Pollution not the price of progress says environmental historian
With Earth Day rapidly approaching, a Texas A&M University environmental historian calls for a practical balance between the economic needs of society and the fragile needs of nature.
For the last thirty years, Tom Dunlap has watched as the confluence of nature and society evolved before his eyes, citing events like the banning of DDT and the testing of atomic bombs.
Dunlap recently published his fifth book, “In the Field, Among the Feathered: A History of Birders and their Guides,” which has received much critical acclaim. Last month, he also received a Distinguished Service Award from the American Society for Environmental History, an organization he helped establish back in 1977.
From pesticides to bird watching guides, Dunlap is interested in the way science shapes our understanding of the world around us. His passion for environmental history was spurred by a background in chemistry. He went on to focus his research on DDT and has since become an expert on the pesticide’s use, banning, and controversy.
When he started a master’s degree in history at the University of Kansas in 1970, environmental history was barely recognized as an academic field. Clearly much has changed since then, but Dunlap believes the overall problem remains the same.
“We’re still wrestling with the same questions. What are we going to do about nature and how are we going to live with nature?” Dunlap asks. “For the last 150 years or so we’ve basically been guiding ourselves by science. That is, science tells you what nature is, it tells you what human beings are. It should tell you what your relationship is to nature.”
The need to seek answers to these questions sprouted in Dunlap’s mind after his advisor suggested his background in chemistry could be applied to studying the history of DDT. Dunlap went on to complete a master’s thesis on the topic, learning that in 1945 DDT was considered one of the world’s most wonderful inventions. According to Dunlap, back then many Americans believed “pollution is the price of progress.”
By the early 1970s, when Dunlap was beginning his career, DDT was considered a villain to nature and human health.
Dunlap’s latest book is a clear divergence from his previous topics. “In the Field, Among the Feathered” looks at the guides used for bird watching, a hobby for Dunlap and a popular pastime for many in the U.S. But while the topic may appear on the surface to be a migration from his analysis of the ebb and flow of environmentalism, Dunlap’s body of work is threaded together by an emphasis on valuing nature.
“What’s been happening in the last 10 or 15 years in particular is people are grappling with the much deeper and larger dimensions of what we’re going to do about the environment.” Dunlap said. “How do you have an economic system that actually produces for people without harming more of nature?”
With Earth Day in mind, Dunlap’s research serves as a reminder that the holiday should not stand as an isolated event.
“Like everything else in the environmental movement, Earth Day has changed and deepened and developed. In some ways it’s dropped to the background, but in other ways the ideas have suffused through society,” said Dunlap.
“The sensibility has changed. People are now aware of environmental issues far more than they were a generation ago.”