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US Government and Environmental Ethics
The United States government has had a long history with the environment, beginning with the very beginning of the settlement of the Pilgrims, through the industrialization era, forming the beginning principles of having national parks, and to today with the onset of climate change and the environmental hazards of the 21st century. (National Park Service, 2012) Compared to other countries, the U.S. has had a more favorable view towards the use of the environment for business matters, often leaving entire communities scarred by the unprotected use of machinery and pollution to retrieve coal minerals, build six lane highways through forests, and even building massive subdivisions of buildings so close together that they represent risks of fire and natural disaster. There are several government agencies that have been created through the years to govern the vast territories that have been preserved, but the amount of funding that these agencies receive always fluctuates depending on the political mood of the country and the strength of the local environmental activists in the area. The National Parks Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service best show the ethic of environmental protection in the U.S. government.
Americans cherish the beauty of the country, but we also like to use the environment for our own purposes when money is involved, as well. There was no concept of environmental ethics for the first several hundred years of settling this land, simply because there were not yet enough people nor inventions to fully deprive the land of all that it offered. The first pilgrims to the country began burning wood, tearing down forests, killing off wildlife, and generally using the nation for their own purposes because of the untapped resources that covered the entire continent. (NewScientist, 2008) The best representation of this abuse is the Buffalo, which once numbered in the millions, and which nearly became extinct as people killed the Buffalo by the hundreds in order to feed their families. Unlike the Indians that learned to live off of the land and respect the buffalo, the American settlers did not use all of the various parts of the buffalo, and often left full carcasses to rot. This disrespect went without any sort of governance for over two centuries, and a once treasured animal has become nothing more than a small herd still alive today. As the first Americans moved west, so did their need for faster and faster transport, and greater development of the previously untouched land that had belonged to Indian tribes, but was now quickly being consumed as a result of "Manifest Destiny." The story of Sacajawea and Louis and Clark is romanticized, these settlers sought only to abuse the land and unearth all of the gold and resources possible in their endless quest for easy wealth.
The first colonizers of the country moved west, and when they did, they overtook the land at the same time. (ThinkQuest, 2006) During this time, the fastest way to move was by water, and therefore waterways like the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River became crucial to development, and attracted the greatest numbers of people to their shores. This meant that the waterways were constantly being fished, and that the trees around the rivers were being cut down to create boats and homes. Lumber was an important resource at this time because nearly everything that humans made required wood of some sort, and therefore deforestation happened rapidly. Much of this wood was shipped to Europe, which had already been deforested for centuries, and the quality wood that was found in the Americas became extremely valuable to the creation of European homesteads. As the forests were chopped down, the rivers became wider and wider, as environmental degradation meant the death of thousands of animals, and the inability of trees to grow back to replace those that had been destroyed. The craving for more wood led Americans further and further west, until a new invention brought about huge amounts of environmental change that had never been predicted before in human history.
The invention of the railroad began in Britain, due to the vast amounts of Coal that was to be found just under the surface of the land. This invention, once it reached the United States in the mid 1800s, meant that coal had become the resource that was necessary for industrialization, and formerly sparse areas such as West Virginia became crucial to economic growth due to their huge reserves of coal. Still, at this time there was no government agency in charge of protecting workers or the environment, and many mountains were destroyed and beautiful scenery changed forever due to the need for coal for shipping, railroads, heating, and another new innovation, electricity, which even today is fueled by coal. This was an era where everything in big industrial cities turned black, as soot from dirty industrial processes had negative effects on the health of citizens. Coal miners in particular were subjugated to grueling conditions of caving mines, black lungs from breathing in soot, poor management from owners who sought only profit and cared little for human life, and an inability to find quality work in any other sector of the economy that paid as well as coal mining did. It was at this time that unions began to form in order to demand more worker rights, including coal miner unions. This was the beginning of the U.S. Government thinking about the preservation of some parts of American land, and about the quality of the common man improving as a result of new technology and more efficient processes.
President Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century was known as a prolific hunter and a woodsman to the core, having traveled all over the United States in search of new game and new adventure. (Theodore Roosevelt Association, 2010) He was the first to envision some sort of park service that would protect America's most precious areas, including enormous parks such as Yellowstone National Park in the West. It wasn't until President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, however, that the National Park Service was actually created. Although Yellowstone was designated as a park since the 1880s, there was no federal administration of the park, and therefore nobody knew how it should be governed or protected. The creation of the National Park Service set up rules in the progressive era of the United States that would eventually grow to encompass 58 national parks, found all over the United States. The national park service was unique at the time of its creation, as no government in the world had made such a direct contribution to the protection of its wild lands, centered in the President's own cabinet. It is also interesting to note that it was created during World War I, a time of destruction the likes of which nobody had ever seen before. The Park Service continues to this day to protect national parks from those who would use its land for their own profit.
The Grand Canyon is a national park that has no valuable national resources, but has become a treasure despite this because of the sheer size of the canyon itself. Many Indians lobbied to protect the parks, and they had a big say in what lands should be sold for private property, and which were so precious that they should receive the designation of national park. Despite the mistreatment of the Indians since the creation of the United States, they have always been respected as the original caretakers of the territories, and their special connection to nature inspired sagas of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the ways of the world before the American settlers came and grabbed land wherever they could.
Overfishing and overhunting became a problem, despite the protection of that wildlife that lived on the lands of the national parks. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2012) Sensitive animals, such as the buffalo, needed to be protected, and other species, like the American Bald Eagle, required immediate protections to prevent poachers from killing the last of the stately birds. Thus, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new administration to work separately from the National Parks Service, called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within the Department of Interior. (The Encyclopedia of Earth, 2008) This is another service with roots in the 19th century, beginning with the 1871 Commission on Fish and Fisheries, after government officials began to notice a sudden drop off of new fish in the most important freshwater lakes and rivers of the country as fisherman recklessly captured endangered fish and completely changed natural environments. This was a turning moment for environmental ethics in the U.S. Government, as the leaders in Washington DC began to realize that they not only had to govern the individuals that resided within the country, but also the animals and waterways that could easily be devastated by the growing population and inability of state governments to control…[continue]
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