A landmark year in environmental history

Certain years are forever linked to events that reverberate down through history. I’m thinking of examples such as 1492 or 1776.

So what’s the most important year in environmental history? Ummm, well, maybe not so obvious.

I would like to propose the year 1859 as a candidate for one of the significant turning points in humanity’s relationship with the biosphere.

In 1859 three seminal events occurred. The first was immediately perceived as revolutionary: the publication of ORIGIN OF SPECIES that laid the groundwork for modern biology and redefined humanity’s place as part of Earth’s vast dance of life.

But two other discoveries occurred in 1859 that were greeted with little fanfare; only in hindsight would they be recognized as transformative.

A few months before Darwin published his book, a Belgium scientist, Etienne Lenoir, introduced a new invention: the spark-ignited internal combustion engine. His invention led to the mass production of billions of carbon-spewing vehicles that have altered the Earth’s geography and atmosphere.

Ironically, the introduction of the internal combustion engine coincided with an Irish chemist, Sir John Tyndall, proving that some gases—notably carbon dioxide—possessed powerful heat-absorbing properties. Yes, the same carbon dioxide discharged by Lenoir’s engines. Tyndall understood some of the implications of his discovery, linking fluctuations of atmospheric carbon dioxide with the theory of cyclic glacial episodes. But unlike Darwin controversial book, Tyndall’s discovery provoked no debate. In 1859, no one understood that he had established the basis for anthropogenic global warming because at the time it seem inconceivable that human activity could actually change the planet.

So there we have it: the theory of evolution, the internal combustion engine, and the chemistry behind global climate change—all in 1859.

From today’s vantage point, 1859 seems like such an innocent time. Back then, if you had looked at Earth from a distance, you would have seen intact rain forests and robust glaciers and ice caps. At night, a few of the world’s cities glowed with a new invention: gas lighting. But most of the planet still held back the night with candles and oil lamps. Humanity was just beginning its grand experiment to see how much we can alter the planet and how little biodiversity we need before we jeopardize our own survival.

And that leaves us with a question: What will our Earth look like in 2059—on the 200th anniversary of these discoveries.

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