The word environment at its most basic level simply means “surroundings.” Sociologist Jean-Guy Vaillancourt of the University of Montreal notes that the word has in the past had at least two distinct meanings. Psychologists and other social scientists viewed the environment as the sum total of outside influences on the human individual, and studied how a person’s “environment” affected his/her growth, development, and character. Biologists and natural scientists, on the other hand, used the word to signify the interaction of plants, animals, sunlight, air, and water that collectively make up “nature”—with nature being generally defined as excluding human creations and influences.
Beginning roughly in the 1960s, these two definitions of environment became more intertwined. Scientists and the general public became increasingly aware of how human activities were constantly affecting natural environments, and how these changes in turn were impacting the way humans live. One important factor in this developing consciousness was the 1962 publication of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, who argued that chemical pesticides such as DDT threatened humanity, both by direct exposure and by the destruction of ecosystems. Silent Spring created an uproar. Writing of the public reaction to Carson’s best-selling work, political scientist Robert Paehlke wrote: “Nature became more than something that existed at a distance from most of human settlement, and nonhuman species were suddenly not the only species at direct risk from human impositions on the natural world.” Historian Linda J. Lear writes, “Carson was denounced by industry and government as an alarmist, but she had illustrated as no one else had before that humankind was part of the earth’s ecosystem and that, by destroying a part of nature, all of life was placed at risk.”
Carson’s book is credited with sparking widespread growth of public awareness of the natural environment, culminating in the original Earth Day on April 22, 1970, when twenty million Americans participated in rallies and educational events. The speeches and other activities went beyond traditional conservationist concerns about national parks and wilderness preservation. Issues such as air and water pollution, resource scarcity, and overpopulation took center stage. The years immediately following Earth Day 1970 saw the birth or revitalization of numerous private organizations concerned with environmental preservation. In addition, numerous federal laws were passed and federal agencies created to prevent or mitigate human-caused degradation of the environment.
In the decades since the first Earth Day, much progress has been made in some of the areas of greatest concern: DDT has been banned, the most visible cases of air and water pollution in the United States have greatly improved, and global food production has kept up with human population growth. Still, new environmental concerns continue to be raised. Among these are global warming, the increasing rate of species extinction, deforestation, and the connection in developing countries between poverty and environmental degradation. The actions governments should take to protect the natural world—and the balancing of these concerns with economic growth and development—are a source of continual debate. How humans are changing the natural environment— and how they in turn are being affected—is one of the questions discussed in The Environment: Opposing Viewpoints. Environmental issues are examined in the following chapters: Is There an Environmental Crisis? How Can Pollution Best Be Prevented? Is the American Lifestyle Bad for the Environment? What Principles and Values Should Guide American Environmental Policy? The articles provide a broad spectrum of opinion on topics pertaining to the environment and the relationship between earth and its most dominant species.