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Sustainability 48: the environment

Updated on April 5, 2010
We're all in this together
We're all in this together

The movement toward sustainability is a direct descendant of the social movement of environmentalism. And environmentalism, far from being a new phenomenon, has been with mankind for more than a millennium.

The first regulations protecting animals were enacted as early as the late 600s. By the 14th Century, both Paris and London were forced to legislate proper handling of the waste products of their increasingly dense urban populations. The 1600s saw the introduction of the concept of international waters belonging to no one, yet to everyone. A century later, hundreds of Hindus gave their lives trying to halt the wholesale felling of trees. Through the mid-1700s, Benjamin Franklin became active in attempts to regulate pollution and waste management in Colonial America.

Within the U.S., environmentalism — and the related concepts of conservation, preservation, and limitations to growth — has deep and old roots. The Department of the Interior was created in 1849, just a decade prior to Henry David Thoreau’s great writings extolling the natural world and a simpler life. By the end of the Civil War, the term ‘ecology’ had been coined, and several critiques of man’s (and industrialization’s) destructive effects on the natural environment had surfaced. Both the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks were established in 1890, and just two years later John Muir founded the Sierra Club.

Environmentalism has continued to push to the forefront of American culture over the last century. The first bird preserve (1903); the Antiquities Act (1906); the National Park Service (1916); fish and wildlife legislation (1934); the Nature Conservancy (1951); the World Wildlife Fund (1961); the creation of Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Air Act (1970). With the 1968 depiction of the Earth as a brilliant marble suspended in inky space by the Apollo 8 moon mission photo of ‘earthrise’, many began to see the planet in a totally new way.

Over the past 40 years, as we have seen the world’s population soar, and industrialization and urbanization spread across the globe, we increasingly recognize the importance of environmentalism, conservation and a green perspective.   

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