Which modern enviro concepts are throwbacks to the past?
Four experts discuss the technologies, laws, and states of mind that have their roots in the first wave of the environmental movement.
Imagine a city where the main boulevard has been converted to a greenway, replete with thousands of trees, birdsong, and even a creek. Battery-powered buses and free bicycles stationed at each corner replace cars, which are banned. For intercity travel, high-speed magnetic trains transport passengers as fast as a plane—in fact, the trains are made by Boeing, which abandoned the polluting business of air travel long ago. The city’s food waste, sewage, and garbage are composted for fertilizer. All the produce is organically grown. The livestock are free-range. Scientists provide third-party review of foods, keeping companies honest. And everything from clothes to containers is biodegradable in keeping with the overarching principle of sustainability. At night in the city, you can look up and see the stars for the first time in more than a century.
Sound like a modern green fantasy, designed by a team of hotshot urban planners and enviro activists? In fact, the city dates from 1975. It is a vision of San Francisco from the landmark novel Ecotopia, which embodied the ideas of the environmental movement at the time—ideas, of course, that are very similar to the up-and-coming designs of today.
With all the talk about a new green revolution, new energy paradigms, and climate change, it’s easy to overlook how many of the pillars of modern environmentalism are not, in fact, new. A whole host of these dynamic, forward-looking ideas were born in the 60s and 70s.
Biologists Howard and Eugene Odum developed the modern image of the Earth as an intricate tracery of biological systems in the 1960s. They were also the first to point out that crops are in some sense made of oil, in that it takes oil to fertilize them, harvest them, and transport them. In the 60s and early 70s, Robert MacArthur helped transform the natural history-based ecology of the past into the systemic, ahistorical science of today. In 1977, solar power made its first serious move towards the mainstream as President Jimmy Carter famously installed panels on the White House roof and provided the first solar incentives to individuals. And iconoclasts like Buckminster Fuller were designing for sustainability long before that.
What are the best ideas—be they technologies, concepts, legal policies, or states of mind—that have been revived from the first wave environmental movement? Which forgotten ideas should be revisited? And are there any ideas you’re glad have been left to the past?
What ideas in the interim have really changed the game?
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