Good question, and tough one! There are a lot of possible choices to answer it. I’ll put in my vote for 1890-1900 (and to 1903 if I can extend it a little bit). Coming on the tail end of the industrial revolution, there were several inventions and innovations in this decause that would lead to huge carbon footprints and other environmental issues. I’m specifically thinking of cars. The automobile wasn’t entirely new, but this was when they began to be commercially available and exclusively gas-powered. The gas-powered engine started to win out over the electric car, which had previously been an equal contender. Car racing began, people started driving cross-country for pleasure, and Henry Ford began his business.
Aside from the obvious fact that cars burn fossil fuels, necessitating oil drilling and releasing greenhouse gases, they have other environmental consequences. Cars lead to roads and parking lots, which are major contributors to excess erosion and the destruction of habitats. And the ability to drive means that people can travel further, meaning that cities can sprawl as far as they want. Many toxic chemicals go into the maintenance of cars, and if they have a leak, these chemicals drip onto the road and can be washed right into groundwater or a nearby lake. I won’t even go into the energy and materials that go into manufacturing automobiles and convincing people to buy them.
Anyway, I’ll say that the 1890s was pretty environmentally reprehensible, mostly due to the popularization of the gas-powered automobile.
I would vote for the last 10 years. This is in light of the fact that we now have programs in place like recycling and organic farming and species preservation. However, so many people continue to damage the planet, either by throwing trash where it does not belong and not recycling or continuing to hunt threatened species or simply not observing that the planet needs our help. So much logging and mining continues each day and most alternatives, like solar and wind, are rarely used or understood.
I think the time is now (if not already in the past) that we must make changes. However, people continue to ignore the signs and believe that someone else will take care of the problem. Ignorance is a horrible thing and this is what I think is making the past 10 years the worst.
I have to agree with the answer regarding the Industrial Revolution. The inventions that resulted from that period, such as the gas-powered engine and the increased use of coal to generate energy, paved the way for our current reliance on dirty fuels. While that period may not be the most polluting in terms of total emissions, it certainly impacted our society tremendously.
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