The engrossing, infuriating history of American pollution.
In their first book, environmental scientists Ross and Amter point out that King Edward I of England prohibited coal burning in London in 1306. This first antipollution law was largely ignored, a foretaste of things to come. As the authors summarize America’s pollution history from 1860 to the 1960s, readers will squirm as offending industries routinely brush off feeble local and state efforts and commiserate with sympathetic officials of the Bureau of Mines (the only federal office with pollution oversight). When pressure grew, industry leaders warned that “so-called” pollution might not be harmful, adding that “drastic” government action would cost jobs, so scientists should first determine the facts. Unfortunately, this tactic—“spill, study, and stall”—worked superbly. Early researchers revealed the dangers of leaded gas (1921) and DDT (1939), but proponents had no trouble finding spokesmen who disagreed. Studies proved that chromium, uranium and asbestos caused cancer long before industries agreed to do anything besides fund studies. Everyone credits Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) for jump-starting environmental-protection efforts, but only after 1970 did the burgeoning conservation movement acquire the clout to pass relatively effective laws. Despite all their evidence, the authors don’t embark on a mere antibusiness screed. In fact, one mildly sympathetic chapter recounts DuPont’s positive efforts. From the 1930s, top executives considered pollution a serious problem. However, their policy statements and exhortations to division managers had some effect but never fully persuaded them that clean-up expenses took priority over profits…because they didn’t.
An important, disheartening account of widespread willful ignorance.