My father told me that one critical difference between humans and animals is that humans make tools. I can’t remember when he told me that. I don’t remember the context. It was wrong then and had been wrong for countless millennia when he shared that tidbit. He was an intelligent, well-educated guy. Animal behavior was not in his wheelhouse.
Animals use found tools. Rocks, twigs, branches, sponges, bolas, bits of tile, all have been seen in use by various creatures. Even exchange tokens have been used by apes under observation. Humans are the only creatures who learned to change tools to improve task achievement.
Anthropologists have found various stone tools in digs around the world. The earliest finds so far are from east Africa in areas dated to 2.5 million years ago. It is easy to see how stones became tools; pick one up, smash something, put it down. The modifications for size, shape, sharpness, use in spears or arrows, came from a human mind holding a rock, thinking about a problem. And the passage of time. The use of bones as awls, needles, harpoon points and fish hooks came later, around 100,000 years ago.
Let’s leap forward a bit to the invention of a flywheel to help manage thread and fabric making occurred around 8,000 B.C.E. It might have taken another 4,500 years for the potter’s wheel, certainly a related object, to make it into the world in 3,500 B.C.E. as a potter’s wheel. It took another 300 years before someone is thought to use them for a chariot. Mining and farming tools popped in somewhere between the flywheel and the chariot.
Another leap and in 350 B.C.E., we had figured out how to make mechanical gears, then rotary power, millstones, water mills, cement, and roads (200 B.C.E.) in relatively short order. This era also saw aqueducts built to improve agriculture and civic water supplies. It is interesting that all of these innovations occurred so rapidly after a long time gap.
In the last century B.C.E. arches, bridges, vaults, and domes were created, along with a tool (the dioptra) for surveying land. Strangely, it was the 7th C.E. before the next leap occurred. Windmills started popping up to mill grain. Canals started using locks to raise and lower boats used for transporting resources and people. The first tower clock was built in China at about the same time Europe was mounting an army to invade the Middle East (late 11th C.). It took another couple of centuries before Europe worked clockworks and put up its first public clocks. This was also about the time that cloth mills became a disruptive technology.
By the mid-15th C., the Gutenberg press had been invented and used to create an innovation in education, previously the realm of the rich and the cloistered. Inexpensive mass printing allowed books to be owned by anyone with some funds and an interest. Domestic clocks made it into homes in the 15th C. This was a liberating technology at the time, making it possible to schedule tasks in a day without relying on a public clock (they weren’t everywhere) or the sun’s circuit.
If you have a clock, you can measure the amount of time it takes to achieve certain outcomes. How long does it take to make a bolt of fabric? How many bolts can be made in 24 hours? The human mind is given a denominator – time – writ large and can ensure that as many tasks as possible are done in unit time (or tasks/time).
The steam pump, boiler, cylinder, and piston were all invented in the first years of the 18th C. Thirty years later, the flying shuttle, used in fabric looms, is invented and eliminates manually casting the shuttle back and forth; a machine does that and a single operator is all that’s needed for each flying shuttle apparatus. Thirty more years and James Watt invents the steam engine, an innovation that speeds the plow, makes trains, steamships, and automobiles possible, and provides a means of generating energy without wind, water, or manual labor.
Around the same time (1764-1779 , Hargreaves, Arkwright, and Crompton invented new ways of making and using thread that increased cotton mill output by huge amounts – and also put more pressure on “the colonies” (India and the American colonies) to raise more cotton through slave labor. The cotton gin came on the scene in 1793, again increasing the pace at which cotton needed to be harvested. By 1810, forty times as much cotton was produced as in 1793. More plantations are built and more slaves are kidnapped from Africa and sold in the new nation of the United States.
It’s time for another leap, this time to the early years of the 19th century. Britain was the initial seat of the industrial revolution and this was fed by a set of natural and political circumstances that made it inevitable given the technologies created in the 18th C. Britain had plentiful water, iron, and coal resources. The water was directed into canals, into a force to drive millwork, and into half the raw material to create steam. The political system had undergone significant changes; the royal powers had been reduced at the end of the 17th C. and inventions that drove increasing prosperity created a middle class of people who would have had no stature in a monarchy but rose due to their contributions to the economy. The unification of Britain and Scotland also created a tariff-free zone, removing a cost for resources.
Manchester and Liverpool, Machester’s closest port, became huge textile cities. Birmingham, with coal, iron, and wood resources in abundance, became Britain’s forge, creating the metal gears, boilers, engines, and tools of all descriptions. A railway line is completed in 1838 between London and Birmingham; what the north forges and mills, London can sell through its ever-increasing markets.
But the quaint countryside that once was is turning into something new and not altogether pleasant. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in his Journeys to England and Ireland (1835), described Birmingham as “an immense workshop, a huge forge,” where one sees only “busy people and faces brown with smoke” and hears “nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of steam escaping from boilers.” He wrote the following about his visit to Manchester during the same trip:
“An undulating plain, or rather a collection of little hills… On this watery land, which nature and art have contributed to keep damp, are scattered palaces and hovels. . . . Thirty or forty factories rise on the tops of the hills I have just described. Their six stories tower up; their huge enclosures give notice from afar of the centralisation of industry. The wretched dwellings of the poor are scattered haphazard around them. Round them stretches land uncultivated but without the charm of rustic nature, and still without the amenities of a town. The soil has been taken away, scratched and torn up in a thousand places, but it is not yet covered with the habitations of men. The land is given over to industry’s use. . . .Heaps of dung, rubble from buildings, putrid, stagnant pools are found here and there among the houses and over the bumby, pitted surfaces of the public places. . . . “
With prosperity came squalor and mass violation of the land. With innovation came a new kind of feudal state in which people with great ideas gained status and people with a pair of hands (one would do), two legs and a back (weak or strong), child, senior, woman or man, became the peasants to the industrial “lords” who sped up production, funded mines, or savaged the countryside.
Along with these engines of commerce came billowing smoke from any coal that could be found. A type called “sea-coal” that burnt quickly and produced huge amounts of black smoke, full of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, not to mention carbon particles and the enormously cancerous compounds included in the amorphous group known as combustion or pyrolysis products, darkened the day and mixed with Britain’s cool, wet atmosphere to produce unknown levels of smog.
“Pea-souper” fogs—smog really—had been reported back to the 12th C. due to the prevalence of “sea-coal” available to those who gathered this from shorelines where it was found on the surface. Add this in with the huge coal reserves and the metastasizing number of steam machines and iron forges and a pall hangs over the land, a constant night in which visibility is as little as one foot away.
By 1905, pea-soupers in London had gotten so bad that the public clamored for respite and the politicians started to respond. These pea-soupers would continue through the 20th C. and into the present but were diminished by increasing use of cleaner energy methods and enforcement of scrubber technologies on smokestacks.
Smog was not the property of London alone. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, much of industrialized Europe and the world created this same gloomy mess in their atmospheres. The ballistic increase in coal use in contemporary China, escaping post-WWII from its own feudal system, has created an environmental catastrophe in its major cities. Slowly, countries that could afford to spend on pollution control systems did so. In the ’60s and ’70s, acid rain, a by-product of sulfur oxides from coal plants mixing with water in the atmosphere, was acidifying lakes and streams and killing large swaths of forest across the U.S. Particle and acid scrubbers added to industrial systems reduced this dramatically but only because of environmental activism and the empowerment of a new agency President Nixon signed into being – the Environmental Protection Agency. Industry profits took a short-term hit but found their way forward. People living in smog-infested areas saw marked improvements in quality of life indicators.
The push-and-pull between innovation and human health has been a signature process from the beginning of the industrial revolution. For instance, the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland, Ohio in Lake Erie, caught fire 13 times between 1868. It took the populace and politicians until the ’70s to correct this travesty and led to the establishment of the Clean Water Act, along with other environmental regulations and agencies.
This kind of thing went on around the U.S. The Love Canal neighborhood in Niagra Falls, New York became so polluted by Hooker Chemical that the neighborhood with its school and businesses became so poisonous that 900 families were evacuated, making a ghost town imbued with organic solvents, pesticides, and lethal carcinogens. The directly correlated health effects resulted in respiratory, liver, blood, and urinary tract diseases, and ultimately leukemia.
(Watch all episodes of this History Channel video available on YouTube)
In 1989, the impaired pilot of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran onto Bligh Reef, resulting in 11 million gallons (77.6 million pounds) of oil coating at least 1,300 miles of shoreline around Prince William Sound.
How many animals died outright from the oil spill?
No one knows. The carcasses of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters were found after the spill, but since most carcasses sink, this is considered to be a small fraction of the actual death toll. The best estimates are: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.
Astonishingly, this oil spill is no longer in the top 50 global oil spills, an enormous interactive list of which can be found on Wikipedia or at chartsbin. Here is an interactive map compiled by chartsbin that shows the impact globally (please visit – it is a great data visualization):
On the night of December 2, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India released at least 30 tons (60,000 pounds) of lethal methyl isocyanate, as well as other toxic gases (there are disturbing photos in this article but it is worth a look). the release was determined to be due to inadequate maintenance and repair of valves connecting various reaction vessels in the plant and inadequate training of on-duty personnel. More than 600,000 citizens were exposed to this gas; the Indian government now estimates that at least 15,000 people died, virtually all of them the poor people who lived around the plant as no one with money would live close to such a plant. There has been no long-term epidemiological research to determine how many miscarriages, birth defects, and other health issues have resulted from this disaster. To this date, the site has not been cleaned up by Dow Chemical, which purchased Union Carbide. Thousands of tons of hazardous waste remain buried at and near the site and toxins are still detectable in area water and ground samples. A settlement of $470 million was paid in 1991 against a claim by the Indian government of $3.3 billion in damages. Various litigation efforts continued after the settlement.
An hour-long National Geographic India documentary (©2014 National Geographic)
Add to these the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plant disasters, the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, and countless other man-made disasters, large, medium, and small, and you should arrive at an idea that, whatever “we” are doing to prevent these events, “we are not doing anywhere near enough.
A fascinating aspect of this entire problem is based entirely on humankind’s ability to create and innovate tools and technologies. Over the millennia, we have progressed from shaping rocks and bones for simple tasks to developing ever-smaller semiconductors that provide a stunning range of services to much of the world’s population through cell phones and other portable technologies that get less expensive to purchase every day. During this process of innovation, we have also created a wide array of sciences and skill sets that help us understand our world. From the roots of physics, biology, and chemistry, we have developed the environmental sciences field. From economics and engineering, as well as the sciences listed above, we have developed the discipline of risk management. This hybrid area of practice makes it possible to identify, assess, and prioritize risks to communities, businesses, governments, and the planet as a whole. The risks are associated with costs and benefits of various activities and are given with a range of outcomes, from the lowest cost that can be expected to greatest cost to be expected from executing a business plan, an international strategy, or development (and eventual exhaustion) of a resource.
We have developed this marvelous intellectual ability to determine what costs might be and what the probability of various outcomes might be… and then we almost always underfund the effort that will contain terrible outcomes, which quite often occur. Burning sea-coal and other fossil fuels were eventually going to cause overwhelming sulfur, chlorine, and nitrogen acids, heavy metal (e.g. lead, cadmium), combustion product, and particulate pollution. When did the U.S. get around to regulating this? The 1970s.
After the development of nuclear power, an intellectually fascinating effort well-described in Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning epic The Making of the Atomic Bomb, countries around the world developed nuclear energy as a means of generating electricity. To date, the creation of atomic weapons and nuclear power plants has created at least 75,000 TONS (150,000,000 pounds) of high-level radioactive waste – that’s just the high-level stuff! Here’s a map of where some of the nuclear waste is stored – at nuclear power plants – around the U.S. Of the seventy-five sites listed, nine are either decommissioned or in some stage of decommissioning, yet the waste is still there on-site. Why? Because over 70 years after WWII and the conjuring of nuclear power, this country has not come together and agreed on a single consolidated long-term nuclear waste storage site. The principle of “not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY)” rules over rational, concerted behavior in the general good. We created a risk for which we had no plan and we still have no plan. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that in 24,000 years the amount of 239Pu presently in storage in the U.S. will drop to only 6.35 tons (12,700 pounds) as there are currently 12.7 tons in various storage systems. In 24,000 years after that, only 6,350 pounds will remain dangerous. Current plans for “long-term” storage take into account a safe storage period of 10,000 years. How is this prudent risk management?
We have a planet. We have created innumerable ways to interact with it, to study it and to change it. We have developed ways to understand the huge risks we pose its well-being so that we can live modern and comfortable lives – or at least so of us can live comfortably.
After developing these ways of understanding our planet, we ignore them as often as we pay attention to what we have learned. Let’s not jeopardize the splendor of our planet and an amazing human legacy by continuing to be stupid while being smart.
Book “Animal Tool Behavior:” http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10565301-animal-tool-behavior
History of Technology: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab11
Zaghouan aqueduct, Carthage: http://www.roman-empire.net/articles/article-025.html
A. de Tocqueville Journeys to Ireland, England (1835) http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/eu/mod01_nature/evidence_detail_05.html
Feudal system: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feudalism
Cuyahoga River fires: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuyahoga_River
Love Canal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Canal
Exxon Valdez: http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/?FA=facts.QA
Bhopal disaster article: http://www.cseindia.org/userfiles/THE%20BHOPAL%20DISASTER.pdf