Human activity impacts the environment. Throughout human history there are examples of awareness of the impact human activity has on the environment. As human civilization —and then industry—developed, this impact increased in significance and negativity. In cities, human activity impacted public health and local governments had to address this impact through improved infrastructure. Thousands of new potentially hazardous chemical compounds were developed in the twentieth century that found their way—sometimes unintentionally—into many aspects of life. Before 1970, American industries were essentially free to release unlimited quantities of hazardous waste materials into the air, water, and land. Automobiles consumed large amounts of fuel containing hazardous additives and their emissions were unregulated. Nearly all municipal trash was buried in landfills.
The world had witnessed several deadly pollution-weather interactions (e.g., Los Angeles smog, Donora, PA temperature inversion/air pollution, and a London “fog”). Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring became a bestseller, and helped bring environmentalism to the American consciousness. United States senators, governors, and other leaders began to take up the environmental mantle their constituents called for. The first Earth Day brought people from all walks of life and all sections of American society together in the name of environmental awareness and a demand to halt and reverse environmental degradation.
The preceding is only the briefest overview of the history of environmentalism in the United States. The United States' Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970, cobbled together at first from existing government entities into a single regulatory agency with the power to enact hundreds of laws to rein in environmental degradation. In its early years, EPA’s mission was to halt environmental degradation.
Environmental Sustainability can be thought of as second-wave environmentalism—a task that is taken on only once the immediate task of halting the advancement of pollution has been achieved. However, preserving the environment for its own innate value, rather than for future exploitation, was articulated in these early years.
Environmental Sustainability must be considered on various levels, including individual, family, community, organization, industry, city, state, nation, world region, and global. We must always consider what we all can do to minimize our environmental impact. If the right choices are made on every level, by enough individual stakeholders, it can have a far-reaching impact. Just as we are all interconnected through the “web of life,” our choices, taken collectively, can have a greater, positive impact.