13: No Plan(et) B

At the advent of steam and electricity the muse of history holds her nose and shuts her eyes” – Herbert George Wells

This installment of Core Ideas is the first in a new arc examining Contagious Ideas and their rapid spread throughout society. We begin by building on our previous look at (the lack of) paleolimnology in popular media, and delve deeper into the history of the environmental movement and its influence on the development of paleolimnology. 

The roots of the environmental movement emerged in England during the Victorian era in response to rapid industrialization and the consequences of treating the environment as an externality. A famous example illustrating the pace of environmental change in industrial regions is the rapid evolution of the Peppered Moth. The soot associated with burning coal blanketed the landscape, darkening trees, and increasing the value of dark colouration for moths using camouflage as predator avoidance.

In North America, conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club were established in the late 1800s, in response to events such as the rapid population declines of the Passenger Pigeon and the Plains Bison. These groups legislative efforts and the creation of national parks and forest reserves such as Yellowstone National Park (1872) and Algonquin Provincial Park (1893).

Through the first half of the 20th century, global attention was focused on two world wars and the Great Depression. However, “modern” environmentalism emerged in response to the Great Acceleration, and a long list of environmental issues entered the public consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, including pesticides, eutrophication, leaded gasoline, burning rivers, anti-nuclear sentiment, anti-whaling sentiment, ozone depletion, and acid rain. Many familiar environmental groups were during this period including the World Wildlife Fund (1961), Greenpeace (1969-1972), and the Sea Shepherds (1977).

Today, although some issues have been resolved (or at least addressed), the dominant environmental concerns are now global in scope, including climate change, overpopulation, plastic pollution, and genetically modified organisms. We have learned that scientists are not the best spokespeople, and the most prominent environmental activist in the world is currently a teenager. In the grip of the current global pandemic, the long-term implications for the environmental movement are uncertain.

Episode 13 can be found here.