The History of Sustainability


Published by In Kind

Narrated by Corey James

Music by Lionel Schmitt

It all began with the industrial revolution. As factories began popping up in the late 1800s, they left a noticeable imprint on the land and air around them. Huge smoke stacks billowed waste into the air, and pollution belched into streams and lakes, killing fish. With no laws in place to stop them, their emissions quickly escalated.

Concerned citizens began what would be the first environmentalist groups. “The Society for the Protection of Birds” was founded in 1889, and the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty,” followed a few years later. These organizations are a far cry from the global environmental movement we know today, but they were the beginning of what would become something bigger, a desire to protect the planet we love.

In other parts of the world, things were changing as well. In the United States, call for the first protected spaces, called “National Parks” were beginning, starting with a location known as Yosemite. Naturalists such as Emerson and Thoreau contributed to the creation of these parks, by romanticizing the wilderness, and making the average person want to protect these spaces.

Still, this was about as far as environmentalism went for most people. In 1952, pollution got so bad that smog killed 12,000 people in London. 100,000 more were sickened by the thick fog, most of which came from burning coal. Concern over this tragedy lead to the Clean Air Act of 1956. This act was rudimentary at best, and simply required clean burning fuels near towns and to make chimney stacks higher. They didn't cover factory emissions or other important air pollution at all.

In fact, these first efforts toward protecting the environment wouldn't coalesce into the environmental movement we know today until years laters. A book came out called, “Silent Spring,” which rocked the world of the average citizen who had previously given no thought to the world they lived in. Until this book, environmentalism was largely about protecting wild land. The smoke changing the color of the sky to a misty orange and the fish dying by the thousands in creeks went largely unnoticed.

Silent Spring changed all that. In the book, author Rachel Carson talked about the dangers of pesticides. She brought to light the dark side of D.D.T., at the time a much lauded insecticide saving tens of thousands of lives from mosquito borne diseases such as malaria. 

Her book transformed the way the average citizen thought about the environment, and set into motion the environmentalism we think of in today's sense. This change in view triggered the creation of two critical laws: The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act a few years later. The factories that had been allowed to exhaust toxic fumes into the air and water without restriction before now had to meet new standards.

Her book also may have encouraged the formation of the EDF. It formed just a few short years after the book was published, and took an unusual approach to the problem—scientists teamed up with lawyers in order to take the matter to court. Their efforts eventually won a ban on DDT.

The movement for environmental activism only accelerated through the 1970s. The First Earth Day opened things up, helping to open the eyes of the world to pollution. The NRDC was also formed in 1970, a group made up of hundreds of scientists and lawyers, who were concerned about the way we were consuming natural resources without any thought to sustainability.

The idea of permaculture, a method of sustainable farming that gets by without the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, is offered up as a possibility. While still in its infancy, it would later become a big part of agriculture.

In 1972, the first UN Environment Summit brought the attention of politicians to the rising problems pollution, pesticides, and other issues faced at a global scale. Environmental groups gathered to hear what was being discussed, and remind them of issues they might forget. Issues such as the Minamata Disaster, in which 1,785 people died from methylmercury leaked into the waterways, and the human impact of Agent Orange in Vietnam were brought to the table. 

People who had survived the poisoning came to the UN Environment Summit to share their stories. It was one of the first times a political meeting had such an overwhelming number of citizens attend. The representatives of 113 countries heard their stories that day.

Over the next few years, several important acts protecting the environment would be created. The Endangered Species Act came out in 1973, in the hopes of preventing animals unique to the United States from becoming extinct. In 1974, the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act made an effort to protect our forests and rangeland from being completely depleted. Acts were created to protect clean drinking water, land previously used for logging, and to encourage fuel efficiency.

Unfortunately, the environmental movement started to stall after the 1970s. In the 1980s, climate change was introduced to the growing list of problems the environment faced. Despite the many acts created to help the environment, no noticeable change could be seen from these efforts. Without any proof their efforts worked, much of the progress made in the 1970s was undone. The Environmental Protection Agency's funding is cut by almost half, and solar heating previously placed on the white house is dismantled.

Efforts to help the environment might have faded away, if a new satellite aimed to measure the ozone layer, hadn't discovered a huge hole in the ozone over Antarctica. Numerous studies are commissioned to figure out what happens when a planet has no ozone layer, and the news isn't good. Ozone depleting chemicals are promptly banned. 

In the 1990s, the environment was fully back in the public eye. The world was becoming more concerned about extreme weather and melting ice caps. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) put forward a treaty, asking countries to limit their greenhouse gases. Over 30 countries stepped up. The United States was not one of them.

The United States was in the spotlight for other reasons however, some of them good and some of them bad. A documentary on “Toxic Racism” exposed the reality of how toxic waste was often dumped near minorities. Everything from pig waste from factory farms on top of their barbecues to nuclear waste buried in nearby dumps. This serious issue is still going on today.

On a brighter note, President Clinton signed into legislation an order to restrict the logging of old growth forests, and the zero waste movement began to sweep the globe. Called everything from “Total Recycling” to “Zero Waste”, the idea of turning trash from a liability to an asset was very popular. Cities around the world used the concept when trying to handle their trash flow.

With the dawn of the new millennium, environmental activism heated up once again. Al Gore's documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” brought attention to the extreme weather and other problems caused by our rapidly warming planet. As ocean levels began to rise, island countries who faced their entire nation going underwater began to raise alarm bells.

Despite climate change denial by many politicians, the view of the world shifted. It became trendy for businesses to be “Green,” something the public was beginning to look for in choosing products. Major businesses began putting pages about their sustainability up for customers to look at. 

In a study involving over 60 different countries, over half of all customers were willing to pay more for a product they perceived as green. This boost to the bottom line of businesses that embraced the green movement helped spur the industry.

Thanks in part to the choices of consumers, the green industry began to take off. Organic foods, sustainable farming, and products made with clean energy began slow but steady growth. Despite complaints from the agriculture industry that it is impossible to feed the world and grow sustainably, cutting edge farmers are doing just that. With hydroponics, vertical gardening, and campaigns encouraging people to grow their own food, sustainable food became a movement in itself.

Veganism also became popular as an environmental movement, with many activists pointing out that agriculture, particularly the intensive farming method used on cows, is one of the leading causes for emissions. By eating more vegetables and growing fewer cows, the carbon reduction would be equivalent to taking all cars off of the road. While global veganism is unlikely to happen, it is still an extremely popular choice for hipsters around the world.

In 2015, the Paris Agreement became the first truly global effort to reduce global emissions. Nearly every single country on the planet agreed to do their own part to reduce greenhouse gases, and set goals to do so as quickly as possible. This world effort is to stop global warming from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius. If the Earth warms more than this, damage to the planet may be irreversible. 

China and India in particular took the lead on reducing their emissions. India is expected to exceed their target for 2030, if they are able to maintain present progress. The Draft National Energy Policy expects more than 60% of all power will be renewable by 2030, and the government has announced no gas or diesel cars will be sold after that same point.

If India continues on this track, they will not only make the target of 2 degrees Celsius, they might also be on target for the more aggressive 1.5 degrees Celsius goal. This would make them a world leader in the fight against climate change.

China is also on track to exceed emission reduction goals. It utilized a carbon trading system, which puts a cap on greenhouse gases. By giving carbon a price, they encourage businesses to change in order to reduce their own spending and perhaps even profit from their carbon allowance.

These two global leaders may make the biggest impact on the efforts to combat climate change, but they aren't alone. Civilians are getting in on the effort as well. When the President of the United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement, many US Citizens did not. A coalition of states, cities, businesses, and nonprofits created their own campaign, “We Are Still In.” They agreed to uphold the Paris Agreement within their own jurisdiction.

This unity, while incomplete, is a promising sign for the future. The most promising sign of all comes from the generation that will inherit the world created by previous generations. When the Dakota Access Pipeline threatened to cut through sacred burial grounds belonging to the Standing Rock tribe, as well as threatened their drinking water, the indigenous youth council sprang into action. They were the first to oppose the pipeline, and among the last to leave once they were formally evicted from the site. Though the Dakota Access Pipeline was eventually built, their efforts did lead to something productive. The Standing Rock Tribe have decided to “Green the Rez” and move off the electric grid. Their goal is to use only sustainable energy sources.

Whether the change comes from individuals or the institutions that create decisions that govern us all, the environmental movement has broad reaching implications that are only picking up steam. It is important to know the history of the movement, not only for education and inspiration, but to know that anything that is done to move the world towards sustainability is a part of a long line of activism that has the potential to bring the planet back from the brink of environmental disaster.