12.3 Environmental protection
With much scientific exploration and discovery about species diversity and evolution, understanding of human interactions and changing environmental relationships began to accelerate during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Coupled with increasing pressures from urbanisation, early twentieth century conservation efforts in the UK were spearheaded by the entomologist and banker Charles Rothschild (eventually leading to the establishment of the ). The National Trust formed to begin efforts to protect ‘wild spaces’, coupled with the social reform pressures and mass trespasses leading to the formation of the national park system. Similar sentiments were being expressed and directed to conservation in the USA with the formation of the Sierra Club.
These efforts consolidated during the 1920s and 1930s. But the technological breakthrough of synthetic chemical formulations discovered during World War II and developed for industrial scale use in the immediate post-war years, particularly in agriculture, led to a step change in the potential for substances to be released into the local, regional and global environment.
As you saw in the videos on DDT in Section 7, use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides became widespread in many parts of the world during the 1950s. Only slowly did counterproductive effects, including high concentration pollution incidents in surface water and fast rising resistance amongst the insect target populations, become evident.
The persistence of chemicals, such as DDT, was matched only by the persistence of the ‘dilute and disperse’ conceptual model for environmental management. This model allowed leachate from landfill to permeate into the surrounding environment and shaped UK national policy for landfill and waste management purposes until the early 1970s and the introduction of the Poisonous Waste Act 1972 and its replacement the Control of Pollution Act 1974, and later the European Groundwater Protection Directive 80/ 68/ EEC (Westlake, 1995).
This approach to environmental management held to the idea that the capacity of the environment to absorb or assimilate pollution could be established by proxy. The focus was on setting limits as to the rate of release rather than the total amount released. In a water context, under this approach, it could be viable to allow 2000 litres of untreated sewage to flow into a river per day if this was considered to be within the absorptive capacity of the river. But the habitat and species of the same hypothetical river would be significantly affected if 730 000 litres (the annual total) of untreated sewage were released all at once.