemite during the 1903 camping trip that prompted Roosevelt to sign legislation expanding Yosemite National Park.

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Section 10.1 Past Environmental Movements

began to purchase cars in large numbers. By the mid-1950s the United States began building a national interstate system that allowed people to trade and move more easily. The economy grew rapidly, and the fact that this followed the Great Depression helped create a culture that celebrated high levels of consumption.

The prosperity that accompanied the postwar boom improved the lives of many, but it also came with several new environmental challenges. In 1953 hundreds of people were killed by a 6-day period of intense smog in New York City. A similar event happened in 1963 and then again in 1966. In Los Angeles large amounts of industrial waste began washing up on local beaches, and sewage polluted the Los Angeles River. Then in 1969 an offshore oil drilling platform near Santa Barbara exploded and covered over 56 kilometers (35 miles) of Califor- nia coastline in oil. All over the country, unprecedented levels of energy consumption, waste production, and industrial activity were causing overwhelming environmental challenges.

Once again, attitudes about nature began to change in response to new environmental chal- lenges. One figure who gathered a large following during this period was Aldo Leopold, whose “land ethic” philosophy emphasized the well-being of environmental systems and ecosys- tems rather than the individual species they contain. Leopold’s most important work, A Sand County Almanac, was written in 1949, and its ideas would inspire a generation of environ- mental activists to bring about another environmental movement. One of these activists was Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring in 1962 and called national attention to the negative impacts of DDT on birds of prey. In 1968 Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, which described global population growth and warned against ecological collapse.

That same year, the crew of the Apollo 8 returned with a picture that was used by environmentalists to ignite an environmen- tal revolution. The famous Earthrise image depicts the small, ocean- and cloud-covered Earth rising above the horizon of the moon. For the first time, Americans could see that our vulnerable planet was surrounded by a lifeless expanse of space, and there was no place to go if we destroyed our home.

On April 22, 1970, less than 16 months after the American public first saw Earthrise, politicians, educators, and environmental activists organized the first Earth Day. The event rallied roughly 20 million Ameri- can citizens around peaceful demonstra- tions for the environment. From there the momentum continued to build. A group called the League of Conservation Voters identified 12 members of Congress with poor environmental voting records that the league labeled “the Dirty Dozen.” Organizing efforts contributed to the defeat of 7 of the 12 incumbent candidates during the 1970 election. These events sent a strong message to national leaders, and the grassroots movement begin manifesting in real legislative accomplishments.

Johnson Space Center/NASA The famous 1968 Earthrise photo taken by the Apollo 8 mission.

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Section 10.1 Past Environmental Movements

The political will to develop new environmental legislation began to wane in the 1980s, but the victories of the modern environmental movement would have far-reaching impacts. The movement helped clean up air and water all over the country, and it allowed species like the bald eagle, American bison, and several others to recover from the brink of extinction. The regulations that were developed during this period still provide some of the most important environmental protections in this country.

Common Themes If we look closely at these two environmental movements, we can find parallels that provide useful lessons about effective environmental change. For one thing, both movements devel- oped in response to big changes in society. The American conservation movement was a reac- tion to rapid growth and industrialization, whereas the modern environmental movement was prompted by the postwar economic boom. In both examples, problems developed due to population growth and increased consumption. We can see that these two factors represent important root causes that must be considered in future environmental efforts.

The American conservation movement and the modern environmental movement also responded to immediate threats to human well-being. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, conservation efforts became necessary because Americans were running out of wild spaces. In the 1970s new protections addressed conditions that were polluting air and water and destroying natural landscapes. Both environmental movements demonstrate that popula- tions take action when they are directly impacted by environmental problems.

Finally, both environmental movements were able to garner broad support from different demographics. Factory workers, artists, entrepreneurs, and politicians were all instrumental to the successes of the American conservation movement, and the modern environmental movement had support from politicians on both sides of the political aisle. History teaches us that big changes are possible when diverse groups are able to find common ground.

Wicked Problems The American conservation movement and the modern environmental movement brought about much change, but they certainly did not solve all of our environmental problems. Envi- ronmentalists in the 1970s were already concerned about overfishing, deforestation, and industrial agriculture, yet these problems only got worse over time. Meanwhile, more than a few of the areas that were protected by earlier conservation efforts are currently threatened by development. Some of these challenges may have been too complex for past environmental movements to address. The science of climate change, for example, was challenged through- out much of the 20th century. Even now, researchers struggle to specify exactly when, where, and how the impacts of climate change will unfold. This has made it difficult for communities to adapt and respond to the threat in a timely manner.

Solutions to many global problems have eluded environmentalists for decades. The modern environmental movement relied on local regulations, but problems like overfishing extend beyond national borders. Coordinated international efforts are needed in addition to local reforms to approach many of our most urgent environmental challenges.

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Section 10.2 Reasons for Optimism

Finally, some environmental problems are difficult to solve because they are remote and have consequences that are abstract and/or decoupled from our everyday lives. One example of this is electronic waste that is shipped to less affluent nations in order to shift the environ- mental burden away from wealthier nations. Past environmental movements were good at fixing problems that harmed Americans, but several environmental challenges that impact other regions have managed to persist and even worsen over time.

When modern challenges are complex, global, and/or remote, we often refer to them as wicked problems. Problems like these require solutions that go beyond those implemented by the American conservation movement and the modern environmental movement. In the following sections of this chapter, we will discuss what these new approaches might entail.

10.2 Reasons for Optimism

The bad news is that wicked environmental problems have only gotten bigger and more com- plicated over time. The good news is that our ability to problem solve has also changed over the past several decades. Before we address the next environmental movement, it will be helpful to take stock of the new tools and resources that are available to combat our environ- mental challenges. Luckily, we have several good reasons to be optimistic.

More Resources News outlets may give the impression that our global economic systems are in shambles, but in some ways, the U.S. and global economies are doing quite well (see Apply Your Knowl- edge: How Do GWP and GDP Compare?). With more resources at their disposal, some nations are already making big investments in more sustainable infrastructure. China has built over 25,000 kilometers (15,530 miles) of high-speed train networks that save energy and support economic growth (Keju, 2019). Denmark has implemented new sewage systems that protect water resources and preserve local ecosystems. Copenhagen, for example, is a city the size of Baltimore that is surrounded by canals and an ocean harbor, and its state-of-the-art overflow barriers, storage systems, and monitoring equipment ensure that it has some of the cleanest swimming and drinking water in the world (Raidt, 2015).

Some regions are investing their resources in big conservation efforts. In 2012 Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe combined forces to create the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (n.d.), which is larger than Germany and Austria combined. In 2017 the Cook Islands created the largest marine protected area in the world by convert- ing its exclusive economic zone in the Marae Moana Marine Park (United Nations, n.d.a). That same year, more than 24 countries (including the United States) committed to protecting the Ross Sea, a marine habitat off the coast of Antarctica that is twice the size of Texas (Howard, 2016). More recently, Colombia expanded its Serranía de Chiribiquete national park to create the world’s largest protected tropical rain forest (World Wildlife Fund, 2018).

Individuals are also using their wealth to benefit the environment. Organic food sales in the United States increased by a factor of 15 from 1997 to 2017, and the industry is now worth

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