By Diane M. Calabrese / Published September 2015
At some point in the middle of the last century, the term environment was used for the first time. When and by whom are not clear.
Environ, which derives from Middle English, means to surround or encircle. And environs, which also derives from Middle English, refers to the area surrounding a place (broadly construed). The much newer word environment serves as a synonym for both environ and environs, but infrequently.
Today, environment is firmly anchored in a biological context. It is a shorthand term for all the external conditions that affect an organism or any group of organisms. The conditions are determined by the interaction of water, air, substrate, and sunlight.
Because humans are very active in every environment they inhabit, byproducts of their activities from agricultural, industrial, and other processes become part of their own environment and the environment of other organisms. The byproducts from human activity indisputably surpass the byproducts from the activity of any other species.
Concern about byproduct accumulation reached a point in the 20th century when governments took the step of creating agencies with the specific charge of focusing on the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got its official start on December 2, 1970. In neighboring Canada, Environment Canada got its official start on June 11, 1971.
EPA and Environment Canada share a commitment to protecting the environment, especially by preventing pollution. Pollutants or contaminants in the environment take many forms.
For instance, in 2015, carbon dioxide, a natural product of animal respiration (in exhalation) is receiving special attention. Put it in the too-much-of-a-good-thing category, given that in a balanced system, output of carbon dioxide is in equilibrium with uptake by plants (that use the gas in photosynthesis). The disequilibrium in the carbon cycle is attributed mostly to the burning of fossil fuels.
Striking a balance between human activity and a sustainable healthy environment is the overarching goal for both EPA and Environment Canada. Each entity has unique assignments within its national border, though.
In addition to its focus on protecting the environment, Environment Canada provides weather and meteorological information, functions the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) handles in the United States. When Environment Canada was created in 1971, it drew from existing entities such as the Meteorological Service of Canada (1871) and the Canadian Wildlife Service (1947).
Many initiatives that fall under the purview of separate entities in the United States are consolidated under the purview of Environment Canada. The initiatives that fall to Environment Canada include tracking and managing wildlife populations and processing notices related to proposed and actual shipments of hazardous waste. Like EPA, Environment Canada undertakes enforcement activities and promotes environmental awareness.
The fact sheet, About Environment Canada, which is available via the link www.ec.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=BD3CE17D-1, gives an overview of the organization. Among the interesting facts, there is the significance of the work being done in relation to the portion of ecosystems on planet Earth inside Canada. Twenty-five percent of the planet’s wetland ecosystems, 15 percent of forests, and 16 percent of Arctic ecosystems are part of Canada.
Environment Canada works with all logical partners, including citizens, private sector groups, Aboriginal peoples, and international organizations. The groups are seen as vital players with shared responsibility in protecting the environment.
In 1999, the Canadian Environ-mental Protection Act (CEPA) became a tool for sustainable development and pollution prevention. Assessment and management of environmental and human health aspects of substances are high priorities set by CEPA.
Working toward virtual elimination of dangerous substances in the environment is a top goal of CEPA. In addition to virtual elimination, CEPA principles include polluters-pay (i.e., bear the costs for safe use and disposal of substances), science-based decision making, and sustainable development.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 antedates slightly the origin of the EPA. NEPA requires that all parts of the federal government use all means that are practical to protect the environment; and with that charge, environmental protection becomes the mandate of every federal agency and department. (Today, the General Services Administration, GSA, ensures that government agencies adhere to NEPA.)
NEPA contained the seed of EPA. It was signed by President Nixon on January 1, 1970. Among the requirements of NEPA was the establishment of a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).
Environmental initiatives in the months following the signing of NEPA took many forms. President Nixon introduced a 37-point plan. Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Demo-crat, had many ideas and hopes. The CEQ was active. And several existing federal entities already had ongoing environmental initiatives. The first Earth Day was celebrated in April 1970.
By July of 1970, President Nixon was calling for an independent agency to establish and enforce standards, conduct research, provide assistance to those combatting pollution, and assist the CEQ. Ultimately, the EPA opened on December 2, 1970.
The first EPA administrator, William D. Ruckelshaus, had been confirmed by the U.S. Senate and was at the helm at the opening of EPA. Ruckelshaus obtained the reputation for great assertiveness and flamboyant rhetoric.
The Clean Air Act (CAA) was signed in late 1970. It required that the EPA establish air quality standards, national standards for new pollution sources and for facilities emitting hazardous substances. Standards for automobile emissions were the first ones to be determined by the EPA.
The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1987 added to the responsibility of the EPA. The CWA oversight role for EPA begins with the expectation that nothing except plain rain water (and discharges authorized or permitted by the regulating agency) should enter surface waters.
Similar to Environment Canada, the EPA has the broad concern to control pollution through a combination of education, oversight, rule-making, and enforcement. And it collaborates with other government entities at the federal and state levels, community partners, and tribal groups to achieve its goals.
There are some quite horrific portraits of how Americans interacted with the environment prior to 1970. One could get the idea from reading some retrospective assessments that citizens were running wild with containers of pesticide, bathing in lead paint, burning fossil fuels as entertainment, throwing trash anywhere, allowing sewage to flow in the streets, and so on.
True, the historical fact of the fire that started on the surface of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in 1969 stimulates many imaginations. Moreover, algal blooms (from phosphate runoff) and deaths from misapplication of pesticides were causing many legitimate worries.
Nevertheless, attention to the environment is not new in the United States or elsewhere. (The word pollute has its basis in the Greek for dirt. Contaminants have been recognized for millennia and guarded against to the fullest extent possible.)
For all the aspersions cast upon fossil fuels, it is industrialization that allowed for great strides to be made in sanitation—both access to clean water and collection and disposal of sewage. The improvements in sanitation in turn increased longevity and improved health.
In the 1960s, the results of the improvements in standard of living were so substantial in the United States (and in Canada) that one can argue they gave citizens the free time to begin being concerned about evaluating the risk and benefit of all substances in the environment. That’s a positive, a positive that ought to be viewed in historical context.
There’s never really been a time when humans have not been aware of the importance of interacting gently with the environment, so as to sustain a healthy space for life now and in future. (There have been intervals when deprivation caused by war has been so enormous such attention to the environment was not even a remote possibility.)
A few examples illustrate the attention to the environment that has been ongoing throughout U.S. history. By the end of the 19th century, conservation of soil (erosion prevention) and water (well-planned irrigation) and forests (limits on timber harvesting) had supplanted the more free-wheeling view of land settlement and use that prevailed earlier in the century.
The first observation of Arbor Day was in Nebraska in 1872. The day acknowledges the significance of trees for shade and comfort. Trees are of major importance in carbon uptake and the cycling of water.
By 1875, President Grant (1869–1877) was calling for homestead policies that did not contribute to overgrazing and other overuse of resources. For the next several decades, most of the focus on resources would be on those in rural areas.
In 1876, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was authorized to assess forest resources. The U.S. Geological Survey was established in 1879 and instructed to classify resources. In an omnibus bill in 1891, Congress repealed the Timber Cutting Act, which allowed quite unrestrained felling, and also made a requirement for irrigation planning on land under the umbrella of the Desert Land Office.
Presidents Harrison (1889–1893) and Cleveland (who preceded and succeeded Benjamin Harrison) set aside significant forest reserves. And President Teddy Roosevelt (1901–1909) put a great emphasis on conservation and reclamation.
The Kincaid Act of 1904 encouraged tree planting. The Prairie States Forest Project (1934) aimed to plant shelterbelts of trees in the part of the Great Plains where drought and dust storms had led to economic depression. Also on the Great Plains, the U.S. Forest Service planted 18,510 miles of shelterbelts between 1935 and 1942.
By the 1950s, states were taking the lead in reversing industrial pollution in fresh waters. Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River and Kansas’ Kansas River rebounded with clean-streams and similar efforts. Eight states combined efforts to reverse pollution trends in the Ohio River. Even earlier, in 1939, the Oregon legislature launched a cleanup program for the Willamette River.
Flood control was a federal interest in the 19th century and began with establishment of The Mississippi River Commission in 1879. Interest in flood control and navigation soon expanded to watershed maintenance. New York had set up a commission in 1872 to study the connection between the Adirondack forest and the Hudson River (and other rivers).
Recognition that engineering and machines have had a role to play in prudent resource use and a healthy environment must be acknowledged. The advent of mechanized farming at the turn of the 20th century allowed farmers to shape fields to conserve water and to promote drainage following rain by making contours that enabled water to linger and sink into the soil.
City dwellers have long done their part to conserve, too. The Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis dates to 1859 and the New York Botanical Garden to 1894. (Aristotle taught from his botanical garden in the fourth century BC.)
We all learn and benefit from what has come before—good and bad. As even this very short review illustrates, the commitment to achieving a healthy and sustainable environment is not new or unusual in the United States. Birders, gardeners, spelunkers, contractors—all citizens—have excellent ideas to share.