This is a short summary of the most significant events in three major categories of environmental history: environmental science, man-made disasters and environmental leadership. Follow the links for more detail.
Discovery of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere, 1957 - Roger Revelle and Charles Keeling of Scripps Institution of Oceanography began documenting rise of CO2 from 315 parts per million (ppm) base that year. (See Spencer Weart's Discovery of Global Warming, Harvard University Press, 2008.)
Publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Sept. 27, 1962 -- The book that catalyzed the worldwide environmental movement, Silent Spring called for an end to indiscriminate pesticide use and, on a broader level, a change in the way we view nature. (See Silent Spring Wikipedia article)
Discovery of atmospheric ozone depleting chemicals, 1974 -- F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario J. Molina describe the way refrigerants (CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons) break up ozone in a catalytic cycle in the June issue of Nature. (See the Nobel Prize page; also EPA pages about the Montreal Protocol ).
Fukushima Daiichi, March 11, 2011 -- Three nuclear reactors melt down, while explosions and spent fuel fires at the Fukushima power complex on Japan's east coast combine to create a major disaster for public health, environment and Japan's economy. The melt-downs were triggered by a complex chain of events, including loss of coolant and an earthquake and tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people. Health impacts from the Fukushima disaster may be more serious than Chernobyl. The disaster ends the 60 year hope that nuclear power could create safe, cheap power worldwide and stave off accelerating climate change.
Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform, Gulf of Mexico, April 20, 2010 -- An explosion kills 11 and badly injures 9 more workings on this modern drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Louisana coast. Millions of gallons of oil spill and, driven by wind and tides, devastate fragile coastal environments. The incident is similar to the Piper Alpha disaster in the North sea on July 6, 1988, killing 167 men in a fiery explosion. It is also similar to the Ixtoc 1 spill on June 3, 1979 in the Bay of Campeche, spilling three and a half billion barrels (450,000 metric tons) of oil. Another offshore rig incident was the Ocean Ranger, which sank in heavy seas off the Altantic coast of Canada on 15 February 1982 with a loss of 84 crew members. The dangers and costs of recovering oil at extreme depths were highlighted by these incidents.
Coal ash disaster, Tennessee, United States, Dec. 22, 2008 -- Over a billion gallons of coal fly ash sludge spills out of a holding dam near Kinsport, TN. The Tennessee Valley Authority tells consumers that conditions are "probably safe," that they should boil water and that fly ash is similar to gypsum. In reality, the toxic brew contains high levels of carcinogenic compounds and neurotoxins that no amount of boiling will ever remove. The spill is significant as sounding a loud alarm over the long-term health and environmental costs of using coal for electricity.
Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska, United States, March 24, 1989 -- An Exxon oil tanker runs aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons. The incident is just one of thousands of oil spills, but it catalyzed public opinion about the environmental dangers of oil. Wikipedia has a list of the largest spills.
Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Ukraine, April 26, 1986 -- A safety experiment gone wrong, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, killing approximately 50 people immediately, an estimated 4,000 people over the short term, and exposing over half a million people to high levels of radiation. The worst nuclear disaster in history also had a destabilizing effect on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and is seen as one of many causes of its breakup in 1991.
Bhopal disaster, India, Dec. 3, 1984 -- Union Carbide Co. fertilizer plant leaks methyl icocyanide in Indian town of Bhopal. 2000 dead, another 8,000 die of chronic effects. The International Medical Commission on Bhopal estimates that upwards of 50,000 people remained partially or totally disabled.
Minimata "disease," Japan, May 1, 1956 -- Dr. Hajime Hosokawa reported an "an unclarified disease of the central nervous system" affecting residents of Kumamoto and Minamata, small towns about 570 miles southwest of Tokyo. Hosokawa soon narrowed the cause of the disease to mercury dumping by the Chisso Corporation, which denied the accusations, continued dumping mercury, and attempted to silence Dr. Hosokawa. In the mid-1970s, the estimate was that 67 people in Minamata had died and another 330 were permanently disabled from the mercury poisoning. The long - term impacts of the disaster included a new worldwide awareness of the severe health impacts that unregulated chemical pollution could cause.
Leaded gasoline, Oct. 29, 1924 -- The public first learns of strange violent insanity and death at refineries owned by Standard Oil (Exxon) and DuPont refineries in New Jersey making tetraethyl lead gasoline additive. Public health expert Alice Hamilton of Harvard University says inventor and Ethyl Corp. head Charles Kettering is "nothing but a murderer." Due to the power of the oil and automotive industries backing leaded gasoline, the octane-boosting additive is used in most gasoline worldwide during the 20th century. It takes until 1986 to ban it in the US and 2000 to ban it in Europe and the rest of the world.
John Snow (1813 - 1858) breaks the pump handle -- During the cholera epidemics of the late 1840s and early 1850s, physician John Snow realized that cholera is transmitted through contaminated water. He was popularly known at the time as the doctor who "broke" the Broad street pump handle because he was tired of waiting for reform. In fact, he convinced the local board of health to shut the pump down after presenting his evidence, and the high profile incident added to calls for sanitary reform from England's emerging progressive movement.
Alice Hamilton (1869 - 1970) -- The founder of occupational medicine in the U.S. and the first woman on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, Hamilton took a leading role in two major environmental controversies of the 1920s involving leaded gasoline and radium dial painters (known as the "radium girls").
John Muir (1838 - 1913) -- America's most influential conservationist, Muir published 300 articles and 10 major books that recounted his travels and explained his naturalist philosophy. In 1892, Muir and friends established the Sierra Club to, as he said, "do something for wildness and make the mountains glad."
George Washington Carver (1865 - 1943) researched industrial applications from farm products -- a concept that was called "chemurgy" and adopted by conservative agrarians in the late 1920s. Carver is significant in the environmental context because the idea of creating renewable and industrial scale resources from agricultural products was just emerging at a time when the oil, chemical and automotive industries said such systems did not exist or could not work. His ideas, and those of fellow scientists, pointed the way towards the development of biologically compatible paths to sustainable development.
Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941 - 1995) -- The popular Nigerian author and journalist was executed in 1995 following a mock trial by the Nigerian dictatorship in response to a human rights and environmental campaign. Shell Oil company had a role in both the execution and the environmental damage in the Ogoni homeland, at the mouth of the Niger River. What angered Sawo-Wiwa and others is that the oil industry was able to lift billions of barrels of oil out of Nigeria and yet completely avoid responsibility for environmental cleanup when devastating oil spills, gas flares, pipeline explosions and chemical dumping ruined the land and made simple agriculture impossible for the Ogoni people. His last words were: "Lord, take my soul, but the struggle continues."