In a span of just a few decades advances and new environmental applications of science, engineering, and their associated technologies have coalesced into a whole new way to see the world. Science is the explanation of the physical world, while engineering encompasses applications of science to achieve results. Thus, what we have learned about the environment by trial and error has incrementally grown into what is now standard practice of environmental science and engineering. This heuristically attained knowledge has come at a great cost in terms of the loss of lives and diseases associated with mistakes, poor decisions (at least in retrospect), and the lack of appreciation of environmental effects.
The ”environmental movement” is a relatively young one. The emblematic works of Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, and others in the 1960s were seen by many as mere straws in the wind. The growing environmental awareness was certainly not limited to the academic and scientific communities. Popular culture was also coming to appreciate the concept of ”spaceship earth,” i.e. that our planet consisted of a finite life support system and that our air, water, food, soil, and ecosystems were not infinitely elastic in their ability to absorb humanity’s willful disregard. The poetry and music of the time expressed these fears and called for a new respect for the environment. The environmental movement was not a unique enterprise, but was interwoven into growing protests about the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and a general discomfort with the ”establishment.” The petrochemical industry, the military, and capitalism were coming under increased scrutiny and skepticism.
The momentum of the petrochemical revolution following World War II was seemingly unstoppable. However, much of the progress we now take as given was the result of those who agitated against the status quo and refused to accept the paradigms of their time. In fact, we provide evidence of the validity of some of these early environmentalists’ causes. A handful of cases were defining moments in the progress in protecting public health and the environment. It seems that every major piece of environmental legislation was preceded by an environmental disaster precipitated from mistakes, mishaps, and misdeeds. Amendments to the Clean Air Act resulted from deadly episodes such as were experienced in Donora, Pennsylvania and London, UK. Hazardous waste legislation came about after public outcries concerning Love Canal in New York state. ”Right-to-Know” legislation worldwide grew from the disaster at Bhopal, India. Oil spill and waste contingency plans were strengthened following the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. International energy policies changed, with growing anti-nuclear power sentiments, following the near disaster at Three Mile Island in the United States and the actual catastrophe at Chernobyl in Ukraine. Most recently, engineering and public health emergency response planning has been completely revamped in response to the events of September 11, 2001.
Certainly these can all be classified as ”environmental” problems, but they represent new, societal paradigms as well. That is the tricky part of dealing with emerging technologies, including biotechnologies. Contemporary society has a way of thrusting problems upon us. Ironically, society demands the promotion of new and better things and processes, simultaneously demanding that scientists, engineers, physicians, and others in the scientific community sufficiently control the consequences of the very same technologies that members of society insist we use. For example, society may demand, reasonably or unreasonably, certain food characteristics (higher nutrition, less fat, attractive color). They may be quite happy with a product, until it is found to have actual or perceived negative characteristics. For example, the public may be pleased that the price of strawberries remains low and the texture of a high quality until they find out that the plants have been genetically altered to resist frost damage. However, this engineered characteristic could have been the principal driver for the lower price and better texture. Likewise, cleanup of polluted waters and sediments can benefit from genetically altered bacteria and fungi to break down some very persistent contaminants, but the public may fear potential problems if these microbes somehow escape their intended use and find their way into unplanned components of the food chain. Prominent and infamous environmental problems have emerged as byproducts of some useful, high-demand enterprise.