This is a guest post from Sam Musher. Sam is a middle school librarian and children’s lit blogger. A steady diet of post-apocalyptic fiction made her an environmentalist at a tender age. (She’s pretty sure we’re all doomed.) Having known her almost that long, I can confirm that she has, as her blog claims, been opinionated on the Internet since 1999. You can read her excellent reviews of Young Adult fiction at her blog or follow her on Twitter @MsParenthetical.
I’m a librarian at a secondary school near Boston. I’ve been slowly weeding the science section (that’s the 500s, Dewey nerds). We’ve been around since 1881, so there are some winners in there. As I sifted through the collections of breathless essays on Modern! Science! from 1964, I noticed a theme:
Fossil fuels sure are seductively powerful, but it turns out that they’re dangerously dirty. And we’ve known this for a very long time.
From the delightful 1939 natural resources text The Storehouse of Civilization by C. C. Furnas:
There is a greater natural resource than coal… human health. When we waste our coal in soot we waste human health also. One of the curses of modern industry is the pall of smoke that hangs over large cities…. We are a practical people, but have paid little attention to alleviating a condition which deteriorates our material goods and undermines our health.
Let’s fast-forward thirty years. Cities are blanketed in smog from car exhaust rather than coal smog, petroleum is fueling a much vaster engine of suburban prosperity, and mainstream society is starting to pick up on the idea that there might be one or two problems with this. The ’60s and early ’70s were the dawning era of environmentalism.
William H. Marshall wrote in The March of Science, a 1969 collection of essays by science writers (whose title sounds like a scene cut from Fantasia involving little cartoon Newtons and Einsteins):
[M]an… is polluting his environment, altering or destroying many natural habitats, and creating rather massive problems, which some day must be solved. The engineer proceeds on the assumption that man can control nature, that he is above millions of years of biological experience…. The ecologist, knowing the problems of population density in other organisms, and acquainted with the problems of productivity, has deep concern over the future, and is doing his best to understand and help us avoid a blind alley for the human species.
So ok, ecology is a growing field and we’re starting to understand the mess we’re making. What can we do about it?
According to the National Science Teachers Association in Science Looks at Itself, 1970:
Private enterprise must be indicted for much of the degradation of our natural resources. Now it is the responsibility of private enterprise, and the federal government as well, to take immediate and concrete action to restore the viability of man’s environment.
Hm. Immediate, you say?
We have made some progress since 1939 and even since 1970. Some major issues of the day have shifted: from coal smoke to the hole in the ozone layer to global warming (with a slightly creepy mid-century stop at population control, but that’s another post). If one were in an optimistic state of mind, one could take this to mean that we’ve solved every problem and will continue to do so. Or one could argue we’ve been playing reactionary catch-up ever since the Industrial Revolution and at this rate we will be overtaken by our inability to figure out how to power our lives and feed ourselves without making an utter mess of things.
I’ll conclude with 73-year-old wise words from our friend Mr. Furnas. (Seriously, grab a copy if you can find it — Storehouse of Civilization is a drily witty storehouse of awesome.) He was speaking of natural resource management, but it could apply to any of our current environmental problems:
[I]f this nation is to be permanent, we must continually take thought of tomorrow and the present-day consumer must make some sacrifice for his grandchildren. Shall we kill the goose for the golden eggs?… Shall it be a short life and a merry one, or a longer, less exciting existence? These are questions which confront every individual occasionally and the nation continuously. Unless democracy can answer these questions in the interest of conservation, our life as a democracy will be short and not particularly merry.