The Fruits of Civilization – The Fruits of Civilization (chapter)

The Fruits of Civilization

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect. ~ Chief Seattle

The illusion of the independence of humans from Nature is dangerous ignorance. ~ American scientists Lynn Margulis & Dorion Sagan

Everything in excess is an enemy to Nature. ~ 4th-century-bce Greek physician Hippocrates

The prolific population growth wrought by industrialization made tremendous demands on the world’s natural resources. The unprecedented level of exploitation brought forth the fruits of civilization.

This proud and troublesome thing called man, that fills the Earth with blood, and the air with mutherous minerals and sulphur. ~ English environmentalist Thomas Tryon in 1700

Ecological Impact

One thing is sure. The Earth is now more cultivated and developed than ever before. There is more farming with pure force, swamps are drying up, and cities are springing up on an unprecedented scale. We’ve become a burden to our planet. Resources are becoming scarce. ~ North African Roman Christian theologian Tertullian in the early 3rd century

In 1750 the world had 800 million people. On the heels of the Age of Discovery, many Europeans thought the planet’s resources inexhaustible.

In Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith discussed cultivable land as a possible constraint on economic growth. The economic consequences of diminishing marginal agricultural yield were well understood, but there was no widely accepted suggestion of limits to growth on a planetary scale. In his time, Malthus was a lonely raving pessimist.

Any intrusion into Nature has numerous effects, many of which are unpredictable. ~ American ecologist Garrett Hardin

Environmental degradation was long considered a local problem. Indeed, into the 21st century, the common refrain of those who denied man-made climate change was that humans were simply not that significant.

Along that line, it was long thought that prehistoric peoples did not degrade the environment. This sophistry spilled from several false assumptions: population numbers and densities too low to matter, technology was ineffectual, and early peoples lived in harmony with Nature.

Instead, humans have always been a destructive force: ever at odds with Nature in ceaselessly attempting to exploit it. Vast areas of forest and grassland were burned, vegetation irretrievably altered, soils soiled, fauna eradicated.

The adoption of agriculture, combined with its 2 major consequences – settled communities and steadily rising population – placed an increasing strain on the environment. That strain was localised at first, but as agriculture spread, so did its effects. ~ Clive Ponting

As early as 6000 BCE, within 1,000 years of the Fertile Crescent having settled communities, villages were being abandoned, as erosion from deforestation and intensive agriculture damaged the soil, making it impossible to grow enough food.

Humans have been having a massive effect on the environment for a very long time. ~ American paleobiologist Kathleen Lyons

From hunting megafauna in prehistory to deforestation to create arable acreage, humans have always had a significant and lasting impact. Indeed, from the tropics to the boreal, forests were never pristine, nor animal populations left untouched: all were attacked by man since his emergence.

When early humans started farming and became dominant in the terrestrial landscape, we see this dramatic restructuring of plant and animal communities. ~ American biologist Nicholas Gotelli

Through the birth of towns, people wrought exclusion zones from Nature. Not only were wild animals not tolerated, but the vegetation was much modified, and the wastes of humanity accumulated in and around settlements.

The emergence of settled societies created a problem that has still not been solved across the world: disposing of human excrement and urine whilst obtaining decent drinking water. ~ Clive Ponting

During the 16th century, European settlers in the New World killed 56 million indigenous people. Large swaths of farmland and settlements were abandoned and reforested. The additional vegetation decreased atmospheric carbon dioxide, invoking an ice age in the mid-17th century.

CO2 and climate had been relatively stable until this point. The only way the Little Ice Age was so intense is because of the genocide of millions of people. ~ English climatologist Mark Maslin

Industrialization kicked environmental damage into overdrive. Now, no land, sea, or sky remains unblemished by human activity.

Rich countries are siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate. We are wrecking our planet’s life support systems. ~ Paul Ehrlich

◊ ◊ ◊

Our disproportionate place on Earth is striking. ~ Israeli environmental scientist Ron Milo

Humanity is just 0.01% of Earth’s living biomass. Of all the extant mammals, humans are 36% of the biomass, their livestock 60%, and wild mammals just 4%. Since the descent of man, 83% of wild mammal species have become extinct. Of the birds in the world by weight, 70% are poultry livestock, 30% are wild.

We are doing something that will last millions of years beyond us. ~ Danish bioscientist Matt Davis

With a singular glaring exception, Nature exhibits a gyral balance. Predators do not commit communal suicide by numerically overtaking their prey. Microbes, plants, and some animals build habitats which benefit other species. Fungi and other saprovores recycle leftovers so that valuable elements are reused. The great exception to this wondrous scheme is mankind: a top predator that seems to exist preternaturally. The Biblical claim to dominion has spelled devastation.

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have consequences for the world around us. ~ Alfred North Whitehead in 1947

 Easter Island

Polynesians had landed their canoes on Easter Island by 900 ce. The 163.6 km2 island is at the southeast corner of the widespread cluster of islands now known as Polynesia.

Easter Island was politically annexed by Chile in 1888, which is over 3,500 kilometers away. By then it was a spent rock: its remaining natives having been raided by Peruvian slave traders, and further devastated by smallpox and tuberculosis brought by Europeans.

When first inhabited, Easter Island was a lush forest, with huge palm trees. Its soil was rich, the climate mild.

Easter Island is cool by Polynesian standards, and windy. Its rainfall averages only 127 cm: abundant by the standards of Mediterranean Europe or southern California, but well below the Polynesian norm.

The modest level of precipitation is compounded by the porous volcanic soil, which quickly absorbs rainfall. Freshwater is limited.

Unlike the rest of Polynesia, which is closer to the equator and dotted with coral reefs, Easter Island lacks seafood abundancy. With the haul from the sea constrained, Easter Islanders took to extracting the terrestrial resources.

Politically, the island split into a dozen clan territories, with the typical Polynesian tribalism of chiefs and commoners. What was unusual about Easter was that the clans were integrated religiously, and to some extent economically and politically. This owes to the island having an uneven distribution of valuable resources.

Rocks took on a special significance: stones make the soil moister by providing cover that reduces evaporative loss from the Sun and wind. Rocks dampen the diurnal fluctuations in temperature by absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night. Rubble in the dirt protects against erosion. Stones also serve as slow-acting fertilizer, leaching their nurturing minerals into the soil year after year.

Lithic mulch agriculture was independently invented by farmers in several dry regions of the world. Easter Island was one of them. On Easter, besides strewing stones in the soil among crops, large boulders were stacked as windbreaks.

The advantage in bounty of rock gardening is enormous: anywhere from 4 to 50 times the yields that otherwise could be obtained.

The clans competed peacefully by trying to outdo each other in building huge stone platforms (ahu) and statutes (moai): the mysterious monuments that made the island famous.

For 7 centuries, the population of Easter grew toward a summit of 30,000, as the natives inexorably consumed the island’s natural resources, both fauna and flora. By 1600 the island was completely deforested. Much of the interior was converted into rock gardens so as to grow crops.

Increasingly fierce competition morphed into war for the limited resources left. Clans turned on each other. Moai were toppled by rivals.

The collapse of Easter Island’s civilization was swift, occurring just after reaching a peak of population and environmental impact. By the time Captain Cook visited in 1774, the natives he met marveled at the wood in his ships: a substance no longer grown on the island.


Tikopia is a small island in the southwestern Pacific, part of the Solomon Islands, culturally Polynesian.

The 5 km2 island has been peopled for 3,000 years; first inhabited around the same time as Easter Island. The natives micromanaged their resources and regulated population size carefully, and so sustained themselves in isolation. Tikopians never indulged in the slash-and-burn agriculture casually practiced on much of the planet.

The challenge has been considerable. Tikopia lies in the Pacific’s cyclone belt. After the dry season of May and June, cyclones may unpredictably destroy gardens.

Tikopians survive the cyclones themselves by retreating to caves on higher ground and avoid starvation in the aftermath with fermented breadfruit paste that remains edible for a couple of years, and by eating fruits and vegetables generally shunned out of preference.

Around 1600 ce, the islanders decided to slaughter all the pigs on the island, as they were taking too much food that could be eaten by people. Subsequently, seafood substituted for pork.

Tikopians have practiced various methods to keep their population in check, including coitus interruptus, abortion, infanticide, and suicide. During the 16th century, population pressure provoked the genocide of 2 of the smallest tribes. 4 now remain.

Tikopia was “discovered” by Europeans in 1606. The subsequent cultural influences have been destructive, particularly that of ignorant-but-arrogant Christians, who frowned on birth control and so disrupted traditional practices, to considerable social dislocation.


The negative effects of energy consumption and pollution have restrained the Chinese economy. ~ Chinese economist Yanqing Xia

The overall environmental situation is very grave. ~ Chinese vice minister of environmental protection Li Ganjie in 2011

China’s economy growing like a weed since the 1980s has been attained through intense environmental destruction and pollution of its land, water, and air. China is the greatest generator of greenhouse gases and the world’s most vile polluter.

75% of China’s energy consumption comes from coal. Much of the electrical generation capacity is needed for deficient construction.

Chinese buildings rarely have thermal insulation. They require twice as much energy to heat and cool as those in similar climates in the US and Europe. Almost all new buildings do not meet China’s own codes for energy efficiency.

Deceit is standard business practice in China. In recent years, Chinese consumers have been duped by tainted alcohol, phony flour, horrible honey, poisonous rice, infested vegetables, malevolent meats, cooking oil from the sewer, lethally contaminated baby milk, shoddy condoms, and unsanitary menstruation pads. Though skullduggery is a universal human practice, no culture is as fraught with fraud as that of the Chinese.

◊ ◊ ◊

40% of China was once covered with grass, mainly in the drier north. China was 2nd only to Australia in the extent of its grasslands.

Grass does not grow in China like it used to, thanks to overgrazing, mining, and other development. Grass production is down 40% since the 1950s, with weeds replacing the once-healthy grass.

Grass degradation has had dire consequences. China’s grasslands in the Tibetan Plateau are the headwaters for major rivers throughout Asia. River floods and altered water flows have resulted from grassland damage.

The loss of grass has also increased the frequency and severity of dust storms in eastern China. For at least 2 millennia ago until 1950, dust storms used to afflict northwestern China on average once every 31 years. 1950–1990, dust storms howled once every 20 months. Since 1990, dust storms devastate almost every year.

China has long been a forest-poor country. It now has only 1,200 meters2 of forest per person, compared to a world average of 6,500 m2. Forests cover 22% of China’s land, compared to 68% of Japan, 63% of South Korea, 38% of Canada, 34% of the US, 32% of Germany, 31% of France, but only 13% of Britain. The Brits chopped their trees down centuries ago.

The Chinese deforested large tracts of land millennia ago. The pillage of Nature worsened in every way in modern times, most markedly with the acceleration of industrialization from the early 1950s, when the Communists took charge.

Droughts have increased because deforestation has disturbed the natural hydrological cycle. This has been abetted by draining lakes and wetlands, which decrease water surface areas for the evaporation that feeds rainfall.

China’s wetlands have shrunk, and water levels in the remaining wetlands are fluctuating wildly. Their capacity to mitigate flooding and store water have diminished.

60% of the swamps on the Sanjian Plain in northeast China have been converted to farmland. At the present rate of exploitation, the wetlands will be gone altogether by 2025.

◊ ◊ ◊

Once home to 10% of the world’s plant and terrestrial vertebrate species, 20–40% of China’s flora and fauna are facing impending extinction, including the celebrated Giant Panda.

The aquatic situation is just as bad, if not worse. The severe degradation of both freshwater and coastal marine areas via pollution and overfishing is putting severe pressures on these environments. Innumerable species are near extinction, including those which used to live in enormous numbers.

 The Chemistry of China

This is about corrupt officials and money. ~ Chinese worker Zhong Zhichun on industrialization in China

Local officials in rural districts welcome industrial companies for the revenue they bring. Besides lining the pockets of functionaries, industry provides a steady emanation of pollution. Chemical plants prodigiously do so with aplomb.

Chemical companies in China congregate in industrial parks as time bombs. No industrial accident is as environmentally severe as an explosion at a chemical factory. China excels in exploding chemical plants.

Nonchalance about safety means that over 100 Chinese die daily from chemical production. This is a conservative estimate. The government does not bother to tally the death toll, preferring to ignore the slaughter as best it can.

Every time an explosion at a chemical plant happens, the government goes through the same routine. They carry out an investigation. They say lessons will be learned, the guilty will be punished, measures will be taken. But nothing changes. ~ English journalist Geoffrey Crothall

 Water Quality in China

In recent years, toxic and hazardous chemical pollution has caused many environmental disasters, cutting off drinking water supplies, and even leading to severe health and social problems such as ‘cancer villages’. ~ China’s Environment Ministry in 2013

There simply is no water in China safe to drink, save perhaps the most remote locations where no one lives. There are no waterways or wells that are not heavily polluted. Acid rain is common throughout much of China, and in India.

Water is the biggest environmental issue in China. In the cities, people see air pollution every day, but they don’t see how bad the water pollution is. ~ Chinese ecological economist Dabo Guan

With only 25% of the world average for water supply, China needed to well manage its waters to have enough. This is especially true in the north, which has only 20% of the supply in the south, but half of the Chinese people.

Most of the northern half of China is as dry as straw. Severe water stress is defined as having less than 1,000 meters3 of water per person per year. Beijing, China’s capital, has 100. The water table there has fallen 300 meters in 2 decades.

The south has plenty of water, the north much less. If possible, the north should borrow a little. ~ Mao Zedong in 1952

In 1958, the Chinese created a huge, all-purpose water reservoir at Danjiangkou in central China. 2/3rds of Beijing’s tap water supply now comes from Danjiangkou, traveling over 1,400 km: roughly the distance between New York City and Disney World in central Florida.

Danjiangkou is only one of many massive water diversion projects. Moving water to the thirsty northeast – especially the capital: Beijing – is nothing new. Chinese history is replete with jaw-dropping hydrological achievements.

The solution to China’s water-supply problem is conservation. Using water diversion to sustain economic development is a dead end. ~ Chinese hydrologist Zhang Jiyao in 2013

The Chinese have done nothing resembling rational husbanding of its water resources. Instead, China has fouled what little water it has.

There’s nothing people can do. This is the government’s responsibility, because all the factories dump their wastewater. ~ Chinese factory worker Yao

All factories dump their wastewater without treatment, and government has done next-to-nothing about it. Even state-owned companies have no compunction about polluting the waterways and soils where they are situated.

Further, China exports its environmental practices when it invests. Chinese factories abroad unabashedly dump their untreated wastes as if they were at home.

The Chinese just come and do it. They don’t set high benchmarks. ~ Sierra Leonean ambassador to China Alimamy Koroma on Chinese environmental practices abroad

At least 1/3rd of the length of the Yellow River that runs through northern China is too polluted for agricultural use: plants can’t stand it.

The Guanting water reservoir in Beijing was declared unsuitable for drinking in 1997. Now there are no others which supply urban areas that can be considered drinkable.

Only 20% of domestic wastewater is treated in China. The average in other advanced industrialized countries is 80%.

 Pigs Afloat

You can see dead pigs here every year, but there are more now than in the past few years. ~ Chinese man in 2013, commenting on the carcasses floating in a river near Shanghai

The taste of swine is mighty fine to the Chinese: 500 million pigs are slaughtered and consumed in China every year.

The mortality rate for industrial hog farming is ~3%. Roughly 15 million pig corpses need to be disposed of annually.

Hog farmers often pitch their dead pigs into rivers “for convenience,” one government official reluctantly admitted. This is in addition to the manure and other copious wastes that hog farms produce and are casually disposed of in waterways.

Over 16,000 hog carcasses were fished out of rivers that supply water to Shanghai in 2013. Throughout the floating pig parade, city officials insisted that Shanghai’s water was safe to drink.

Black-market dealers buy diseased or dead pigs and sell them at a discount to unsuspecting consumers. (In China, selling rat and fox meat as beef and mutton is business-as-usual. Peddling contaminated food is commonplace, as is food poisoning.) When the government cracks down on the trade, these swine swill in the drink instead of being served at the dinner table. (If the river is too far, putrid porcine corpses are simply dumped. In 2017, officials in Zhejiang province, in eastern China, discovered 300 tonnes of diseased pig carcasses barely buried.)


Groundwater provides 50–80% of the water supply in northern China, and 20% overall. The water drawn from Chinese wells is laden with toxins and is especially poisonous in the north.

China is by far the world’s largest producer and consumer of fertilizers and pesticides, which find their way into the water supply after contaminating the soil. The level of nitrogen pollution in China is unprecedented.

Though factories blithely do their best to degrade the environment, farmers pollute waterways more thoroughly than factory effluents.

Fertilizers and pesticides have played an important role in enhancing productivity, but in certain areas, improper use has had a grave impact on the environment. The fast development of livestock breeding and aquaculture has produced a lot of food but they are also major sources of pollution. ~ Chinese agricultural ministry spokesman Wang Yangliang

 Algae Blooms

Thick algae blooms have become increasingly common during the summer months offshore China’s coastal cities, and in many of its lakes.

Lake Tai near Shanghai hosts toxic algal blooms during warm weather, thanks to the nasty blue-green algae that live there. Lake Tai is the country’s 3rd-largest lake and supplies drinking water to nearby cities.

Algal blooms follow from massive discharges of phosphates or nitrates into the water, whether from farming, untreated sewage, or industrial effluent. The carpet that algae blooms create dramatically change the environment below them, blocking sunlight and sucking oxygen from the water, suffocating marine life.

Qingdao is a major industrial center and seaport north of Shanghai, and home since 2007 to lush algal blooms weighing up to 20,000 tonnes. Sailing events in the 2008 Beijing Olympics were threatened by an algal bloom, which was kept in check only by employing a fleet of boats, helicopters, and an army of 10,000 to keep the waters clear.


The aquifers that supply groundwater wells are being depleted. Near coastal areas, seawater is drawn in as aquifers are drawn down, salting the water and making it undrinkable. Land in urban areas above these aquifers is sinking.

China has more problems with rivers ceasing to flow than anywhere else in the world. Even in wetter south China, the Yangtze and Pearl rivers often stop flowing during the dry season.

2/3rds of China’s 669 cities have water shortages, more than 40% of its rivers are severely polluted, 80% of its lakes suffer from eutrophication, and about 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water. ~ Chinese American environmental scientists Jianguo Liu & Wu Yang in 2012

 Soil Quality in China

Even before the severe environmental damage, cropland per person in China was less than 1 hectare, barely half the world average.

~20% of China’s land is severely damaged by erosion, resulting in soil loss of 4.5 billion tonnes each year. Deforestation has been the major contributor to soil erosion. The loss has been especially devastating in the middle stretch of the Yellow River and on the Yangtze River.

Salinization has affected 9% of China’s soils, mainly due to poor management of irrigation systems in dry areas.

Desertification affects more than 25% of China, thanks to overgrazing and agriculture in areas where it was practiced in an unsustainable manner. North China has been most severely affected.

Soil fertility has drastically declined in China, owing to the oppressive use of fertilizers and intensive pesticide application. Soil-renewing earthworms simply cannot survive the onslaught.

Over 16% of China’s soil is heavily polluted. 20% of its farmland is laden with toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

A survey of rice served in restaurants in north China found 44% of it had dangerous levels of cadmium. Cadmium is extremely toxic: a potent carcinogen and endocrine disruptor which accumulates in the kidneys and liver.

Soil contaminated with heavy metals is eroding the foundation of the country’s food safety and becoming a looming public health hazard. ~ the state-run China Daily newspaper in 2013

Hunan province, in the central southeast of the country, is China’s rice bowl. It is also one of China’s top producers of nonferrous metals. Hence, Hunan leads the nation in chemical pollution, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and lead, all of which are dumped into rivers as industrial effluent.

Spillage of toxic chemicals onto land near factories and into rivers is common throughout China. Environmental protection is practically nonexistent.

Before the factories were built, there were just fields here as far as the eye can see. In the place of this radioactive sludge, there were watermelons, eggplant, and tomatoes. ~ Chinese farmer Li Guirong, surveying a strip mine

Because of Chinese waste practices, grotesque quantities of trash are dumped in open fields, polluting soil and consuming cropland. China’s cities are surrounded by mountains of refuse.

Further, the US, Canada, and European countries have been paying China to take their untreated garbage, including wastes with toxic chemicals. In 2013, the national government issued an edict to put a stop to it; a campaign that has not been especially successful.

Other countries, including India and Thailand, ship their electronic wastes to China for recycling and disposal. 70% of the world’s discarded electronic devices end up in China: over 450 million tonnes annually.

Much garbage makes its way out to sea. China is by far the greatest source of plastics in the oceans.

The alternative to vast landfills is waste incinerators. A government push toward incinerators has been met with violent protests by citizens who fear attendant air pollution.

With increasing urbanization throughout the country, many polluting industries have relocated to peripheral areas. They leave behind brownfields: heavily contaminated sites.

Soil concentrations of heavy metals and organic pollutants on brownfields can be hundreds of times safe exposure limits. Seepage guarantees groundwater toxicity.

Hundreds of thousands of factories have been torn down to make way for housing and commercial centers. New construction goes up without first cleaning up these brownfields. The result has been dire sickness and early death for residents on these sites, who are not told that they are living on toxic land.

Even limited exposure can be dangerous. Construction workers building homes at former pesticide factories in Beijing and Wuhan had to be hospitalized.

 Air Pollution in China

The root cause of air pollution in China: China’s industrial structure. ~ Chinese environmental scientist Ma Jun

It simply is not safe to breathe in China. Smog kills 4,000 people a day.

Beijing’s air is regularly 40 times filthier than the World Health Organization deems to be the limit of safety. Shanghai has had to delay flights because the blanket of smog is so thick. In the northern half of China, air pollution lops off over 5 years of natural lifespan.

Everybody needs to breathe. ~ Chinese air purifier saleswoman Bi Xiuyan, explaining the demand for her expensive products

China is not the only one to suffer for its lax environmental controls. Air pollution from Chinese factories makes its way across the Pacific Ocean and contributes to smog in the United States.

Chinese pollution is corrupting other countries’ air. ~ American ecologist Steven Davis


The government hasn’t given a thought to the safety of the people. ~ Chinese farmer Li Laiyin

The average level of toxic lead inside China’s urban residents is nearly twice that considered highly dangerous. The negative impact on youth health and intelligence is profound. Many thousands of children have died of lead poisoning.

Little has been done to address the massive impact of lead pollution in China. It has affected a while generation of kids. Children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood are being refused treatment and returned home to contaminated houses in polluted villages. Parents, journalists, and community activists who dare to speak out about lead are detained, harassed, and ultimately silenced. ~ American health and human rights activist Joe Amon

Over 2 million Chinese die of pollution every year, and that number continues to rise. At least 8% of China’s GDP is spent on health care attributable to pollution.

In the 21st century, the Chinese government has instituted ineffectual programs to combat some of the environmental damage that has already been done. But intra-government conflict and Chinese aspirations for consumer lifestyles comparable to the wasteful West are guaranteed to further environmental destruction.

The main reason behind the continued deterioration of the environment is a mistaken view of what counts as political achievement. The crazy expansion of high-polluting, high-energy industries has spawned special interests. Protected by local governments, some businesses treat the natural resources that belong to all the people as their own private property. ~ China’s deputy minister for environmental protection Pan Yue

The Chinese public occasionally protest, and even riot, against the severe pollution in their country. The authorities react violently and suppress unrest. Beyond beatings and tear gas, ringleaders are often imprisoned.

From January 2017, the Chinese government had local meteorological bureaus stop issuing smog alerts. This information was suppressed to dampen public anger about toxic air quality.

Environmental quality is not satisfactory and environmental protection work is arduous. ~ Chinese environmental protection minister Zhou Shengxian

◊ ◊ ◊

Despite horrendous pollution, the degraded environment is 4th on the list of Chinese anxieties, after inequality, corruption, and the power of vested interests. Everything is relative.

Filthy habits have inured the Chinese to pollution. With over 300 million smokers, the Chinese are the world’s most avid consumers of tobacco. 750,000 Chinese die annually from smoking.

United States

Los Angeles had its first episodes of thick smog in 1943. Some suspected a Japanese chemical attack.

By the late 1940s, industrial pollution increasingly alarmed the public. The smog that plagued Los Angeles repeatedly drew press attention. The daytime sky turned a pale yellow. Residents routinely became nauseous as their eyes burned. Children were forced to play indoors. Acres of crops withered.

In the early 1950s, research identified the oil industry as a major culprit, showing that uncombusted hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide emissions from refineries and vehicle tailpipes formed smog when exposed to sunlight.

The prospect of global warming from fossil fuel consumption was identified by the mid-1950s, and its dynamics fairly well understood.

Most of the CO2 released by artificial fuel combustion since the beginning of the industrial revolution must have been absorbed by the oceans. The increase of atmospheric CO2 from this cause is at present small but may become significant during future decades if industrial fuel combustion continues to rise exponentially. ~ American climatologist Roger Revelle & Austrian-born American physical chemist Hans Suess in 1957

◊ ◊ ◊

Environmental protection in the United States was left to the states until after the 2nd World War. The first federal legislation covering water pollution was enacted in 1948. Air pollution was not initially addressed until 1955. These laws were updated in the mid-1960s under the Johnson administration.

In 1965, President Johnson received a report by his science advisory committee, entitled Restoring the Quality of Our Environment. The introduction stated:

Pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air and the lead concentrations in ocean waters and human populations. Pollutants have reduced the productivity of some of our finest agricultural soils and have impaired the quality and the safety of crops raised on others. Pollutants have produced massive mortalities of fishes in rivers, lakes, and estuaries, and have damaged or destroyed commercial shellfish and shrimp fisheries. Pollutants have reduced valuable populations of pollinating and predatory insects and have appeared in alarming amounts in migratory birds. Pollutants threaten the estuarine breeding grounds of valuable ocean fish; even Antarctic penguins and Arctic snowy owls carry pesticides in their bodies.

The report noted that climate change from man-made carbon dioxide emissions was prophesied at the turn of the 20th century, by American geologist Thomas Chamberlain in 1899 and Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1903.

The report warned that induced climate change was already well underway from the greenhouse effect; a tentative conclusion only for want of a decent global climate model to back up what seemed apparent.

Fossil fuel combustion has been the only significant source of CO2 added to the ocean-atmosphere-biosphere system.

The overall effects of global warming were understood: increasing water acidity, warming sea water, melting polar caps, rising sea levels, and deterioration of ecosystems.

Johnson’s response:

Ours is a nation of affluence. But the technology that has permitted our affluence spews out vast quantities of wastes and spent products that pollute our air, poison our waters, and even impair our ability to feed ourselves. At the same time, we have crowded together into dense metropolitan areas where concentration of wastes intensifies the problem.

Pollution now is one of the most pervasive problems of our society. With our numbers increasing, and with our increasing urbanization and industrialization, the flow of pollutants to our air, soils, and waters is increasing. This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through the burning of fossil fuels. ~ US President Lyndon Johnson in 1965

Johnson went on to have several pollution control laws enacted related to air and water quality, waste disposal, and pesticide control.

President Richard Nixon, Johnson’s successor, went further. Besides tightening pollution legislation, Nixon created in 1970 by executive order the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a federal agency responsible for protecting human health and the environment from the externalities of corporate excess.

◊ ◊ ◊

Private industry was also aware of global warming early on. In 1968, the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) provided a report to the American Petroleum Institute (API) on gaseous pollutants in the atmosphere. The SRI report summarized the findings of the 1965 US Presidential report and made clear that CO2 pollution from burning fossil fuels was the primary culprit.

Man is now engaged in a vast geophysical experiment with his environment, the Earth. Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climatic changes.

The abundant pollutants which we generally ignore because they have little local effect, CO2 and submicron particles, may be the cause of serious worldwide environmental changes. There seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe. ~ Elmer Robinson & R.C. Robbins, SRI report to the American Petroleum Institute (1968)

The oil industry was concerned about product liability. Its response to the perceived problem was to spend untold millions of dollars supporting denials of man-made climate change. This stratagem mirrored that of the tobacco industry, which hid the known dangers of its product for decades.

◊ ◊ ◊

Public awareness of climate change was raised in June 1988 when James Hansen of NASA testified before the US Senate about global warming.

Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming. It is already happening now. ~ James Hansen in 1988

American politician Al Gore has been a laudatory clarion voice on the environment. He was the first, in 1976, to hold congressional hearings on the environmental impact that humans have had.

Pollution should never be the price of prosperity. ~ Al Gore

From then on, Gore spoke repeatedly on environmental quality and global warming; but to no avail. A series of international treaties have been signed, but no effective action taken.

The world is changing in such dramatic ways right in front of our eyes because of global warming. ~ Al Gore

The difficulty in taking even incremental measures owes to the economic cost and nationalism that pervades the world. The root problem is even deeper: the invariable pollution caused by capitalism and attendant consumerism that flows from materialism as a sustaining moral value.

In the absence of any short term in common use to represent all desirable things, or things that satisfy human wants, we may use the term goods for that purpose. ~ Alfred Marshall

Removing the cancer of economic materialism has never been seriously considered, so the ultimate moral weed, fertilized by technology, ensures our demise in Earth’s latest mass extinction event.

The Anthropocene

The human footprint on the planet is so distinctive and lasting that the Age of Man must be officially recognized in the geologic time scale. ~ Italian pedologists Giacomo Certini & Riccardo Scalenghe

The boundaries of epochs are traditionally defined by a distinctive geologic event. The current epoch – the Holocene – dates from 9,700 bce to today. It follows the Pleistocene (2.58 mya–11.7 tya). The divide between these epochs was the last episode of glaciation.

That mankind has long had a profound impact on the planet is not in dispute by anyone with a whit of sense. The only issues are whether and when to demark it. In the mid-2010s, scientists contributed to global warming with a lot of hot air about relabeling at least a portion of the Holocene to the Anthropocene.

Various dates have been bandied about. The dawn of the age of atomic bombs – 16 July 1945 – has been suggested, as has 1964, when the atmospheric fallout of nuclear detonations spiked. The year 1800 signifies the start of the Industrial Revolution, when capitalism upped its game. Then there is a date about a century after the Old World discovered the New World: 1610, which registered an unusual drop in atmospheric CO2.

These later dates disregard that humans caused severe ecosystem disruption with the advent of agriculture and were impacting the planet even before that. In that context, the Holocene (which means recent) is the Anthropocene, as some have observed.

Does it really make sense to define the start of a human-dominated era millennia after most forests in arable regions had been cut for agriculture? ~ William Ruddiman et al

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s become a political statement. That’s what so many people want. ~ American paleontologist Stan Finney

Getting scientists to agree to peg the Anthropocene to a particular date is like herding cats, and about as productive. It may well happen, and with some unexpected irony.

The farther in the past the onset of the Anthropocene is set, the more it may seem to the Collective that if humans have been so environmentally important for so long, maybe tomorrow will be just like yesterday after all, and the Anthropocene as the harbinger of the apocalypse is hokum.

There’s a risk that the Anthropocene idea is misunderstood as human entitlement to control planet Earth. ~ German biologist Christian Schwägerl