Environmental History

Page - November 15, 2012
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  • 19th century

    In 1847, US Representative George Perkins Marsh of Vermont is one of the first to publicize the idea that humans can negatively influence their environment in a set of speeches around the country. At that time, people are more concerned about health issues, that is why the first formal international health conference is held in Paris in 1851. In 1863, John D. Rockefeller starts the Excelsior Refinery in Cleveland, Ohio, beginning a near total monopoly on oil by the turn of the century. Despite heavy industrial pollution in Delaware River, Pennsylvania rejects regulation of the water pollution. During the 1870s, the Mining Act is voted. Still in effect today, it forces the sale of federal lands and prevent the government from demanding royalties for mineral extraction.
    In 1881, Chicago is the first American city to create a local ordinance regulating smoke discharges. In 1892, the Sierra Club is founded by John Muir, Robert Underwood Johnson and William Colby. They want “to do something for the wilderness and make the mountains glad”. Four years later, Swedish chemist Svante August Arrhenius predicts a global temperature increase of 7 or 9 degrees F for a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere.

  • 1900s

    On his first message to Congress, President Teddy Roosevelt talks about the importance of water and forest conservation. In 1904, Ida Tarbell publishes The History of Standard Oil where she exposes John D. Rockefeller’s business methods. In 1907, a mine disaster kills 362 coal miners in Monongha, West Virginia, causing public concern. Three years later, the US Bureau of Mines is created to promote safety and welfare of minors.

  • 1910s

    In 1910, the first National Conference on Industrial Diseases is held in Chicago and the Insecticide Act is voted, mostly to prevent home brew operations and regulate foreign manufacturers’ products. In 1912, the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest non-profit environmental organizations, launches a campaign to boycott hat makers using endangered tropical bird feather and pushing for the vote of the Migratory Bird Act. In 1916, the National Park Service is created "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

  • 1920s

    In 1921, General motors researchers discover leaded gasoline.
    The scandal of the Radium Girls breaks out in New Jersey. Female factory workers contracted radiation poisoning by using glow-in-the-dark paint. This scandal has a great impact, notably because the right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse is established as a result of the Radium Girls case. This case marks the first time a court held a company responsible for the impacts of its activities. In 1929, more than 100 wildlife sanctuaries are consolidated under federal protection.

  • 1930s

    In 1933, the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster happens. It is one of the worst industrial disasters in American history, killing between 100 to 1000 workers who had developed lung disease as a result of the exposure to silica dust. The same year, the first of the Dust Bowl storms begins in the Midwest, causing environmental and agricultural damage. These storms were caused by severe droughts combine with destructive farming methods (no crop rotation, no soil terracing and no wind-breaking trees). In 1937, leaking natural gas from nearby oil fields devastates a school in New London , Texas, killing 425 students and teachers. The reaction is to make compulsory the addition of a component making the gas’ odor very strong to make a leak easily detectable. The same year, the term “greenhouse gas effect” is coined by the American geographer Glen Thomas Trewartha.
    In 1939, the Saint Louis smog episode sparks a crusade by the Saint Louis Post Dispatch, rewarded a few years later by the first Pulitzer Prize for what would later be called environmental reporting. The smog was caused by the burning of bituminous coal to provide energy and heat and the failure from lawmakers to regulate the pollution.

  • 1940s

    President Harry Truman clears way for oil drilling offshore in a proclamation while the First United Nations conference on the environment takes place: the Scientific Conference on Conservation and the Utilization of Natural Resources. In 1948, a smog incident happens in Donora, Pennsylvania. 20 died and 600 are hospitalized.
    On August 6, 1945, the United States uses a massive atomic weapon against Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, they struck again on Nagasaki. The following years, Bikini and Eniwetok atolls nuclear tests are realised in Marshall Islands, South Pacific.

  • 1950s

    In 1952, the Chalk River nuclear test reactor explodes in Ontario. No one is killed, but thousands are exposed to highly radioactive waste. In 1959, an accident at sodium nuclear test reactor occurs in Simi Valley, California. In 1957, the US run their first underground nuclear test. In 1958, the Atomic Energy Commission proposes the Project Chariot to construct an artificial harbor at Cape Thompson in Alaska by burying and detonating a string of nuclear devices. In reaction of all these events, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell issue a manifesto calling for an end to nuclear weapons and The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is founded.
    Gilbert N. Plass, Canadian physicist, presents a paper on global warming, warning about the increase in global atmospheric carbon dioxide.
    A new smog incident kills between 170 and 260 in New York where The International Air Pollution Congress is held two years later. In Japan, mercury dumping by the Chisso Corporation in the town of Minamata causes “an unclarified disease of the central nervous system”. 67 people in Minamata had died and another 330 were permanently disabled from the poisoning, raising awareness worldwide on the health impact of unregulated chemical pollution. Jacques Cousteau publishes his first book, The Silent World. A few years later, UN Conference on the Law of the Sea is convened.

  • 1960-1965

    This decade is really the beginning of the environmental movement. The World Wildlife Fund is founded in 1961 to protect endangered species. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, one of the most important books in the launch of the environmental movement dealing with the impact of pesticides and the disinformation led by the chemical industry . Jacques Cousteau and Prince Rainier III of Monaco publicly oppose French plan to dump radioactive wastes into the Mediterranean Sea.
    Between 1963 and 1965, the Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Act, the Noise Control Act and the Solid Waste Disposal Act. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the US and the USSR stops above ground tests of nuclear weapons. In a “Special Message to Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty”, President Johnson warns of buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

  • 1965-1969

    In 1966, French begins nuclear testing at Mururoa in the French Polynesia, South Pacific. In reaction, a Quaker peace group create the Don’t Make a Wave Committee to disrupt the tests. It will later become Greenpeace. In 1969, the UNESCO conference “Man and his Environment: A View Towards Survival” gathers 500 people in San Francisco. This year, one of the most important events in the US environmental movement happens. The Cuyahoga river bursts into flames, raising awareness of water quality. New York Times economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman refers to the event as the start of “environmentalism.” Friends of the Earth is founded and the Environmental Policy Act passes in Congress, notably in reaction to the Santa Barbara oil spill in Southern California.

  • 1970-1975

    The 1970s saw several passings of environmental legislation after reckless industrialization. The Environmental Protection Agency is created by Richard Nixon, the first regional treaty to regulate dumping of radioactive wastes is signed in London, the first bottle recycling bill passes in Oregon. Greenpeace is created in Victoria, Canada to oppose atomic testing on Amchitka Island, Alaska. The Sierra Club gains support of the Supreme Court against Disney Inc. in battle over development of the Mineral King Valley. One of the most important event of these years is the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, recognized as the beginning of modern political and public awareness of global environmental issues with its famous declaration and the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme. The next year, 80 nations sign the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).
    In 1972, The Buffalo Creek Flood kills 125 people and injured more than 1,000 in West Virginia. A Pittston Coal Company's coal slurry impoundment dam burst out, unleashing approximately 132,000,000 US gallons (500,000 m3) of black waste waste. In 1974, F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario J. Molina describe the way refrigerants (CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons) break up ozone.

  • 1975-1979

    In 1977, June 5th, World Environment Day marks the launch of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, founded by Wangari Maathai. In Alabama, Robert Bullard writes a report called “Cancer Alley” about DDT contamination of a stream in Triana, marking the emergence of the environmental justice movement. Former Greenpeace co-founder Paul Watson creates the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. In 1978, the Amoco Cadiz wrecks off the coast of France and loses 68 millions gallons (6 times the Exxon Valdez spill), covering 110 miles of coastline. In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant loses coolant and partially melts down in Pennsylvania, becoming the worst accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history, and resulted in the release of small amounts of radioactive gases and iodine into the environment. The same year, the Church Rock Uranium Mill Spill occurred in New Mexico and Arizona with over 1,000 tons of radioactive mill waste and millions of gallons of mine effluent flowed into the Puerco River.

  • 1980-1985

    In 1980, the Brazilian rubber tappers union organizer Wilson Pinheiro is assassinated, followed by his colleague Chico Mendes 8 years later. Both were defying loggers and cattle ranchers for rubber tappers, native Brazilians and the rainforests. In 1984, one of the world’s worst industrial disasters occurred in Bhopal, India. An explosion at a pesticide plant exposes 500,000 people to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals, killing between 2,000 and 8,000 and injuring hundreds of thousand. In 1985, British scientist Joe Farman publishes discovery of ozone hole over Antarctica. The same year, Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior is sunk in Auckland, New Zealand by French government intelligence agents, killing the activist photographer Fernando Pereira.

  • 1985-1989

    In 1986, the worst nuclear disaster in history occurs at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. Explosion and fire released huge quantities of radioactive contamination in the atmosphere, spreading over Western USSR and Europe. It is difficult to give a casualty count because of the lack of information at the moment and because of the long-term effects. The area is still contaminated. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez spills 260,000 to 750,000 barrels in Alaska. This disaster will make the Congress vote the Oil Pollution Act in 1990 “to prevent spills that may occur".
    In 1987, the Montreal Protocol is signed to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals. One year later, over 100 nations sign the Basel convention to regulate toxic waste shipments. The same year, NASA scientist James Hanson, among others, warn Congress about possible consequences from global warming.

  • 1990-1995

    In 1990, a UN report on climate change warns that global temperature rise might be as much as 2 degrees F in 35 years and recommends reducing CO2 emissions worldwide. One year later, Sweden is the first nation to enact a carbon tax. At the same time, the UN Antarctica treaty prohibits mining, limits pollution and protects animal species. On year later, the Earth Summit is held in Rio de Janeiro which will notably lead later to the Kyoto Protocol and the Environmental Justice Act is voted by Congress. The first IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report is organized. In 1995, the World Bank and conservation groups announce a plan to establish 155 marine protection areas around the world.
    In Nigeria, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People is founded in reaction to Shell drilling and extensive pollution in Niger River delta. 300,000 Ogoni people demonstrate in a massive protest of the destruction of their homelands. In 1995, Nigerian government executes journalist and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other environmentalists.
    Because of the recession, a lot of environmental groups have to lay off employees (MWF, NRDC, Greenpeace, Sierra Club). Greenpeace photographs Russian ship dumping 900 tons of low level radioactive waste off the east coast of Russia. In 1995, Greenpeace activists occupy Shell North Sea offshore oil rig.

  • 1995-1999

    In 1996, the World Bank joins the World Health Organization and others in calling for global phaseout of leaded gasoline. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol is adopted by 121 other nations including the US who committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, Congress doesn’t ratify the treaty. In 1999, the Earth’s population exceeds six billion, almost half living on less than $2 a day. At the same time, a Worldwatch reports that 7 out of 10 scientists believe we are experiencing the largest mass extinction of species in history.

  • 2000

    The European Union bans leaded gasoline as a public health hazard. After a 30 years campaign by environmental groups, rainforest logging is banned in New Zealand.
    One of the most serious US environmental disasters occurs at the east of the Mississippi River. More than 300 million gallons of thick, black coal slurry sludge is released when a Massey Energy Company impoundment dam collapses near Inez, Kentucky. Massey paid $3.25 million in fines to the state of Kentucky but the investigation was cut off with the administration change at the White House.

  • 2001

    President Bush’s energy plan emphasizes oil exploration and construction of coal and nuclear power plants. At the same time, the World Meteorological Organization reports the year 2001 is projected to be the second warmest on record.
    Environmental Working Group reports that sources of drinking water for more than 7 million Californians and millions of others are contaminated with a chemical that disrupts child development and may cause thyroid cancer.
    In China, people participate in massive protests against the Three Gorges dam as the relocation of more than 1 million people begins. In Mexico, environmental activists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera are convicted despite evidence that their confessions were obtained under torture.

  • 2002

    A survey of satellite images finds that Mexico lost almost 3 million acres of forest and jungle each year between 1993 and 2000.
    A jury in Anniston, Alabama, rules that Monsanto is responsible for polluting the town with tons of toxic PCBs. The World Summit on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+10 happens in Johannesburg, South Africa. An agreement is made to restore the world's depleted fisheries for 2015. President Bush boycotts the summit and doesn’t attend, making it partially impotent because of the absence of the US.

  • 2003

    The EPA rejects a petition from environmental groups to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, arguing it didn’t have the authority under the Clean Air Act. This year’s most important event is the “Black October” massacre in La Paz, Bolivia, where at least 67 people are killed and 400 injured during protests over natural gas development.

  • 2004

    Wangari Maathai, environmentalist and human rights campaigner wins the Nobel Peace Prize "for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

  • 2005

    Dorothy Stang, forest defender, is assassinated in Anapu, Brazil.
    The Kyoto Protocol officially goes into force, without the US. At the same time, Shell is fined of £900,000 for safety failings on the Brent Bravo platform that led to the deaths of two workers.
    Hurricane Katrina strikes, killing at least 1833 people. The cost is estimated at $81 billion.

  • 2006

    The Great Bear Forest, five million acres of rainforest on the west coast of Canada, is saved from logging. Al Gore releases An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary about the impact of global warming. At the same time, Exxon Mobil is asked to stop funding organizations that undermine science by the Royal Society, an independent British scientific academy. California is the first state in the US to impose a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.

  • 2007

    The IPCC releases the final portion of the multipart report on April, 5, alerting on warming and its effect. Al Gore and the IPCC win the Nobel Peace Prize. Renewable energy investment tops $100 billion per year. At the same time, conservative senators and President Bush block provisions of an Energy Bill that would have cut tax breaks for oil companies to finance renewable energy.

  • 2008

    China sentences human rights and environmental advocate Hu Jia to 3.5 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power”. The Russian environmental journalist Mikhail Beketov is severely beaten and left for dead. Another disaster occurs in Kingsport, Tennessee, where more than a billion gallons of coal fly ash sludge spills out of a hold dam. The company had to pay $1.2 billion cleanup of the spill the EPA described as one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind.

  • 2009

    Climate researchers from NOAA report that expected levels of CO2 by 2050 would lead to a sea-level rise and droughts. President Obama signs the largest wilderness protection bill in 15 years, covering 2 million acres in nine states. Protests over mountaintop removal mining accelerate in the Appalachian Mountains. This technique involves the mining of a mountain summit using explosives. The climate negotiations in Copenhagen, marked by an intense mobilization of the environmental movement around the world, collapses.

  • 2010

    On April 20th, the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry occurs in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform explodes, spilling 20 times the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the sea, devastating the environment. A methane explosion happens in a Massey Coal Company’s mine in West Virginia, killing 29, becoming the largest loss of life in US coal mining history in 40 years. Two environmental journalists are murdered in Indonesia and the activist Amit Jethwa is assassinated in India.
    A Nigerian court orders Shell to pay $48 million to clean up one of thousands of oil spills in the country. UN climate change talks in Cancun, Mexico end with some agreements on funding for climate change mitigation strategies in vulnerable parts of the developing world.

  • 2011

    On March 11, following an earthquake and a tsunami, the nuclear power plant of Fukushima experienced a series of equipments failures, nuclear meltdowns and released radioactive materials. This disaster is the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The complete impacts are still unknown but the event shows the lack of preparation and communication in the nuclear industry. Germany decides to phase out nuclear power and Switzerland says it will build no new nuclear reactors.
    This year is also marked by the escalation of environmental assassination: Philippine journalist Gerry Ortega is gunned down after investigation of environmental issues, six Amazon forest activists are murdered in Brazil and environmental activist Shehla Masood is assassinated at her home near Bhopal in India.
    A climate denier conference takes place in Washington, DC, organized by the Heartland Institute in July. One month later, Hurricane Irene hits US east coast, causing massive damage, and scientists warn that Arctic sea ice reaches a historic low and the climate conference starts in Durban, South Africa. Chevron has to pay a fine of $8.2 billion to Ecuador for polluting large swaths in the upper Amazon. A new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency says renewable energy could power 80 percent of the world by 2050.