What most students commonly learn in history from grade school onward is a foreshortened time line that only really emphasizes human history from the great civilizations like the Greek onward, marginalizing the lives of human “cavemen” and the rest of our past. The history of our life on Earth has long been a subject difficult to teach due to a time line that spans from the beginning of the universe around 15 billion years ago to now.
In the context of Environmental history it is important to learn our complete history from the Big Band onward, often called “Big History,” so we can see how even things we believe may have no impact on the environment are truly seen in light of what a natural environment is. We have not had a completely natural environment untouched by humans since before we began to work the land through crude agriculture. When “Big History” as well as the more current history made in the field of environmentalism is taught, the previous ignorance to environmental issues are slowly erased from the public view. I see the teaching of “Big History” and Environmental history as a vital tool in the field of environmental studies and I believe it should be a part of curriculum everywhere.
Big History is a discipline that examines history not just culturally, but scientifically. Students taking this multi-disciplinary course learn how stars are formed, how the Milky Way galaxy allows for a minute few planets such as ours support life, and the emergence and subsequent evolution of life on Earth, finally touching upon our own human history. As explained in a previous blog post the idea that our position in the galaxy, one tiny planet alone in a sea of stars, gives perspective to the issues that environmental studies cover. Without which, it is clear that the everyday layman would not fully appreciate the strides that environmentalism takes.
Many who are proponents of Big History, also emphasize how imperative it is that human’s impact on Earth be understood. The new epoch of time that they refer to, spanning longer than many would believe, is called the Anthropocene. Coined by ecologist Eugene F. Stroener, it spans much longer than the industrial revolution (a time period we commonly think as the beginning of human’s encroachment on the environment) but back to the beginning of agriculture around 8,000 years ago. Of course, the Anthropocene covers human impacts closer to our own time period, such as trace elements from nuclear weapon testing in the mid-twentieth century, and carbon emissions changing the Earth’s climate today.
Although Big History is vitally important to understand our scientific place in environmental history, such as our place in evolution, there are other disciplines that go into the cultural and economic parts of environmental history. Environmentalism, as introduced earlier, was not always defined as a field where the earth is looked after but defined earlier as the sum total of moral or social influences shaping a person or community-something that has very little to do with the term’s meaning today. Truly venturing into the history of environmentalism, we correct similar misconceptions that Big History does, the environmental movement started much earlier than the student protestors of the mid-twentieth century, but in fact began with the romanticist painters, poets and writers of the 19th century.
They saw the expansion of population slowly encroaching on the previously pristine places of nature. Soon, groups like the Sierra club were founded to defend the natural areas of retreat and tranquility that were being occupied by dams, and other scenery-marring structures.
A century or so after this movement came to fruition, there was another controversy that began to emerge-that being the debate between conservation and environmentalism. In contrast to the values that environmentalism kept, conservation placed an emphasis on human’s having the ability to regulate natural resources and protect them by giving them economic value. The most efficient possible uses of landscapes were best-regardless of any underlying benefits they brought. Followers of this school of thought included President Theodore Roosevelt. However, conservationists did not realize that, despite their promise to Americans that the government could manage the nation’s natural resources, nature did not follow the pattern of growth that economic growth did and cannot therefore be quantified in that way.
As the world grew in affluence and industrial society brought new standards of living to millions, consumption of goods grew prodigiously. Consumption became vilified by the environmentalist movement because many felt that the reckless expansion and continual production would alienate people from nature and cause harm to the environment. These sentiments soon proved true as the modern conveniences that grew familiar to the modern home brought drastic consequences: coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners began to thin the ozone layer, the burning of fossil fuels in cars, power plants and factories released carbon into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates, and industrialized methods of agriculture deteriorated the quality of soil and human health together, among other problems. Many of these problems rose directly from consumption that was no longer limited to purchases of goods made in the immediate community but in uncountable places across the globe.
Those spotted these problems at the start of 20th century were scientists who began to be taken into consideration when people looked at policies. Rachel Carson discovered the detriments of DDT, James Hanson represented the groups of scientists who argued that the Earth was warming, and many more. Policies like the Kyoto Protocol and more were implemented, to little success.
Today, we look at the green movement and see the organic foods movement and other sustainable technology as an answer, but that still does not truly fix the problem of consumption due to overpopulation and the promise of high standards of living. These issues and their solutions will be addressed in a later discussion. Over consumption and Over population have even been further analyzed as one of the main reason for societal collapse according to scholars of history and more. Those scholars such as Jared Diamond discuss the economic, political, and environmental reasons for a great society’s collapse which many can take for analogies to our own. Thus, history truly not only helps people look at the past, but helps us in the future as well.
This short summary of environmentalism does not cover everything, nor does it intend to, but it illustrates several viewpoints that should be taught in this day and age. It is impossible for the common person to vote on policies of how to deal with issues such as the economic deficit without proper education, and the same is true with policies of environmentalism.
The truth behind many policies, economic or political, that form the modern day perception is that you must know the science and history behind why they are being done in the first place. Without these answers first, one can hardly expect voters and consumers to understand their choices and how they affect the environment and shape history. I argue that Big History and the basic history of environmentalism should be taught in schools, alongside subjects such as economics and history. Its only fair that the issues be discussed in that very basic way to give people this background, so they can decide whether they may adhere to the conservationist viewpoint or environmental viewpoint rather than be shuffled into one by partisan politics or the limited consumer choices they have. Whether or not this will bring more supporters to the cause of environmentalism is doubtful, but there is a common theme of lack of knowledge present in environmental injustices from the Love Canal to the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific ocean. With knowledge, people at least have a choice.