Environmental issues of present found in lessons of past

Contrary to the contentions of environmental contrarians, much of what we know about our environmental struggles has been known for many decades. Much of the fundamental scientific knowledge goes back centuries.

Depending so much on the land on which we grew our food and the natural world we fished and hunted, mankind came to have a basic understanding of the causes and effects of all sorts of natural occurrences.

When it came to larger scale environmental damage, we also came to understand the root causes more than fifty years ago. Some of the details were fuzzy and some of the precise predictions inaccurate, but most of the basic premises have held true.

I was once again reminded of this when I recently ran across a host of decades-old news and scientific articles, college class notes and papers, class lessons and projects from my Earth Science teaching days. (Readers will recall we set off on a grand reorganization and archive purging effort in the Frederick household a few weeks back.)

Some of you, no doubt, are rolling your eyes at this point, wondering why anyone would hold onto to such seemingly trivial stuff from the seventies, eighties and nineties. Why would someone keep a large box full of scientific magazine and journal articles, neatly arranged by subject in file folders? And another box with class notes and research papers from nearly every college and graduate class I’d taken?

One must realize the times and task at hand. Before the internet, you clipped articles of interest or referred to the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature to find articles on particular subjects. It was a bit cumbersome compared to a few clicks on your computer, but amazingly effective in the 1970s.

So without the benefit and convenience of the internet, teachers or others that would find value in archiving valuable information, would sometimes clip, and hold onto such resources. Libraries called these “vertical files” and kept hundreds of them on newsworthy topics that users would utilize for school papers or other research.

Vertical files are an anachronism in 2020, but I have had a hard time parting with mine. Beyond incurable nostalgia, I’ve also been fascinated by the insights from the research and reflections dating back to the early seventies. Admittedly, many articles and class notes have not seen the light of day for decades. Yet, every now and again, I’ll recall a bit of information which is buried in one of the boxes and dig it out.

As I tried to weed out the stuff I would never possibly need again (like my linear algebra class notes), I looked through dozens of files and hundreds of pages of notes and articles. Most of it was thirty years old or older, yet time and time again I saw studies and stories on issues still plaguing us in 2020 – wasteful energy consumption, the hazards of toxic chemicals, long-term storage of highly radioactive waste, greenhouse gases and climate change, drinking water contamination, the destruction of fisheries, and the social impacts of environmental degradation on the poorest people in the world.

Once in a while, everyone should look through those old boxes. Old or not, the lessons are worth rereading.

John Frederick (www.johnjfrederick.com) writes about environmental topics the first and third weekends each month.


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