The Pathos of Politics – Environmentalism


Man has too long forgotten that the Earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste. ~ George Perkins Marsh

American diplomat and philologist George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882) published Man and Nature in 1864: one of the first books to chronicle the effects human were having on the environment. Contemporaneously, Englishmen John Ruskin (1819–1900) and William Morris (1834–1896) expressed concern about the impact of industrialization on the natural world.

The Earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant. ~ George Perkins Marsh

 Indian Teak

That every man may sit under his own vine, and under his own fig-tree, in thankfulness to thee. ~ John Evelyn

English gardener and writer John Evelyn (1620–1706) presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1662: “Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber,” addressed the depletion of timber resources in England in the mid-17th century. Evelyn advocated managing tree harvesting and ensuring replenishment through replanting, an idea implemented by Babylonian king Hammurabi in the 18th century bce, but long forgotten.

Forestry management developed during the 18th century in Prussia and France, but the first widespread example of conserving timber in modern times was in the teak forests of India in the early 1800s. Concerns about teak depletion were raised at the turn of the 19th century, when the British Navy was expanding shipbuilding to fight the Napoleonic Wars. A forestry officer was appointed in 1806 to preserve the teak forests by regulating harvest.

This promising start lasted less than 2 decades. In the 1820s, the power of laissez-faire economics coupled to complaints from private landowners brought the Indian teak conservation effort to an end.


Environmental movements began in England in the mid-19th century: addressing the foul air and water that was increasingly common, and encroachment of industrialization into rural areas. Animal conservation was also an issue.

 1863 Alkali Act

The first modern environmental law was the British Alkali Act of 1863, intended to regulate discharge of gaseous hydrochloric acid into the atmosphere. Hydrochloric acid is a byproduct of producing soda ash. Alkali – soda ash and potash – are vital chemicals in the making of glass, soap, paper, and textiles.

The traditional source of alkali in western Europe had been the ashes of hardwood trees. By the 13th century, deforestation had rendered further harvest uneconomical.

Potash was imported from Russia, Scandinavia, and North America, which had forests to burn. Soda ash was imported from Spain and the Canary Islands, where it was produced from the ashes of glassworts: plants which thrives in saline environments, such as salt marshes and seacoasts.


Late 19th-century environmental advocacy in the United States was more conflicted in its goals than in Britain. Some, such as Scottish American naturalist John Muir (1838–1914) wanted to preserve Nature. More materialist conservationists wanted to manage lands for human exploitation. American forester and politician Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946), the first Chief of the United States Forest Service, was one of them. Pinchot eschewed preserving Nature for its own sake.

In 1907, Congress succumbed to commercial interests and forbade the creation of more forest reserves in the western states. President Theodore Roosevelt designated 16 million acres (65,000 km²) of new national forests just minutes before his power to do so was stripped by Congress. These preserves were called the Midnight Forests.

Despite the Midnight Forests, Theodore Roosevelt subscribed to Pinchot’s philosophy: “to make the forest produce the largest amount of whatever crop or service will be most useful, and keep on producing it for generation after generation.” To the extent that conservation has been considered, this view dominated into the 21st century.

During the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt had many large-scale dams built and expanded the national forest system as a vehicle for exploitation. It was not until after 1st World War that scientific understanding of the impact that humans were having on the environment even began to develop.

There was no good news to report. Unawares, mankind passed the tipping point of a self-made mass extinction event in 1940 with the onset of 2nd World War.

Environmental destruction was in full swing by the end of the war. The effort was accelerated with the widespread use of toxic chemicals as if they were benign. An ancient craft, the chemicals industry exploded in both variety and production in the late 19th century.

In 1962, American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson  published Silent Spring, a book which told of the deleterious effects that industrial pesticides had on the environment and human health, especially DDT.

Fiercely contested by chemical companies, Silent Spring spurred a reconsideration of US pesticide policy, led to a ban on DDT, and inspired a movement that resulted in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 by executive order of President Richard Nixon. The EPA was tasked with protecting human health and the environment from the externalities of corporate excess. It was, at least, a token gesture.

Arne Naess

Earth does not belong to humans. ~ Arne Naess

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912–2009) was so impressed by Silent Spring that he devoted himself to raising public awareness of the impact that people were having on the environment. He developed a theory he termed deep ecology. Its central tenet was that all life has its own intrinsic value, and therefore “needs protection against the destruction of billions of humans.”

The challenge of today is to save the planet from further devastation which violates both the enlightened self-interest of humans and nonhumans, and decreases the potential of joyful existence for all. ~ Arne Naess

Naess’ deep ecology called for human population reduction and less interference in the natural world. Deep ecology was enthusiastically endorsed by environmentalists who despaired about the value of shallow ecology, which ignored the environmental impact of economic growth and technology.

Life is fundamentally one. ~ Arne Naess


No generation can exclusively own the renewable resources by which it lives. We hold the commonwealth in trust for prosperity, and to lessen or destroy it is to commit treason against the future. ~ Inter-American Conference on the Conservation of Renewable Natural Resources (1948)

Britain enacted various environmental laws, protecting wild birds (1902), weeds (1959) and badgers (1991, 1992), as well as a series of acts aimed at the quality of water (the 1st in 1852) and air (the 1st in 1853).

 London’s Great Smog

The Great Smog was a severe air pollution event 5–9 December 1952. Windless cold weather in London created a thick layer of smog that covered the city.

It was not thought to be a significant event at the time, as London had experienced many such “pea soupers.” The Great Smog killed 12,000 and made 100,000 ill.

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The link between clean air and health were well understood by the late 19th century. British legislative acts aimed at air quality were passed in 1853, 1856, and 1891. They had clearly been ineffectual.

The government was initially reluctant to act – downplaying the problem due to fears about the economic impact of reducing pollution. 4 years after the Great Smog, a Clean Air Act finally passed. This 1956 law was only in effect until 1964 but was then succeeded by the 1968 Clean Air Act.

The 1968 act introduced the idea of using tall chimneys for releasing the fumes from industrial emissions. Legislators were persuaded that fouling the air was an economic necessity, so they simply did something about it being spewed near the ground, where it was so obvious.

Convinced of the necessity of filth to succor capitalism, the British government has not bothered to effect clean air. London air pollution can be as bad as Beijing. 40,000 Brits die from toxic air each year, and millions more suffer from it, shortening their lives as well as degrading enjoyment of life.

 Los Angeles Smog

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

A county commission was appointed to study the nature of the problem. It took scientists a decade to figure out that cars were the culprit.

People did look at tailpipes, but auto exhaust was clear, and the smog was brown, so it didn’t seem like there was a direct relationship between those 2 things. ~ American historian Sarah Elkind

In the decades that followed there were attendant protests, politics, industry denial, and an unwavering attachment to the automobile. All the while Los Angeles was promoted as a clean, healthy place.

Like Denver and Mexico City, Los Angeles is a natural pollution trap. Surrounding mountains combine with temperature inversions to snuggle filthy air.

Smoke fumes from steel and chemical plants, oil refineries, and backyard trash incinerators plagued city air. In 1974, the smog was so bad that Governor Ronald Reagan urged residents to limit travel and drive slower to reduce emissions.

It was not until 1975 that new cars were required to have catalytic converters to reduce exhaust emissions. California did not institute a smog-check program on vehicles until 1984; 4 decades after lung-burning blankets started covering the City of Angels.


Environmental protection in the United States was left to the states until after the 2nd World War. The US enacted its 1st water pollution control act in 1948, when Harry Truman was President. The original statute was amended several times, most extensively during the Nixon administration in the early 1970s.

The 1st US federal legislation aimed at reducing air pollution was enacted in 1955 under the Eisenhower administration. Amendments were made in 1963 under President Lyndon Johnson to reduce air pollution from stationary sources, such as power plants and steel mills.

The Johnson administration ushered in the 1st federal legislation aimed at preserving endangered species. Earlier acts were quite limited. The 1900 Lacey Act had ineffectual regulations over commercial animal markets. Migratory birds were supposedly protected in 1929, whales via treaty in 1937, and bald eagles were via a 1940 law. These specific acts raised little opposition, as they came at a low cost to society.

President Richard Nixon also furthered efforts to save endangered species and clean up toxic industrial sites. These efforts were in response to horrendous pollution in cities and publicized environmental horrors.

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Conservation and environmental awareness groups sprung up during the 20th century in Britain and the United States. Most have memberships that continue to climb into the 21st century.

Beyond legislation that somewhat lessened pollution problems, environmental successes have been partial and piecemeal: halting or limiting some projects which would have wrought severe onsite environmental damage, and curtailing pollution only to levels that are not apparently lethal to large numbers of people living in cities, or at least out of sight of urban dwellers.

American environmental protection was set back by the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan, who embraced laissez-faire. But succeeding administrations, regardless of party, offered few to no environmental initiatives. Preserving the environment became just another special interest, and not an especially compelling one, as there is no money in Nature except in its exploitation. President Donald Trump proved the point by eliminating environmental quality as a priority to practically no protest from other politicians (the press and public have squawked a bit).

A recent trend has been to subsidize energy production from sources that are considered more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels (coal and petroleum), notably solar and wind power. These have been giveaways to corporations that have done nothing to solve the problem of environmental degradation. (In 2016, the US subsidized ‘renewable’ energy $7 billion while subsidizing fossil fuels $20 billion.)

Further, so-called ‘clean’ energy sources are nothing of the sort. Photovoltaics – what is commonly called “solar power” – is an environmental affront of a major magnitude in the mining of raw materials, waste, pollution from production, and disposal of spent products. The only thing clean about solar power is its energy source, and photovoltaics are so inefficient in the field that the effort is hardly worthwhile.

Over the last 15 years environmental foundations and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into combating global warming. We have strikingly little to show for it. Yet in lengthy conversations, the vast majority of leaders from the largest environmental organizations and foundations in the country insisted to us that we are on the right track. ~ American political consultants Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus in 2004

The overall failure of environmentalism to date owes to an unwillingness to adopt Naess’ deep ecology and directly address the cause of the mass extinction event underway: the preservation of capitalism. As every doctor knows, only treating symptoms does nothing to cure an underlying disease.

Environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed “thing” – “the environment” – than advancing the worldview articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” ~ Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus