Environmental Impact

In capitalist economies, where businesses aim to minimize costs and maximize profits, inadequate or non-existent regulation has had devastating consequences for the environment. Whether in coal, oil, slaughterhouses or chemicals, American industry experienced few legal limits to the exploitation of the environment in the period of industrialization following the Civil War.

Not until the Progressive Era, as concerns about preserving the envi­ronment and protecting public health grew, did the federal government under President Theodore Roosevelt create national parks, which were off limits to business exploitation, and regulate food and drug safety. State governments, too, began regulating health and workplace safety conditions, and local governments built and expanded water supply and sewage disposal systems to provide clean water.

EnvironmentalEagle Street rooftop farm in Brooklyn, 2011.

Throughout most of the 20th century, however, industrialization and urbanization led to increasing pollution of the air, water and earth. One of the most notorious examples is Love Canal, a 1950s housing develop­ment in Niagara Falls, New York built on a toxic waste dump. Only in the late 1970s did residents discover they were living atop a poisonous sea of chemicals.

The publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" in 1962 warned of the negative effects of DDT and other insecticides on the food supply and sparked the emergence of the modern environmental movement. The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, symbolizing the movement's growing strength, was quickly followed by the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration division of the Department of Labor. The EPA aims to fight global warming, improve air quality, assure the safety of chemicals, clean hazardous sites, and protect clean water.

Yet, the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico demon­strates that many threats remain. Large corporations sometimes profit at the expense of local residents and the environment with mountaintop coal removal, and shale oil and gas extraction. Furthermore, rising carbon emissions and slow progress in the adoption of clean energy policies by the world's biggest energy consumers imperil the entire planet.