Library Index » Science Encyclopedia » The State of the Environment—An Overview - Historical Attitudes Toward The Environment, The Role Of Population In The Environmental Equation, The Impact Of Environmental Protection On The U.s. Economy

The State of the Environment—An Overview - Historical Attitudes Toward The Environment

environmental pollution people earth

The Industrial Revolution

Humankind has always altered the environment around itself. For much of human history, however, these changes were fairly limited. The world was too vast and people too few to have more than a minor effect on the environment, especially as they had only primitive tools and technology to aid them. All of this began to change in the 1800s. First in Europe and then in America, powerful new machines, such as steam engines, were developed and put into use. These new technologies led to great increases in the amount and quality of goods that could be manufactured and the amount of food that could be harvested. As a result, the quality of life rose substantially and the population began to boom. The so-called Industrial Revolution was underway.

While the Industrial Revolution enabled people to live better in many ways, it also increased the rate of pollution. For many years pollution was thought to be an insignificant side effect of growth and progress. In fact, at one time people looked on the smokestacks belching black soot as a healthy sign of economic growth. The reality was that pollution, along with the increased demands for natural resources and living space that resulted from the Industrial Revolution, was beginning to have a significant effect on the environment.

Twentieth-Century America

For much of the early twentieth century, Americans accepted pollution as an inevitable cost of economic progress. After World War II, however, more and more incidents involving pollution made people aware of the environmental problems caused by human activities. Los Angeles "smog," a smoky haze of pollution that formed like a fog in the city, contributed a new word to the English language. Swimming holes became so polluted they were poisonous. Still, little action was taken.

In the 1960s environmental awareness began to increase, partly in response to the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), which exposed the toll of the chemical pesticide DDT on bird populations. Other signs of the drastic effects of pollution on the environment became harder and harder to ignore. For example, in 1969 the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames due to pollutants in the water.

Environmental protection rapidly became very popular with the public, particularly with the younger generation. The New York Times, on November 30, 1969, carried a lengthy article reporting on the astonishing increase in environmental interest. The article's author, Gladwin Hill, noted that concern about the environmental crisis was especially strong on college campuses, where it was threatening to become even more of an issue than the Vietnam War.


In 1969, according to Opinion Research of FIGURE 1.1
The Earth, as seen from a U.S. satellite. (U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.)
Princeton, New Jersey, only 1 percent of Americans polled expressed concern for the environment. By 1971 fully one-quarter reported that protecting the environment was important. What motivated Americans to this new awareness? The following are among the likely factors:

  • An affluent economy and increased leisure time
  • The emergence of an "activist" upper middle class that was college educated, affluent, concerned, and youthful
  • The rise of television, an increasingly aggressive press, and advocacy journalism (supporting specific causes)
  • An advanced scientific community with increasing funding, new technology, and vast communication capabilities


The idea for Earth Day began to evolve beginning in the early 1960s. Nationwide "teach-ins" were being held on campuses across the country to protest the Vietnam War. Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, troubled by the apathy of American leaders toward the environment, announced that a grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment would be held in the spring of 1970 and invited everyone to participate. On April 22, 1970, 20 million people participated in massive rallies on American campuses and in large cities. Earth Day would go on to develop into an annual event and was still being celebrated as of 2004.

With public opinion loudly expressed by the Earth Day demonstrations, in 1970 Congress and President Richard Nixon passed a series of unprecedented laws and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an organization devoted to setting limits for water and air pollutants and to investigating the environmental impact of proposed, federally funded projects. In the years that followed, many more environmental laws were passed, setting basic rules for interaction with the environment. Most notable among these laws were the Clean Air Act of 1970 (PL 91-604), the Clean Water Act of 1972 (PL 92-500), the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (PL 93-205), the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (PL 93-523), and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (PL 95-510).


Since the 1970s the state of the environment has continued to be a major political issue of interest to many Americans. Many activist organizations, such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have been created to watch over and protect the environment. Virtually every state has established one or more agencies charged with protecting the environment. Many universities and colleges offer programs in environmental education. Billions of dollars are spent every year by state and federal governments for environmental protection and enhancement. These efforts have, in turn, led to many improvements in the state of the environment. Many of the most dangerous chemicals that once polluted the air and water have either been banned or their emissions into the environment greatly reduced. Yet, other environmental problems have arisen or worsened since 1970, such as the possibility of global warming and the depletion of Earth's natural resources. International conferences addressing these issues have produced mixed results.

Some studies, such as Gallup polls, have suggested that concern about the environment declined in the 1990s. To explain this, many people point to the fact that obvious dangers, such as rivers on fire and belching smokestacks, have seen substantial improvement. Those dangers that remain, such as global warming and ozone depletion in the atmosphere, are largely invisible, and the public may not as easily accept or be concerned about their existence.

Another factor in the decline in environmental activism is money. Many of the cheapest and easiest environmental problems to fix were resolved in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Most of the remaining problems at the end of the century were so large or complicated that it was believed that tremendous amounts of money would have to be spent before even modest improvements would be seen. Many Americans, especially those who felt their jobs were threatened by environmental regulations, questioned whether these increased costs were worth the relatively small benefits they would provide. Despite the support of those who wanted to see further environmental improvements, such issues were competing for funds with other pressing issues such as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), homelessness, and starvation in many parts of the world. In addition, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, environmental issues have been overshadowed by the threat of terrorism.

The State of the Environment—An Overview - The Role Of Population In The Environmental Equation [next]

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or