Ordinary Events, Grand Effects
The invention of the International Highway System is the biggest change in regard to the environment. Photo courtesy of chaffetz.house.gov.

Ordinary Events, Grand Effects

In an interview on “A Glimpse at Environmentalism” on 90FM, Neil Prendergast, assistant professor of history, discussed ordinary events, inventions and societal changes that changed how Americans relate to the environment.

The first event is risk assessment, or the notion that a federal agency will look at a proposal and assess all risks involved.

Originally the precautionary principle was used to evaluate risk, where the risk was only evaluated and after-effects were ignored. The change in ideology from the precautionary principle to risk assessment led to a broadened understanding that individual actions can have a cascading effect well after the initial consequence has surpassed.

The second event was the use of jaywalking tickets. The citation in itself was not a riveting change, but the need for them caused a difference in the way Americans viewed the road. An early twentieth century photo of downtown Stevens Point will show clusters of ladies and gentleman socializing in the streets.

After the invention of the car, road priority shifted from people to motor vehicle, eliciting the need for jaywalking tickets.

The third event comes in the form of concentrated orange juice.

Mid-twentieth-century orange farmers had a problem getting people to drink orange juice, something now highly recommended by 21st century doctors.

Frost harmed the fruit, making it unusable. Eventually farmers realized they could freeze the concentrate to make juice, removing seasonality and allowing oranges to be consumed year round.

The fourth event, meat packaging, also led to an increase in American consumption of animals.

The turkey industry began dividing the turkey before sale and putting it in individual packages. This was an innovative technique at the time. Households could buy meat without butchering, causing an increase in meat consumption. The aftermath of this decision ultimately led to decline of the butcher profession.

The fifth and most important event in history to alter the American environment was the Interstate Highway System.

The largest impact of the highway was the copious amounts of concrete added to the landscape, allowing cities to sprawl and connect at an exceeding rate.

A 1960s author, Michael Harrington, also believed the highway removed attention from poverty by escorting middle class citizens from suburbia to downtown on an elevated interstate which passed over impoverished neighborhoods.

A problem many face today is the speed drivers travel on highways. Drivers are less able to look at surroundings and may become disconnected to the world.

The sixth event, the invention of the bicycle, answered a need for a quicker life pace.

There are two positive outlooks to the bicycle. Bike use reduces carbon footprints and is good for health.

“The bicycle calls for slowing down and makes the whole town your front porch,” Prendergast said.

The seventh event was a change from the term “swamp” to “wetland.” This gave the environment a more positive connotation.

Adding an ecosystem component caused the everyday person to change the way they viewed the wetlands and their importance.

“There are such things as swamp monsters,” Prendergast said, “but no one has ever heard of a wetland monster.”

Events such as the use of recycling bins, backyard swimming pools, and the cul de sac were mentioned as well, but not discussed.

To hear the entire interview, and others, visit soundcloud.com/aglimpse-environmentalism. For more from Neil Prendergast visit his website at neilprendergast.com


Nicolette Ratz



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