As the Earth’s population and our consumption of material goods have skyrocketed since the Industrial Revolution and before, man’s impact on the environment has kept pace. Each century, we seem to follow a pattern of environmental mistakes until finally we learn a new lesson about how our individual actions can cumulatively have major environmental impacts.
As we realize our mistake, we generally take responsibility and take steps to prevent or minimize that problem. Through restorations and cleanups, we’re atoning for the environmental sins that our ancestors made unwittingly. But some mistakes are not undoable; some are permanent.
In the 19th century, we learned that resources are finite. It was possible to shoot the last passenger pigeon, to kill the last wolf, to cut down the last old growth tree — even though they had seemed to be everywhere before. We couldn’t fathom, or didn’t care, that there were enough people killing enough sea otters to drive them to the brink of extinction. In California, grizzlies are enshrined on the state flag – but they are now extinct in the state. Eventually, we stopped killing all the animals (though more out of economic infeasibility than regret, I suspect) and logging all the old growth forests, attempting to manage resources more sustainably.
In the 20th century, we learned that our daily actions were able to affect the planet’s basic elements — our air and water. It was possible for enough pollutants to build up to kill all the animals in a creek, and even let the creek catch fire. We didn’t realize that a city’s worth of cars would release enough pollution to make the air unsafe to breathe. We couldn’t anticipate that toxins could accumulate enough that the fish we caught would be unsafe to eat from mercury contamination, or that the birds in our neighborhoods would be unable to hatch their eggs, the shells weakened from DDT. How could we have imagined that we would spray enough aerosols to create a hole in the ozone layer? Eventually, we passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and banned DDT and aerosols.
In the 21st century, what mistakes will we make, and what lesson will we learn?
We’re starting to learn that, beyond the basic components of our air and water, our actions affect the Earth at the largest scale — we’re changing Earth’s very systems and the building blocks of landscape. We’ve released enough pollution to change the planet’s climate, but don’t (yet) have the political will to reduce our emissions. Human development is subdividing blocks of wild land into smaller and smaller chunks of lower and lower suitability for wildlife, and cutting off connections between those habitat patches. More than half of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed.
I hope that we learn from today’s lessons before too many of the impacts are permanent. Yet even today, some people and corporations continue to resist the environmental lessons of the past centuries.
What do you think — what is the environmental mistake we keep repeating today? What do you think we will learn?