The Fruits of Civilization (65-4) United States

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

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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.

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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.

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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.