Can the history of pollution shape a better future?

Mark Peplow in Nature:

Columns of smoke “spread their veils / Like funeral crape upon the sylvan robe / Of thy romantic rocks, pollute thy gales, / And stain thy glassy floods”. Poet Anna Seward wrote these lines in 1785, after seeing the forges, furnaces and lime kilns of Coalbrookdale in England — the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. It is among the first descriptions of industrial emissions as ‘pollution’, a term that invoked moral impurity, the corruption of the countryside. More than two centuries later, humanity’s polluting activities have devastating impacts on biodiversity, agricultural productivity and human health. Will it take a radical reimagining of our lifestyles and sociopolitical systems to end these disastrous mistakes? Or is it already too late to avoid even greater catastrophe?

Two books map this arc of destruction in very different ways. In The Chemical Age, ecologist Frank von Hippel delves into historical accounts to tell the stories of the scientists who developed pesticides and chemical weapons, and trace their impact on the world. Historians François Jarrige and Thomas Le Roux unpick the broader social, economic and political factors underpinning our despoilment of the environment in their altogether more comprehensive history of pollution, The Contamination of the Earth.

Von Hippel begins with efforts to tackle the causes of potato blight, which triggered the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, and vector-borne diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and typhus. These accounts include fascinating details of the quest to understand pathogenic microorganisms, but almost none of the chemistry promised in the title. Compounds such as the antimalarial quinine or the pesticide copper acetoarsenite suddenly appear, with no explanation of how they work, or were manufactured. Oddly, von Hippel traces the birth of the modern chemical industry to the extraction of quinine from cinchona bark in the 1820s. By that time, factories had been mass-producing sulfuric acid, alum and a host of other chemicals for decades.

More here.