Profiles in imagination

Philosopher John Dewey once praised scientific contributions to the modern world by saying, "Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination." Likewise, many 20th century environmental professionals - scientists and nonscientists alike - have used their creativity to devise solutions to the challenges posed by increasing industrial pollution and widespread degradation and depletion of natural resources. This group ranges from chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers to politicians, journalists and lawyers. Yet, despite their occupational diversity, all these people share the trait of trying new ways to solve problems that threaten human health and the environment.

This century has presented many environmental challenges. Industrialization has spread globally with its accompanying pollution. World War II unleashed the power of the atom for the purpose of destruction. The atomic bomb and other war weapons have often been equally devastating on the environment.

The most daunting problem to emerge during the past 100 years, however, has been the alarming growth of the human population. In 1900, the world's human population was approximately 1.65 billion, and the annual growth rate was about 10 million. In contrast, the current population recently reached 6 billion, and the annual growth rate is around 80 million. This situation has led globally to the large-scale degradation of land and water from chemical contaminants, the growing depletion of fresh water sources, widespread deforestation, the increase in hazardous air pollutants and the ever-increasing demand for energy.

Against this backdrop, certain notable people have taken actions during this century that helped the environment. One example of an early environmental leader is U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. During his tenure in the White House from 1901 to 1909, he designated 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reservations, five national parks, the first 18 national monuments, the first four national game presevers and the first 21 reclamation projects. Altogether, he provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres.

Environmental Protection has singled out other individuals whose contributions made a difference. In several earlier issues of our magazine, Assistant Editor Monica Harvey's articles highlighted the environmental achievements of several important figures: President Richard Nixon, who in cooperation with several key members of Congress enacted the Clean Air Act and several other major environmental statutes; the inventors of the catalytic converter, whose design helped to clean the air through the reduction of hazardous automotive emissions; and Richard Raymond, who led the way in developing bioremediation into a successful tool for cleaning up contaminated soil and groundwater.

In this issue's cover story, we focus on four other pioneers of pollution control: J.J. Thomson and Arthur J. Dempster, the early developers of the mass spectrometer; Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring; and W. Wesley Eckenfelder, a leading figure in wastewater treatment. Each of these people questioned the conventional wisdom of their respective eras and boldly chose new paths to carry out their work. Our profiles show these pioneers' resilience and sense of purpose that led to their accomplishments.

We dedicate this issue to the remarkable men and women whose innovations improved the environment during the 20th century. What happens to the world in the 21st century depends on what we do with the legacy others have left us. Let's hope we can exercise the audacity of imagination that will be needed to meet future environmental challenges.

Perspectives from inside the Beltway
In this issue, we're launching a new regular column "Washington watch," , which will cover important emerging regulatory and legal issues. Our columnists David B. Weinberg and Richard E. Ayres are environmental attorneys with the Washington, D.C., law firm Howrey & Simon. They will use their vantage point from our nation's capital to keep you informed about new developments in the environmental arena.

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This article originally appeared in the December, 1999 issue of Environmental Protection magazine, Vol. 10, Number 12, p. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.