Social Science / History Essay

History of sustainable development in the US

Sustainable development is the goal of any society, at least from an environmental standpoint. It is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. In other words, while the current generation is working to ensure that they have enough resources to last, they must also consider the long-term implications of their actions perhaps decades or centuries down the road, even when they are no longer around.

The United States has long been touted as one of the largest consumers in the world. Whether it is energy, water, oil, food or other resources, the United States is among the leading consumers out of all countries. Even so, sustainable development has come a long way in America from the 20th century, when people consumed like there was no tomorrow.

Two key incidents led to public awareness about sustainable practices. In 1962, there was the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which helped to lend awareness to industrial pollution. The book detailed the adverse environmental effects brought about by the use of pesticides. Carson voiced her argument that synthetic pesticides have detrimental effects on the environment, and in fact destroy far more than their intended targets of pests. Calling them “biocides”, she alleged that the chemical industry had intentionally spread misinformation, which had been readily accepted by public officials without proper scrutiny. Although Carson had initially expected much backlash from her publication, the book was actually named Book of the Month in October, placing it in the spotlight. Scientists who reviewed the book were inclined to agree with Carson’s views. This prompted responses from chemical companies addressing their unsustainable practices, bringing the issue to light.

The second inciting incident occurred on January 28, 1969, when the then-largest oil spill in United States waters took place off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Crude oil and natural gas from thousands of feet below the surface rushed upwards, erupting in a large blowout that eventually broke open the ocean floor. The beach was littered with thousands of carcasses from both birds and sea mammals. Hundreds of birds were still alive and covered in oil, and the Santa Barbara Zoo closed its doors to fully commit to nursing the oiled birds back to health. This incident was a wake-up call for the nation regarding environmental awareness and sustainable development. Perhaps for the first time, people saw first-hand the damage that humans could cause to the environment. They realized that they were responsible for conserving nature and wildlife, and leaving the world a better place.

Following these two incidents, sustainable development in the United States officially began in 1969 with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The first Earth Day took place in April 1970, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in December. The goal of the EPA was to promote protection of the environment in three ways: research, standard-setting and monitoring. It was in the interests of the EPA to protect both human health and environmental health. Various environmental laws were passed thereafter, including the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.

1973 Oil Embargo

Americans consumed oil in great quantities – and still do today. Towards the 1970s, American consumption of oil in the form of gasoline was increasing even while domestic oil production was declining. More oil was imported from abroad, mostly Arab countries, to meet the United States’ demands. Despite the dwindling local oil supply, Americans continued to use as much oil as they had been using, believing that Arab oil exporters could not afford to lose the income from the United States market.

They were proven wrong in 1973. At that time, the Arab world was at war with Israel. United States President Richard Nixon chose to support Israel, prompting a rapid response from the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries. The Organization reduced their oil production and declared an embargo on oil products sent to the main supporters of Israel – United States and the Netherlands. Oil prices spiked by four times within the United States – from three dollars a barrel to twelve. For a country that was used to consuming large amounts of oil, the sudden change was extremely difficult for both individuals and companies. Additionally, the local automobile industry suffered, because manufacturers had been bent on producing larger and more powerful cars that also used a lot of energy. In contrast, the smaller and more fuel-efficient Japanese cars were starting to take over the automobile market.

The oil embargo lasted till March 1974. Even after that, its effects could still be felt for the rest of the decade. Several acts of legislation were established towards a more sustainable energy source for America. These included the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act of 1973, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 and the creation of the Department of Energy in 1977. Domestic oil production was looked into, as well as efforts to derive energy from renewable sources instead of the depletable fossil fuels.

1979 Energy Crisis

The United States never really recovered from the 1973 oil embargo. Oil prices were higher than ever at $15.85 a barrel when another crisis struck in 1979, following political tension and war in Iraq and Iran that slowed down both countries’ oil production. During this time, oil prices skyrocketed to a high of $39.50 a barrel, a drastic increase from the pre-embargo prices.

In response, President Carter encouraged Americans to “make 1980 indeed a year of energy conservation”. Research began into renewable sources of energy, namely wind turbines, photovoltaics and hydroelectricity, aiming to decrease the dependency on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Sustainable Development in the 21st Century

The 21st century has centered on humans’ impact on global warming and the greenhouse effect. People are increasingly aware of their personal contribution to environmental damage, opting for more sustainable lifestyles. Countries worldwide are also moving towards movements to promote sustainability, including the car-free movement, smart growth, ecological footprint analysis and more.  

Even though development in alternative sources of energy has come a long way, America still has much further to go. Today, 80 million barrels of oil are consumed each day across the world, of which roughly 20 million is consumed by the United States alone. Additionally, America has not ramped up its domestic oil production to meet this quota, with three-fifths of its oil still being imported.

We should not forget that America’s population is a measly five percent of the world’s total population, yet it still consumes more than its fair share of the world’s resources. If sustainability is our goal, then we all have a responsibility to watch our carbon footprint. As suchHistory of sustainable development in the US, it is imperative that everyone play their part in reducing consumption and waste. 

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