Environmentalism in 1848

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This series takes us back for a look at the history of environmentalism, which can often be forgotten as we look to the future.

marxMarx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

So far we’ve covered environmental issues in ancient Rome, a wildlife loving Indian emperor in 250 BC, coal burning bans in medieval England, a deadly smog in Victorian London, deforestation in the Japanese Edo period, the slaughter of a tribe of environmentalists in 1778, and even Ben Franklin’s environmental policies in the 1700s. Last week, we saw how the very first human civilization was brought down by the short-sighted environmental policies of its leaders.

Today we’re going to travel back to a year that was arguably one of the most important in world history. The year was 1848, and all across Europe people began to fight for changes that affect our world today.

In 1848 there was a great revolution in human thoughts and ideas. It passed mostly unnoticed in the U.S. at the time, but many historians see it as a year on par with 1968 or 1989 in terms of revolutionary changes.

One of the most important changes had to do with public health. We can hardly imagine a time that we didn’t understand the causes of basic diseases like cholera, but it wasn’t so long ago that witchcraft was seen as a more likely cause of disease than contaminated water.

Cholera terrorized the 19th century. Thousands upon thousands of people died in vast epidemics, all of which we now know were caused by contaminated drinking water.

By 1848 it was known that water was the cause of cholera’s spread. Finally, in that year, something was done about it on a large scale. The Public Health Act was passed in the UK. It created a National Board of Health which oversaw clean water and sewage and was even charged with getting rid of excess smoke.

At the same time in America, a massive outbreak struck New York. Most people responded by calling it God’s punishment for the sins of the city, pointing out that it was the despised (by the citizens and therefore presumably by God) Irish and poor people that died in largest numbers. There was, however, some call for environmental reform which led to low scale cleanups of the city’s meatpacking industry.

Although the people of New York were suffering, that summer saw a positive development. Central Park was first proposed by architect Andrew Jackson Downing, though it would not be completed for several years. This was followed a few months later by the establishment of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which was designed to look after and even occasionally protect America’s immense and valuable stores of natural resources. These are the same people who approved drilling for oil in Alaskan national parks more recently.

Finally, 1848 saw a great change in the minds of workers, who had grown tired of toiling for many hours at low wages in appalling conditions. Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto in that year, while in London chartists brought more than two million signatures to Parliament, demanding social and political reforms to benefit the common man.

While by themselves these incidents seem unrelated and unremarkable, 1848 has been recognized as a watershed moment in world history. The social and scientific ideas proposed that year would help shape the future we know now, from 40 hour work weeks to the Cold War.

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