Many would say that the 19th century was the worst for the environment. The industrial revolution rapidly accelerated in the United States, setting the groundwork for the industrial system that today consumes massive amounts of natural resources. This growth of industry has spread throughout the world. The environment has absolutely suffered more in this past century than it did in 1890; but this is due to events that began in that century.
I believe a case can be made for the 20th century being the worst. While industrial processes on a global scale certainly began in the 19th century, the 20th century saw the development and widespread acceptance of the automobile in first world countries and the attendant increase in demand for petroleum and other fossil fuels. A reasonably car-less century such as the 1800s (the automobile only came into vogue in the late 1890s, and many of those were steam powered) can do plenty of damage, but where but the 20th century, before the advent of modern environmental legislation, could you see horrific events such as the “killer fog” in London in 1952, or the numerous rivers in the northeastern United States that were prone to literally catching fire due to the flammable chemicals dumped in them? Also, the 20th century saw the development both of nuclear weapons, little-used in combat but widely tested in the atmosphere until 1963, and nuclear power plants with their waste products that were difficult to dispose of, not to mention events such as Chernobyl. The simple fact that global warming is getting worse rather than better seems to provide a scientific indication that most of the damage done to the environment has been more recent than historic, and considering we’re only 10 years into the present century, I would argue that the last one should get the lion’s share of the blame.
I would have to agree with jvanderlee that the Industrial Revolution set the world on a path from which we might not recover. With the invention of the steam engine and use of coal, innovation was made easier and faster to improve. If we hadn’t propelled our consumption of resources in the early 19th century, it’s safe to say we would still be living as sustainably as we did before then. Maybe our lives wouldn’t last as long, but is it really worth destroying the world around us?
I agree with the 20th century – although the destruction wreaked in the 20th century would not have occurred were it not for the developments of the 19th century. The industrial revolution is certainly the root cause of our ills, but the dramatic increase in production and globalization in the 20th century, accompanied by newly-industrializing third world or literally “developing” nations (a continuing industrial revolution!) has caused the dramatic, wide-ranging environmental destruction we’re trying to curb today.
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