Environmental Education Through Environmental History

Two steam locomotives built in 1875 at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, Photo by: Russell Moore

Two steam locomotives built in 1875 at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, Photo by: Russell Moore

Throughout the country, there are dozens of wonderful museums that tell the story of industry and people in America. As most people know, American industry and the environment have had a tumultuous relationship. Industries tend to have a negative impact on the natural world, from pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to biodiversity loss and nutrient dead zones. Industries like logging, mining, and railroads have many museums dedicated to their history. However, these museums do not educate their visitors about the negative impact resulting from their work.

Mining museums often glaze over the fact that massive amounts of mercury, arsenic, and other chemicals were dumped into the waterways and soil of surrounding areas. This pollution caused extreme harm to the animals, plants, and people living in affected areas. Many former mining hubs are now home to super-fund sites. A super-fund site is a portion of land that is dedicated to clean up because it is so contaminated it is deemed unsafe for humans. The fact that many mining hubs are now super-fund sites is a testament to the scale of pollution.

While logging museums do usually address the unavoidable fact that deforestation causes habitat loss and replanting the ecosystem takes time. They seldom mention the fact that replanting trees is a fairly modern phenomena and that when vast swaths of forest are left barren, it leads to desertification. Historic industry was also powered almost exclusively by steam, producing high amounts of carbon emissions as well as small particle pollution.

            While we cannot go back in time and introduce solar, wind, and efficient hydro power to the people of the past. We can utilize the remaining industrial artifacts to effectively educate the people of the present about the history of environmental degradation. Museums are visited by millions of people each year from all walks of life, creating a large audience that wants to learn. Humanity's environmental impact is not a difficult concept to teach. It is a simple cause and effect problem, which can be easily explained to patrons of museums. This information can also be tailored and tweaked to accommodate the specialties of different museums. For example, a tourist railroad museum in Washington which uses steam engines for a logging company, could display the amount of carbon the engine produces in one day. They could also display how mass deforestation not only causes habitat loss but also can lead to decreased annual rainfall and subsequent water shortages for people.

All this is easily tied back to the current environmental crisis which has an effect on every one, no matter what demographic they are from. Historical artifacts are valuable tools that can be used for shaping the future. I encourage you to write to the director or curator of an industrial museum which you know of or visit and suggest this idea to them and help further educate people around the country.

~ Written By: Russell Moore ~