The Industrial Revolution brought enormous advances in productivity, but with steep environmental costs. During the Industrial Revolution, environmental pollution in the United States increased with the emergence of new sources of fuel, great factories, and urban centers.
The Industrial Revolution was powered by fossil fuels. In 1790, anthracite coal was first discovered in what is now known as the Coal Region of Pennsylvania. A harder and high quality form of coal, Anthracite soon became the primary source of fuel in the United States for domestic and industrial use. It fueled factory furnaces and steam-powered boats and machinery. But the consumption of immense quantities of coal and other fossil fuels eventually gave rise to unprecedented air pollution (Figure 2). In 1881, Chicago and Cincinnati were the first two American cities to enact laws to promote cleaner air.
The environmental effects of industrialization were especially concentrated in cities. Unsanitary conditions and overcrowding afflicted many American cities, where outbreaks of disease, including cholera and typhoid, were common (Figure 1). Untreated human waste was a major environmental hazard as rapidly growing cities lacked sewer systems and relied on contaminated wells within city confines for drinking water supply. In the mid-19th century, after the link between contaminated water and disease was established, many cities built centralized water supply systems. However, waste water continued to be discharged without treatment, due to misplaced confidence on the part of public health officials in the self-purifying capacity of rivers, lakes, and the sea.
In the early 19th century, policymakers and the public had little awareness of the extent of industry's impact on the environment. But some effects were self-evident to attentive observers, and the rise of industrialization and urbanization did inspire a new appreciation for the natural world. Transcendentalism, an intellectual movement of the 1830s and 1840s, elevated nature in popular poems, stories, and essays of the time. Transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau (Figure 3) is best known for his work Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. Thoreau also wrote on the subjects of natural history and philosophy and anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism.