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From a Victorian Pump to the Planetís Biosphere: Historical Trends in Environmental Leadership

David J. LePoire



     Long-term historical perspective is gained by exploring cases of civilizations that did not adequately address environmental issues. The impact of environmental degradation has been an important factor in the decline of civilizations such as the Easter Islanders, Romans, Mayans, and Mesopotamians,1 often because they overextended their reach into an unsustainable system as they grew more complex. It is unclear whether current technological change at increasing rates will overwhelm social responses aimed at handling the unintended consequences of technological change.2 However, in the past century a large set of environmental problems have been resolved with a variety of spatial scopes (local, national, international) and with a dynamic combination of political and technological techniques.3 The technology-related environmental problems range from sanitary conditions in urban areas in the early 20th century, to national air and water problems in the 1970s, to the recent interest in international environmental treaties. The time between these periods of action seems to be decreasing, but the duration required for their resolution has increased. This is not a sustainable trend.

     To gain a closer perspective of the uncertainty surrounding environmental issues, the situations and actions of five individuals are explored in this paper.  Some of these leaders are more familiar than others. These five include one of the founders of public health (John Snow); leaders from each 20th century environmental wave (Hermann Biggs in urban public health, Rachel Carson in a national look at pesticides and herbicides, and Mario Molina in identifying the global ozone hole problem); and James Hansen from the current global climate change issue.

     The actions and responses to these individuals throughout the growth of environmental awareness and environmental change is a useful means by which students can be engaged in environmental history.  Additionally, the context of these stories including the technology, governing institutions, and public communication shows how environmental awareness can grow or be hindered.  This essay is intended to offer teachers a framework for this interesting and important discussion.  Students can explore additional highly accessible examples of environmental biography and action in the book "Something New Under the Sun" by J. R. McNeill.4  They can also examine the nexus between personality and context by making actual or virtual visits to historical sites (birthplaces, museums, exhibitions), by means suggested in an appendix to this work prepared by and used with the permission of a pioneer in "site visit methodology."

John Snow

     Doctor John Snow, a founder of epidemiology, traced down the cause of a cholera outbreak to a specific London well in 1854.5  He gained reputation through promotion of ether as an anesthesia during surgery, for example, he applied it during the birth of Queen Victoria's last two children, first in 1853.  At that time it was assumed that bad air (miasma) caused disease; the germ theory of disease would be established 7 years later.  But he established a spatial correlation between the water well and the location of the diseased patients. He collected this information through a door-to-door survey along with a local Pastor to gain the residents' trust.  He convinced the local council to remove the well pump handle.  However, the diminished disease rate after removal was uncertain because many people had already evacuated the area.  After the situation seemed normal, the council replaced the pump handle and no further action taken.  Snow continued statistical studies to implicate contamination of drinking water by raw sewage as a factor in causing disease.  This connection might have been too distasteful for the public to consider accepting leading to the rejection of a proposal three years later for construction of a sewage system.  Instead, it took the 1858 Great Stink episode to convince parliament to fund construction.  The sewers, completed in 1865, collected the raw sewage in underground pipes and diverted it downstream near the Thames estuary.

     This early example of someone with scientific training, proven scientific application, and political connections, solving a problem only to be either ridiculed or rejected will be a recurring theme. 

Hermann Biggs: Urban Public Health

     Rapid urban growth occurred in North America at the turn of the century, fueled by immigrants especially in New York City.  The conditions were publicized by muckrakers such as Jacob Riis in his book "How the Other Half Lives" in 1890.  Onto that scene came Hermann Biggs, a native of New York, who had become a doctor but then studied in Europe visiting the founders of bacteriology, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur in the 1880s. He recognized the need for public health and established effective programs in New York City to contain and prevent outbreaks of disease.6  As a part of this program, he established a public lab to test for tuberculosis and cholera.  While visiting in Europe, he communicated latest breakthroughs like an antigen for diphtheria, which was soon produced and distributed (including freely to poorer sections). His actions shortened the trade embargo on New York in 1892 that had been enacted in response to cholera being introduced from immigrants. He was involved with controversial decisions regarding notification of tuberculosis contraction, which he advocated in 1894 but required 6 years before being fully enforceable.  Also after early his efforts to contain typhus, George Soper identified the famous case of Typhoid Mary, a healthy typhoid carrier in 1903.  Biggs agreed to forcibly quarantine her.  For this work during this crucial period in New York City, many recognize Biggs as a founder of public health management.  His later consultation in 1912 established standards for the whole state and in 1920 he diffused his methods and findings on a national and international scope in cooperation with the International Red Cross.

     In this early 20th century wave of environmental action, Hermann Biggs 1) worked at the larger scale of New York City; 2) was supported by both international collaborators and local government; 3) developed a laboratory to gather information guided by the correct germ theory; and 4) made decisions regarding rights of groups versus individuals such as the free distribution of antigens, handling of quarantines, innovating preventive measures, and reducing disease threats to allow economic trade to continue.

Rachel Carson: National Chemistry

     "Better living through chemistry" was DuPont advertising slogan beginning in 1935.  Chemical synthesis methods led to discoveries of complex organic chemicals for pesticides, insecticides, and plastics.  These chemicals enabled increased agricultural productivity.  However, there were some negative unintended consequences.  When DDT was sprayed on Long Island under the USDA's fire ant eradication program, some homeowners sued in 1957 claiming that they should not be subjected to the unknown effects of the chemical.  The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.  The homeowner lost but there were dissenters including Justice Thurgood Marshall.

     Having just abandoned a project to write about evolution, Rachel Carson, a science writer known for books on marine life, decided instead to investigate the pesticide issue.7  She was prepared by her former work as communications specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries starting in 1935.  In this position, she networked into disparate groups of the scientific community. Then she established a full-time writing career in 1951 with her bestseller The Sea Around Us.  Soon after the Supreme Court decision in 1957, the Audubon Society pursued a better understanding of the pesticide issue, so they hired Carson to research and communicate the issues surrounding the governments programs.  Her magazine and newspaper articles established a connection between the decreased bird population and pesticide use.  The USDA responded with a film promoting the benefits (but few of the potential problems) with the eradication efforts. Her work over the next four years led to the publication of the book Silent Spring in 1962. While she called for better controls and understanding of the balanced use of chemicals, such as DDT, she is often mistakenly linked to the DDT ban. Her legacy also lives on in the EPA as she identified the conflict of interest within the USDA both promoting and regulating these products.

     This environmental movement involved, yet again, a larger scope. It was a national issue involving national chemical industries supporting national government programs with decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Carson had to contend with the existing trust in scientific progress and mistrust of women in science. She identified both the potential conflicts of interest within the government and also biases in industry communication to the public.  She used new communication techniques such as her publicized book and speaking tour, films, and TV interviews.  Her science and writing background enabled her to connect the dots before the Internet with her many scientific contacts in various fields.

Mario Molina: Going Global

     Besides broad application of pesticides and herbicides designed to interact with the biosphere, there were many other applications of the new non-biological chemicals.  For example, advances in air conditioning and refrigeration led to higher productivity, comfort, and food preservation.  The chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants found a dual use as aerosols to dispense cleaning and hygiene products.

     In the early 1970's environmental debate over air and water pollution, ozone from car exhaust was identified as a major contributor to smog.  However, naturally occurring ozone in the stratosphere performed a beneficial service in reducing the sun's ultraviolet light reaching the ground.  The stratosphere usually received little attention since it had little impact on weather and it was assumed we had little impact on it.  Some researchers at the University of California at Irvine, F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, questioned this assumption.8 Other research demonstrated how ozone might be destroyed.  Could there be something like these ozone destroyers that could get into the stratosphere?

     To their surprise, they postulated in 1974 that the stable CFCs, like Freon, would last long enough to migrate all the way to the stratosphere and then later decomposed by UV light into ozone destroying chlorine atoms.  They presented the paper at a national scientific conference but were mostly ignored.  They then held a press conference to present their warnings about another chemical interference with the environment. The issue received enough public interest and support to warrant an investigation by the National Academy of Sciences in 1976.  This investigation supported the claim. The U.S. along with some European countries began to eliminate some CFC production. Again the claim was denigrated by involved industry and later NAS lower original estimates of the impacts.  An early measurement of CFCs in the southern Atlantic pointed to their long-lived nature.  But only when satellite measurements in 1985 provided evidence of an Ozone Hole (of up to 70% reduction of ozone concentration) was the claim taken seriously.  In response to these findings, the international community worked quickly to establish the Montreal Protocols in 1987 to phase out the production of CFC.  It was approved and enforceable a couple of years later.  Currently 196 countries have signed.  More environmentally friendly substitutes were found to replace the CFCs. The ozone concentration depletion has recovered about 10% from that time.  It is expected to fully recover within the next 50 years.

     In this case, the scientific model of potential ozone depletion was hypothesized before direct observations.  These models were assembled from basic chemistry and polar meteorology and combined with laboratory, field, and remote sensing measurements. The issue was elevated from scientific curiosity, to scientific community, national legislation, and international collaboration as the evidence was collected. Various actions were taken with different burden of proof levels. 

James Hansen: Global Economic Issue

     While the early environmental issues dealt with concrete immediate concerns such as sewage and disease, the later environmental issues were more abstract, such as a stable and clean ecosystem.  The ozone hole was even more abstract because of the distant polar location and non-immediate ultraviolet radiation threat. However, the ozone-hole problem involved only limited economic interests, the CFC producers, who could develop substitute products.  The issue of global climate change is more abstract with larger economic consequences concerning long-term trends, uncertainties about irreversibility, and energy, which is a major economic determinant.

     James Hansen currently works in dual roles in both government and academia.  He has been at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies for about 35 years in New York City.  He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University.  He has addressed many important questions concerning the potential of global climate change,9 including determining whether there is a warming, if human actions contributed to it, and whether anything can be done about it. 

     Hansen began studying the runaway greenhouse condition on Venus in the mid 1960's.  He developed computer models based to compare with the early space-probe data.  These models were then applied and refined for Earth situations and incorporated into global climate models in the mid 1970's.  By the early 1980's he was confident enough to predict that the effects of global warming starting would be discernable in the next decade, much earlier than others expected.  The models required simplifying assumptions because of computation limitations.  This included determination of the required spatial and temporal resolution data. Additionally, other factors needed consideration - gases such as methane increased warming, whereas the net effects of aerosols from fossil fuel burning were uncertain.  In 1988, armed with refined models using improved computer and data capabilities, he testified before the U.S. Congress on the potential of global climate change. He stated that a sustained half degree Celsius change in temperature would implicate human effects on the atmosphere.  The predictions included both surface and elevated temperature profiles which were later confirmed by 1990 satellite measurements.  Hansen is vocal about responsibility for climate change and potential actions including phasing out coal plants or sequestering carbon dioxide, institute a carbon tax, and first tackling black carbon reduction.

     There have been various suggested approaches to addressing this issue.10 Richard Smalley suggested that the U.S. should lead an international effort, similar to a global Marshall Plan, to explore the possibilities of using nanotechnology in the energy sector. Robert Paehlke argued for constructing environmental protection clauses in international trade agreements.  Approaches to decision support in complex issues with large uncertainties and many stakeholders are being developed.11 As a last resort the possibilities of geo-engineering are being researched.

     The components of uncertainty scaled along with the global economic nature of the problem.  The prediction of the complex biosphere system dynamics required computer models. The underlying models, measurements, and computer capability continually improved throughout the period. The data required significant interpretation to account for many factors such as integration of modern satellite measurements with ancient ice core data; concurrent changes in urban growth and agricultural intensification; temporary phenomena such as volcanoes and El Nino weather patterns.  The causality issues include the nonlinear nature of the atmosphere that contains both negative feedback (stabilizing) and positive feedback (destabilizing) mechanisms.  Under certain conditions, this nonlinear system might show significant changes in response to seemingly small actions.  This happens when positive feedback mechanisms push the climate over a threshold. Internet sites are maintained by a wide variety of organizations such as NASA's climate site ( which displays raw data. 


     Throughout the 20th century science and technology have supplied great benefits in medicine, energy generation, security, and entertainment. However, unintended consequences arose from this success.  In healthcare, the problems with cancer and aging population are unresolved, as the relative costs of medical care skyrocket due in part to the opportunities delivered by science. The ability to sustainably deliver energy is unresolved even as technology allows devices to further increase demands for energy. Technology has allowed us to communicate and travel at unprecedented rates, however, associated security issues arise as threatening smaller groups and individuals also have access to these technologies.  The internet allows greater communication and sharing but also to the splintering of discussions and segregation of views.

     These five cases of environmental public debate and controversy demonstrate the need for concurrent advances in scientific understanding, public communication, decision-making tools for incorporating uncertainty, innovative measurements, and individual leadership.  These leaders applied the strength of their suite of talents in these areas to effectively act even under large uncertainty. Often their efforts are only appreciated and recognized later after the situation worsens. Uncertainty arises in many ways- questions of group and individual rights with the community public well, evidence collection issues with the survey, causality issues with both an incorrect theory (miasma) and also confounding effects of evacuation, and decision scope issues with the local board removing the pump handle only temporarily, failing to understand the new conditions caused by rapid poor urban growth, and failing to resolve the root problem until it worsen during the Great Stink. 

David LePoire is an Environmental Analyst with the Environmental Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory.  He can be reached at


     Students can be tasked with locating birthplaces, museums, roadside historical markers or exhibitions of leading actors (from John Muir to David Owen) on the environmental stage. These can be visited by a class, with parental supervision, or on their own as is school and age appropriate. Alternatively, they may make a virtual visit and prepare a report that ideally would as like that which follows or would serve as a resource for their own report. A further alternative is to utilize one of the multi-dimensional lesson plans on the environment developed by Public Television/The American Experience such as the one which appears at the end of this appendix. 

     This exercise, which explores the life and work of Rachel Carson, was prepared for the Center of World History, University of Pittsburgh by Marc Jason Gilbert, NEH Endowed Chair in World History, Hawaii Pacific University as part of a fully illustrated larger presentation (examining methods of "Teaching History in Your Own Backyard," from 10,000 b.c.e. to the present) is available free on-line at the Center for World History's Workshop Website at

Rachel Carson and Environmental Education

Region: Pittsburgh Region County Location: Allegheny Adapted from:


     It is in southwestern Pennsylvania that a little girl, who grew up to become "one of the most influential people of the 20th century," according to TIME magazine, developed her love or nature. The youngest and only child of three to attend college, Rachel Carson was a published writer by age 10. In addition she began a life-long love of the ocean - perhaps inspired by her daily view of the great Allegheny River. As a young adult, Rachel went on to finish degrees in biology and marine biology. Her gift for writing and love for nature developed eventually into a literary outlet. She authored three books about the ocean and became a successful writer. Her fourth and perhaps most famous work was Silent Spring - a warning about the dangers associated with the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and their potentially adverse effect on the environment and human health. Carson promoted the need for more extensive research before releasing chemicals into our environment. --

A. Rachel Carson Birthplace and Historical Marker

Figure 1



Marker Location: Pittsburgh Street (SR 1001, old PA 28) & Colfax Street in Springdale Scientist, naturalist and writer. Born 1907 at 613 Marion Avenue; died 1964. Her 1951 book "The Sea Around Us" was followed in 1962 by "Silent Spring." This book focused the nation's attention on the dangers of pesticides and helped launch the environmental movement.

Behind the Marker

     From her earliest days on the family homestead outside of Springdale, Pennsylvania, Rachel Carson always had two loves: nature and writing. "I can remember no time, even in earliest childhood, when I didn't assume I was going to be a writer," recalled Carson in 1954. "Also, I can remember no time when I wasn't interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature. Those interests, I know, I inherited from my mother and have always shared with her." Growing up just north of Pittsburgh, Carson spent much of her childhood on the banks of the Allegheny River and under the shade of the trees in her family's orchards. But it was during her second year at the Pennsylvania College for Women that her love of nature started to shape itself into the career for which she became known. After earning a degree in biology, Carson embarked on a career that would lend legitimacy to the cause of environmental and ecological protection.

     Studying at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, she developed a love for the sea and became one of the first two women hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries as a researcher and science writer. Her first brush with fame came in 1941 with publication of Under the Sea. The success of her next book, The Sea Around Us (1951), provided her financial security and cemented her reputation as both a scientist and a writer. But it is not for her work with the ocean that Carson is best remembered. By the late 1950s Carson had become concerned about the correlation between insecticide use and the disappearance of songbirds across the nation. Assisted by ornithologists and other scientists, Carson conducted a thorough and systematic investigation that documented the deadly effects of many widely used chemical pesticides.

     Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1962, Silent Spring became an instant bestseller. In her clear and eloquent prose, Carson explained how DDT and other synthetic chemicals were killing far more species than they had targeted. Carson documented how the poisons remained in the environment for years, becoming increasingly toxic and eventually impacting not just insects, but also wildlife and humans. "For the first time in history, every human being is now subject to contact with dangerous chemicals from the moment of conception until death," wrote Carson. "In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world -- the very nature of life itself." First introduced during World War II, DDT was a cheap and effective insecticide. A potent killer of lice, mosquitoes, and other insects that carried typhus, malaria, and other microscopic human predators, it was considered the "atomic bomb of the insect world." After the war, hundreds of millions of pounds of DDT and other powerful chemical insecticides were sprayed indiscriminately to control mosquitoes, fire ants, and other insects that preyed upon American agriculture. But while chemical manufacturers and farmers were touting the blessings of a world free from pests, Carson warned Americans that each year new synthetic chemicals were being released into the environment "with little or no advance investigation of their effects on soil, water, wildlife or man himself." "The question," Carson asked, "is whether any civilization can wage such relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized?"

     Silent Spring remained atop the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-one weeks. Her detailed and eloquent condemnation of the American pesticide industry had touched a chord. Unable to prevent the publication of her book, the American chemical industry sought to discredit it, claiming that Carson was a hysterical, misguided woman with communist affiliations. Industry scientists attacked her research, accusing her of "overgeneralizations and downright errors."

     But her science was sound. After a Presidential Scientific Advisory Committee appointed by President Kennedy corroborated her findings in 1963, Congress began to pass a series of laws to protect life -- human and non-human -- in America. Today, historians consider Silent Spring one of the great books in American history, for it catalyzed the nation and gave birth to the modern environmental movement. Carson would not, however, live to see it. In 1964, at the age of fifty-six, she died of a cancer that had first been diagnosed soon after she began working on Silent Spring. As one writer put it, "A few thousand words from Rachel Carson and the world took a new direction."

Beyond the Marker

Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).

Paul Brooks, The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

Rachel Carson Lesson Plan:

Rachel Carson: Sounding an Environmental Alarm Lesson Plan


In this lesson, students will discover who Rachel Carson was and why she felt compelled to write Silent Spring by analyzing the fable in the first chapter of the book. They will examine the impact of this fable, discuss these issues, learn about DDT, and better understand Carson‘s impact on the environmental movement.


Grade Level & Subject: Grades 5-8: Language Arts and Science

Length: 1-2 class periods


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

Learn who Rachel Carson was and what motivated her to write Silent Spring.

Understand the negative effects of DDT and pesticides.

Analyze and illustrate a fable to identify the purpose of Carson‘s book and the birth of the

modern environmental movement.


1. Ponting, C., A new green history of the world : the environment and the collapse of great civilizations. Rev. ed. 2007, New York: Penguin Books. x, 452 p.

2. Diamond, J.M., Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed. 2005, New York: Viking. xi, 575 p., 24 p. of plates.

3. Linstone, H.A., Technological slowdown or societal speedup-the price of system complexity. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 1996. 51: p. 195-205.

4. LePoire, D.J., Logistic Analysis of Recent Environmental Interest. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Change, 2006. 73: p. 153-167.  URL: Accessed September 15, 2011.

5. McNeill, J.R., Something New Under the Sun. 2000: W.W. Norton & Company.

6. S. Shapin, S., "Sick City: Maps and Mortality in the time of Cholera, "The New Yorker, Accessed September 15, 2011.

7. See H. M. Biggs,  A Brief History of the Campaign Against Tuberculosis in New York City (New York City: New York Department of Health, 1908).

8. Lear, L., Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. 2009: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

9. Gribbin, J., The Hole In The Sky: Man's Threat to the Ozone Layer. 1988: Bantam Books.

10. Hansen, J., Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. 2009: Bloomsbury.

11. LePoire, D.J., Threading the Environmental Needle: Applying New Tools to Reduce Uncertainty in Environmental Foresight, in Sustainable Futures, Strategies and Techniques, C.G. Wagner, Editor. 2010, World Future Society: Bethesda MD.

12. Lear, L., Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. 2009: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Gribbin, J., The Hole In The Sky: Man's Threat to the Ozone Layer. 1988: Bantam Books.

Hansen, J., Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. 2009: Bloomsbury.


1 See Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World : the Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (New York: Penguin Books Rev. ed. 2007) and

Jared Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed (New York: Viking, 2005.

2 H. A. Linstone, "Technological Slowdown or Societal Speedup-the Price of System Complexity," Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 51, no. 2 (February 1996),  195-205.

3 D. J. LePoire, "Logistic Analysis of Recent Environmental Interest," Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 73, no. 2 (2006), 153-167. 

4 See J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).

5 S. Shapin, "Sick City: Maps and Mortality in the time of Cholera, "The New Yorker (6 Nov. 2006): 110-15, Accessed September 15, 2011.

6 See H. M. Biggs,  A Brief History of the Campaign Against Tuberculosis in New York City (New York City: New York Department of Health, 1908).

7 L. Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

8 See J. Gribbin, J., The Hole In The Sky: Man's Threat to the Ozone Layer (New York: Bantam Books, 1988).

9 J. Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (London: Bloomsbury, 2009).

10 D. J. LePoire, "Threading the Environmental Needle: Applying New Tools to Reduce Uncertainty in Environmental Foresight," in C.G. Wagner (ed.), Sustainable Futures, Strategies and Techniques (Bethesda, MD: World Future Society, 2010).

11 J. F. M. Koppenjan and E.H. Koppernjan, Managing Uncertainties in Networks: a Network Approach to Problem Solving  (New York: Routledge, 2010).


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