In this lesson, you will travel through time to the mid 1800’s, where the science of ecology began, through to America, where a book sparked a movement in environmental preservation and conservation that developed into the environmental science of today.
What is an Environment?
To understand the history of environmental science, we must first understand what an ‘environment’ is.
In science, the environment is the all the factors and conditions (biological, chemical and physical) in which an organism lives. So if we are studying fish, its environment is the water it lives in, the temperature and chemical makeup of the water, the type of climate of the lake or pond, how much rain it gets, average daily temperatures, what type of other fish live in the lake, presence of algae or plants, and the list goes on and on.
History of Environmental Science
Early scientists were interested in exploring new species and concepts in order to understand the natural processes of the earth. This exploration was especially beneficial when it could improve the quality our lives.
For example, understanding a new plant species might provide a new food source or understanding geology might provide a new useable resource. Discovery of new species and natural phenomena was the primary focus of science for several centuries.Scientists were, and still are, classified into specific research interests: a botanist studies plants, an ornithologist studies birds, a geologist studies rocks, an astronomer studies the stars and planets, etc. The focus of these researcher’s efforts is based on the area in which they specialize.In the mid 1800’s, a new discipline of science was developed that examined not only specific species, but why they lived where they did and what types of environmental factors affected them. This was the early formation of ecology, which looks at both biological and non-biological factors that affect an ecosystem. During this timeframe the term ‘ecology’ was coined by scientist Ernst Haeckel.
In the mid-1800’s in the United States, a focus on the environment and its preservation was beginning to emerge. Henry David Thoreau lectured about preservation of the world through wild lands. John Wesley Powell navigated the Colorado River and later wrote a report on the lands of the arid west. National Parks were established in Yellowstone, Sequoia and Yosemite. The U.S.
Congress established the Smithsonian Institution in 1849 that worked to collect and store information across the sciences and is now the world’s largest museum/research center.Concern about the degradation and negative impacts on the environment in the United States began with the book Man and Nature, written by George Perkins Marsh. Marsh’s book was the first to raise concerns on how humans could negatively damaged the environment.
In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote the book Silent Spring that alerted the public to the rising use of pesticides and other chemicals and their effect on the ecosystem and to humans. This focus on the environment and human impact began to change the way we viewed our role in both the preservation and destruction of the natural world.
While ecology traditionally looked at interactions within the natural world, human influences and effects were being observed in ecosystems. Man’s interaction with the natural world sparked the creation of a ‘new’ discipline called environmental science. This interdisciplinary field includes traditional science disciplines such as biology, ecology, geology and chemistry and combines in issues such as environmental ethics and social issues.
The 1960’s and 1970’s saw a great emphasis on the environment; its protections and concern for its human and wild inhabitants. Some key events in the history of environmental science in the United States include:-George Perkins Marsh raised concerns in his book Man and Nature on the negative effects humans can have in the United States.-In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson warns of the effects of chemicals on our environment.-The first federal legislation on air quality was established with the 1963 passing of The Clean Air Act.
-The Wilderness Act passes in 1964, setting aside lands in their natural state.-In 1965, Congress passes the Solid Waste Disposal Act, which was the initial effort to regulate solid waste.-In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency is formed to enforce environmental policies.-The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, which established policies and implemented regulating standards for surface waters.
-The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, putting protections into place for species on the brink of extinction.-The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1974, which regulates and ensures the quality of drinking water throughout the United States.-In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act passes to control industrial chemicals.Emphasis in environmental science has shifted since the 1960’s and 70’s from more localized environmental issues to global issues such as climate change, melting polar ice caps and damage to the ozone layer.
Environmental science is the study of all the factors and conditions (biological, chemical and physical) of an environment. This interdisciplinary field combines traditional science disciplines with other issues such as environmental ethics and social justice.
The role of environmental science in America began with George Perkins Marsh alerting the public in his book Man and Nature about the potential loss and degradation of the environment in the United States. In the 1960’s, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring highlighted and warned against the effects of chemical pollutants on our environment.