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Human beings have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with our natural environment, which provides us with food, shelter, and countless resources. Unfortunately, as humans have created more advanced technologies, we have fundamentally changed that environment — and not for the better.

In all likelihood, early humans likely didn’t concern themselves with their potential environmental impact. But with the advent of agriculture around 10,000 years ago and the growth of population centers over time, protecting the environment has become increasingly relevant. The Industrial Revolution further elevated the negative environmental impact of humanity, as an exponentially higher number of goods were produced and pollution-spewing factories were built.


Throughout the 1700s, the call for increased environmental protection and waste management became more widespread. England, India, and the American colonies all saw some form of environmental activism in the 18th century, prompting several city governments to implement policies designed to reduce pollution. Notable figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Swift were among the citizens fighting for environmental protection.

Waste Management Throughout History

Modern humans produce a nearly insurmountable amount of trash. Globally, annual municipal solid waste (MSW) levels top 1.3 billion tons, according to the World Bank. Studies have found that urbanization increases MSW levels, so it’s little surprise that 18th-century environmentalism was rooted in urban centers such as London and Philadelphia. By the 1700s, the need for overarching waste management in population centers was apparent.


In his 1711 poem “A Description of a City Shower,” Irish satirist Jonathan Swift criticized London’s poor sanitation in particular. Swift colorfully noted that the contents of the city’s gutters included refuse such as “sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood, drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud.” The poem may have helped spur action among city officials: London’s first solid waste management systems, called “dust yards,” were introduced in the second half of the 18th century. Yet open sewers remained a reality in the English capital city until 1858 when an underground sewer system was finally implemented.


Across the Atlantic, American colonists faced similar problems with waste management and sanitation in urban areas. For example, in Philadelphia circa 1739, noxious smells, prevalent disease, and decreased property values were linked to waste dumping and pollution. The issue prompted Benjamin Franklin and other activists to petition the city for better waste management measures.

Globalization’s Impact on Natural Resources

While waste management was a major issue in the 1700s and remains so to this day, it’s only a small part of the bigger picture of environmentalism. Most modern industries, including agriculture and construction, are notoriously resource-heavy, and forests are often cleared to make space for farmland or housing.


Activists have been fighting deforestation since at least the 18th century, and sometimes that type of activism can be dangerous. For example, hundreds of Bishnoi people were killed in India's Rajasthan province in 1730 while protecting native Khejri trees. At the time, the Maharaja of Jodhpur had ordered the trees to be cut down for construction of his palace. Local citizens protested en masse and sacrificed their own lives via beheading in an effort to save the trees. Once the Maharaja heard about the massacre, he ordered his workers to stop the project.


Fortunately, martyrdom isn't required for environmental activism, but education is. Educating people about the importance of environmental conservation is just one step toward increased awareness and the possibility of change. In fact, cultivating awareness is one of the fundamental goals of environmental education, along with improving overall attitudes in the realm of environmental protection. Today, there are countless resources available for those interested in learning about environmental protection, from websites focused on sustainability to college and university courses.


Conversely, 18th-century environmentalists had fewer options when advocating for environmental awareness and protection. Environmental activists in the 1700s spread information via word of mouth, public gatherings, and various publications. For example, physician and clergyman Jared Eliot’s “Essays on Field Husbandry in New England,” published in 1748, helped promote the importance of soil conservation.

Environmentalism in Modern Times

Today, we have more options than ever when it comes to both waste management and resource conservation, yet humans continue to decimate the natural environment. The unfortunate truth is that environmental concerns are being glossed over in favor of capitalism and convenience.


For instance, despite the numerous positive benefits of recycling, many areas across the world lack comprehensive recycling programs. Even in developed nations, recycling policies may be touted as confusing and burdensome.


But getting a grasp on what can and can't be recycled simply requires a bit of research. For example, shredded paper typically cannot be placed in standard home recycling bins. That's because the small strips of shredded paper can fall through the screens used to dry recycled paper pulp. Generally speaking, however, shredded paper can be recycled through a professional service. There are also many effective ways to cut down on manufacturing waste during various steps in the process.


It's commonly believed that environmentalism originated in the 1960s, but the efforts of activists such as Franklin and the Bishnoi people prove otherwise. Unfortunately, the environmental protection campaigns of the 18th century did little to stop pollution, excess waste, and deforestation. Increased education of environmental topics and more comprehensive recycling programs may help bring more attention to the importance of conservation in modern times.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.