Op-Ed: How the U.S. came to protect the natural world — and exploit it at the same time.
I am an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New Yorker and several other publications. I cover climate change, oceans, endangered species, endangered ecosystems, indigenous peoples and the environment for my website, GreenCrowd, and for CNN, the New York Times, Time and other publications.
At the end of this article, you can find the text of my first piece, also on the GreenCrowd website, “How climate change is happening, and why you absolutely must care about it.”
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The current American political moment has brought much to Americans’ attention — and concern — over the environment. What is less known, however, is that one of the central ideas behind our environmental protection and conservation was actually born in the 1930s.
The idea here is not new. When the Industrial Revolution started to take hold in Britain and the United States in the 18th century, there were plenty of skeptics among its proponents. A typical early example of this came in the form of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book A Journal of the Plague Year.
In it, Defoe described a society plagued by a horrible scourge of plague, an epidemic so virulent that everyone was “infected”:
“It had at first begun in a small degree among the merchants or the better part of the yeomanry; but, upon the approach of the summer, or during the height of the fine weather, to every part of the town the sick and diseased were seen to increase; and to spread from house to house, infecting one another.”
The disease was spread by rats, according to Defoe, and so the people were advised to try to trap the rodents. One of these, however, was caught in a trap and “died of the plague he had seized.”
The plague soon came to the other major European countries and, in the case of the United States, swept through the country, killing some 10 to 20 people per week by 1722 and claiming 50 to 100 lives in New York City during the 1730 New York City epidemic.
The outbreak of an epidemic as large and destructive as the plague prompted