Environmental History

This post is part of the series Eleanor on the Environment.

Just like any other subject, the history of the environment is very important. It is crucial to study the change in the relationship between humans and the natural world. Humans from the very beginning of time saw the environment as a treasure. We can see from ancient artworks that ancient religions had major ties to nature and its power. For example, the Olmecs of Mesoamerica are believed to have had rulers that connect their people to the environment. They were considered the pathway between human and nature. Still today there are religions that tie people to the planet. As was expressed in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, he highlights that the earth was a gift from God. Pope Francis also calls to everyone saying that the earth is in need of our protection and it is our duty to protect it. 

As humans moved from cavemen to the more established beings we are today, we can see that a separation was created between humans and nature. We moved out of the forests and into houses. We started to create structures and gardens. We realized that we could control nature. With fire or tools we could take advantage of the organisms on this planet to grow our population. The growth of our population is what many environmental historians consider to be the most detrimental factor to the environment today. 

During the first industrial revolution, in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century,  there was a big shift in how the planet was used. In Europe we saw the first signs of big business. The industrial revolution was all about producing goods faster and cheaper. People began working in assembly lines, and families moved into cities. The landscapes were changed as smoke stacks and structures began to cluster. 

This is London before the Industrial Revolution(left)  and after the effects began to set in (right).

The image above shows the difference that the industrial revolution had on cities (in this case London). Notice that one is a painting and one is a photograph. In the picture on the left you can see the sky. There are people strolling versus the picture on the right which shows what we now consider to be a bustling city. There are cars and a cloud of smoke is visible. The difference here is incredible. After just one hundred years the entire street had transformed. 

The big business that was created during the industrial revolution started a path towards overconsumption of goods. The first overproduction crisis happened between 1873 and 1896. This is something that showed the first dangers of capitalism. As Karl Marx, an influential German philosopher, predicted this overproduction crisis took a toll on the lower class and the separation between the upper class and the working class began to grow. The overproduction of goods is detrimental to the environment because of the mass amounts of waste that is created. Additionally, the way in which factories make their products is unsustainable. In a small business it is easier to predict the amount of resources needed to produce your product. In big business it is easy to lose sight of the means and just focus on the ends. 

Today this enormous system of production continues to put the earth at risk. For example, the fast fashion industry “makes up 9.5% of municipal solid waste generated in America every year” (Centerforetechnology). Cotton uses the most pesticides compared to any other crop. The textile industry is just one example of how big corporations negatively impact our environment. History has set up big businesses to succeed. It is time to realize how detrimental this is and change the means of production.


Reference List:

Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015. 

“The Monster in Our Closet: Fast Fashion & Textile Waste on the Rise.” Center for EcoTechnology, March 9, 2020. https://www.centerforecotechnology.org/fast-fashion-textile-waste/. 


Read more from Eleanor on the Environment below