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Three Environmental Ages
Part 1: Introduction & The Age of Ignorance
[Originally presented at a conference in 1993, this paper still has much relevance today.]
For centuries, humans have defined history as being comprised of eras or ages when a specific activity or philosophy has dominated, e.g., The Stone Age, The Iron Age, The Bronze Age. Historians have studied the Dark Ages and the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Flight and the Space Age. Futurist Alvin Toffler has given us three waves of human activity — agriculture, industry and information. As humankind passed through these waves or ages, our environmental attitudes have also passed through definable periods of which three are dominant: The Age of Ignorance, the Age of Dilution, and the Age of Exclusion. Initially, and for much of man's history, the philosophy of the Age of Ignorance held dominion over the earth. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, the seeds of the second age, the Age of Dilution — first sown in the Fourteenth Century — began to take root. We soon began to realize, however, that the Earth's environment had only a finite capacity to absorb the wastes of human activities. We were forced, therefore, to develop a new philosophy of waste and bring in the third age, the Age of Exclusion.
The Age of Ignorance
The Age of Ignorance was born when humans first stepped away from lives as nomadic hunters and gatherers to established permanent or semi-permanent settlements and thus began to foul their nest. (The word Ignorance has been selected based both on the verb "to ignore" and the noun "ignorant", both roots are equally applicable.) In the earliest times, humans were ignorant of the impacts of environmental pollution, except perhaps for its smell or taste, but they also often ignored the tangible adverse consequences. For example, the irritating smoke derived from burning wet wood was balanced by the comfort of its light and heat. Disease was considered the curse of gods responding with displeasure to human actions, not the result of chemicals, viruses and bacteria. The world was large and humans filled only small niches. If non-degradable waste accumulated excessively, the water or air became fouled, or the soil became barren, new, fresh areas could be found to inhabit.
Environmental degradation, however, did not go unnoticed for long. In the Book of Genesis (19:28) Abraham beheld "the smoke of the country go up as the smoke of a furnace", the earliest known reference to pollution. As early as 400 BC, Hippocrates associated the city with pollution and ill health. Streams and rivers running through a settlement often served as both the prime source of drinking water and as the sewer. Waste, especially animal waste, was often dumped directly into the street. For centuries the streets of major cities worldwide were fouled with horse feces and urine and often the dead bodies of the animals themselves. In many American cities, this problem was never resolved; it just disappeared when the horse was replace by the motor vehicle.
As environmental degradation became more apparent, the philosophy dominating The Age of Ignorance evolved through several phases whose philosophies still prevail in the thinking of many today. The first phase was characterized by the phrase "Everybody has the run of the river". That is, all have an equal right to dump whatever and whenever they wished into rivers, the seas and the atmosphere to the full extent of their ability. Well, almost all, for in Thirteenth Century England, the excessive smoke in London and Nottingham annoyed the monarchy to such an extent that in 1273 the first of many English Smoke Abatement Laws was passed. In 1307, Edward I prohibited the burning of sea coal in the cities under a maximum penalty of death.
Later, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in 1772, the prevailing thinking of the Age of Ignorance was "Pollution is the sign of a healthy industry" (i.e., a sign of wealth) or "Muck is Money." As a result, most governments took no substantial legislative action. This philosophy held strong until the late Nineteenth Century when rising incidents of illness and death from environmental pollution could no longer be totally ignored.
However, in a last ditch attempt to keep the Philosophy of Ignorance alive, the head-in-the-sand attitude of "We need more studies" was instituted. The Age of Ignorance is dying a hard death and is still found in the attitudes of many leaders in government and industry worldwide.
Three Environmental Ages by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©1993, 1997, All Rights Reserved.
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