History Shorts: Earth Day's Environmental Origins

History Shorts: Earth Day's Environmental Origins

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The number of garbage trucks Americans fill each year would stretch halfway to the moon. Toilet paper tubes, made from cardboard, take two months to decompose in a landfill. A plastic bottle sticks around for way longer—it can take over 450 years to break down! But instead of turning to the trash bin, you could turn these items into an awesome telescope or a flower planter. Before you throw something away, think about whether it can be recycled or repurposed. You can also limit waste by reducing the amount of things you buy. For example, check the library for that book you have to read before visiting the store.

Why Didn’t the First Earth Day’s Predictions Come True? It’s Complicated

The first Earth Day was revolutionary. That can be difficult to imagine today as we’re bombarded by calls for sustainability year-round. Yet only 51 years ago, some 20 million Americans protested and demanded that the government curb pollution, protect wildlife and conserve natural resources.

Remarkably, government leaders listened. In the years after the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency was founded. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, among other powerful environmental laws. In short, Earth Day changed the trajectory of our country and, probably, the world.

Environmental scientists led the movement, predicting chilling futures—that overpopulation would cause worldwide famine pollution would blanket cities and kill thousands a mass extinction was upon us oil and mineral reserves were about to run out. Nearly all of these predictions foresaw doom by the year 2000—which we’re now far past. While environmental concerns still reign, the extreme conditions predicted 46 years ago have, for the most part, not yet materialized.

It’s easy to poke fun at these “failed predictions”—and many environmental skeptics do. Those critics aren’t entirely wrong some of the era’s predictions were based on faulty logic. But others failed to come true because the predictions themselves changed the course of history.

Running Out Of Everything

Many of the era’s incorrect predictions centered on resource scarcity—oil, minerals, food—but perhaps the most famous one came ten years after the first Earth Day, when a scientist and economist made a public bet that lives on in environmental discourse today.

The scientist was Paul Ehrlich, an outspoken biologist whose studies on the population dynamics of butterflies led him to a dramatic conclusion: That the human population was too big and soon would strip the world of resources, leading to mass starvation.

The economist was Julian Simon, who disagreed with Ehrlich. Humans are not butterflies, he argued, and have a powerful tool that prevents resource scarcity: a market economy. When a useful resource becomes rare, it becomes expensive, and that high price incentivizes exploration (to find more of that resource) or innovation (to create an alternative).

The two never met or debated in person. But in 1980, Simon challenged Ehrlich to a bet in the pages of a scientific journal, and Ehrlich accepted. The biologist selected five raw minerals—chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten—and noted how much of each he could buy for $200. If his prediction was right and resources were growing scarce, in 10 years the minerals should become more expensive if Simon was correct, they should cost less. The loser would pay the difference.

In October 1990, ten years later, Simon received a check in the mail from Ehrlich for $576.07. Each of the five minerals had declined in price. Simon and his faith in the market were victorious.

“The market is ideally suited to address issues of scarcity,” says Paul Sabin, a Yale environmental historian who wrote the book on the Simon-Ehrlich Wager. “There’s often cycles of abundance and scarcity that are in dynamic relationship with each other where one produces the other.”

Take oil: Repeatedly over the past decades, oil prices have shot up, leading some people to predict peak oil—the end of fossil fuels and the start of an energy crisis. But by market logic, high prices encourage enterprising people to seek new oil sources, develop new extraction technologies, or otherwise invest in bringing oil onto the market. Demand and high prices brought us fracking, for instance, and now gas at the pump is cheaper than ever. Research into the next potential oil technology, extraction of methane hydrates, is already underway.

Similar patterns occur with minerals like copper, one of Ehrlich’s picks from his wager with Simon. At the time of the bet, the price of copper was on the rise, and, as a result, some investors took to copper production, increasing supply, says Sabin. Then in 1977, GE and Bell laid their first fiber-optic phone lines, which carry more information than copper wire. The new technology spread through the 1980s—and by the end of the Simon-Ehrlich wager, demand for copper was down, as was its price.

Each mineral from the bet has its own story, says Sabin, and many involve people. An international tin cartel collapsed, leading to a drop in tin prices. With other metals, strikes and union resistance were sorted out, and prices dropped.

Feeding the Planet

The biggest apocalyptic claims around the first Earth Day related to overpopulation and food shortages. "Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make," Ehrlich said in an often-quoted 1970 Mademoiselle interview. “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”

Ehrlich was right about the growing population—but not about mass starvation. Famine and starvation continue throughout the world, but not to the extremes he predicted. The reason is the Green Revolution, which began decades before the first Earth Day, in Mexico, and really gained steam just about the time Ehrlich made his predictions.

In the 1940s, Mexico imported half of the grain needed to feed its population. Its government feared food scarcity and famine—and those fears sparked an agricultural revolution.

The Mexican Ministry of Agriculture teamed up with the Rockefeller Foundation to import American biologists to work on the problem, one of whom was Norman Borlaug. Over several decades, Borlaug used selective breeding to create strains of wheat with bigger kernels and smaller stems that could feed more people per acre similar techniques were applied to rice. As a result, by 1980, wheat yields doubled in Pakistan and India, and poverty rates halved even as human populations expanded. By 1963, Mexico was exporting wheat instead of importing it.

Ultimately, Ehrlich and others’ predictions about feeding our growing population failed to come true human ingenuity found a way. But even Borlaug acknowledged that increasing yields would not be a permanent solution.

“The green revolution has won a temporary success in man's war against hunger and deprivation it has given man a breathing space,” Borlaug said in a speech after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. “But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.”

The Pollution Problem

Around the first Earth Day, environmental scientists made dire predictions about pollution. “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution,” reported Life magazine in 1970. “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable,” said ecologist Kenneth Watt.

These predictions didn’t come to pass, but not because of economic incentives. When the synthetic pesticide DDT caused bird populations to plummet, as Rachel Carson documented in Silent Spring, there were no market incentives to reverse that trend. An increase in lead poisoning or asthma creates a market for medicines and treatment, but not for decreasing the pollutants that cause them.

And so on that first Earth Day, people fighting oil spills, power plant pollution, pesticides and litter protested in the streets. The government responded to public outcry, activism and the collective predictions of the era by creating our most powerful environmental laws—the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and others.

“The sense of concern, the feeling of crisis, the agitation and political mobilization associated with [the era’s predictions] interestingly had an effect not on energy or mineral resource production but on control of pollution,” says Sabin. “People like Ehrlich shared a vision that the path that we were on wasn’t a good one, that it was headed towards crisis—and that gave energy and support for the legislation.”

And the regulations have worked. After DDT was banned in 1972, populations of bald eagles and other birds rebounded. Regulations on nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution have improved air quality in cities alongside children’s lung development. In the late 1970s, 88 percent of American children had elevated lead levels in their blood after leaded gasoline was phased out, that number dropped to less than 1 percent.

Pollutants continue to cause problems the horrific case of lead poisoning in Flint show that regulations are not perfect solutions. But those predictions and the resulting activism during the first Earth Day drove change.

The Legacy Lives On

Even though the dire predictions didn’t come to be, they live on in our environmental discourse—and then as now, the most extreme voices get the most attention.

“It is important to acknowledge that there’s a relationship between the past predictions and the current ones,” says Sabin. “They helped feed a dynamic of extremes with both sides bashing each other.”

This is evident in the loudest parts of the climate change discussion. Extremists on one side are certain the world is going to end extremists on the other are certain everything is fine and climate change is a conspiracy.

The truth is more complicated. Climate change won’t destroy the planet, although it will change the environment we’re accustomed to, in ways we can't predict and with possibly dire consequences. And weaponizing “failed predictions” of the past to justify leaving the climate problem to the market is deceptive. If we don't act because a previous prediction "failed," we face an array of human suffering, which will hit the poorest and disadvantaged the hardest.

“We should try to figure out the relationship between the earlier predictions and the current ones,” says Sabin, “The environmental community and advocates for climate action will be in a stronger position if they can figure out how to explain why climate change is different [from past predictions of resource scarcity] and why we need to take action now.”

About Hannah Waters

Hannah Waters is a Philadelphia-based science writer who runs the Ocean Portal at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Earth Day

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Earth Day, annual celebration honouring the achievements of the environmental movement and raising awareness of the importance of long-term ecological sustainability. Earth Day is celebrated in the United States on April 22 throughout the rest of the world it is celebrated on either April 22 or the day the vernal equinox occurs.

In the late 1960s there was an increased awareness of environmental concerns among Americans, and the prominent environmentalist and U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson sought to galvanize the conservation movement through the creation of a national celebration. To this end, Nelson—whose efforts in Congress included the passing of legislation that protected the Appalachian Trail and the banning of the use of the pesticide DDT—hired Denis Hayes, a graduate student at Harvard University. They sought to infuse the energy of student-led anti-war activism with the public’s emerging environmental consciousness in order to propel environmental protections into the national political agenda. Together they organized the first Earth Day, which took place on April 22, 1970, and was designed as an “environmental teach-in” that would educate participants in the importance of environmental conservation. The two largest gatherings occurred in Washington, D.C., where 10,000 people assembled at the Washington Monument, and in New York City, where a portion of Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic in observance of the event. Across the United States, 20 million people participated, many of them at schools, colleges, and universities. The event was instrumental in gaining support for the series of environmental legislation that passed through the U.S. Congress in the 1970s, including the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).

In 1990 Hayes organized a global Earth Day, which was observed by some 200 million people in more than 140 countries. Since then, Earth Day has been international in scope. By the early 21st century, Earth Day’s many activities included raising awareness about a number of growing environmental concerns, especially the threat of global warming and the need for clean renewable energy sources. Indeed, in 2016 the international Paris Climate Agreement was emblematically opened for signatures on Earth Day. In 2020 many of the planned marches and other activities for the 50th anniversary celebration of Earth Day were canceled or forced online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I. Origins of the Environmental Movement

The grassroots mobilization for environmental protection that led to the first Earth Day in 1970 built on nearly a century of efforts to address the contamination of water, air, and land caused by industrialization and urbanization. During the Progressive Era in the early 20th century, reformers warned that unregulated economic development was destroying natural resources and raised alarms about the public health crisis of crowded cities, where raw sewage and industrial run-off filled the waterways and smokestack pollution clouded the air that people breathed. Scientific experts, urban reformers, and women's groups promoted policies to reduce disease and clean up the air, land, and water. Conservation groups also began mobilizing in the late 1800s to protect wilderness areas and wildlife and regulate logging, mining, dam construction, and other assaults on natural resources. Early environmental activists such as John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, were not so much radicals as deeply conservative visionaries who feared the encroachment of modernization and industrial expansion on America’s natural beauty, especially in the West.

Michigan Residents Demand Forest Protection in 1960s

Early conservationists urged the government to create national parks to preserve America's most beautiful wilderness areas and better regulate the development of natural resources rather than exploit them at an unsustainable rate. Creating national parks became a means of preserving these lands to maintain their ecological biodiversity as well as provide wilderness resources for hikers and other recreational enthusiasts . As the environmental philosophy spread, so did the concept of "ecology," an awareness of not only how the natural environment affects human life but also how the activities of humans negatively shape the environment . The environmental movement condemned the idea of competition between humans and nature, and the exploitation of natural resources, that they blamed on the values of industrial capitalism. The ecological sensibility idealized a state of natural coexistence, of mutual interaction, between humans and their environment .

Many factors converged to accelerate environmental activism and increase ecological consciousness during the 1950s and 1960s. The unprecedented affluence of postwar America allowed millions of white middle-class families to move to the suburbs in search of bucolic landscapes and seek a quality of life that their same modern consumer society threatened through pesticides, smog, water pollution, and other hazards. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring (1962) shocked middle-class readers with its expose of the harms caused by DDT and other chemical contaminants to animal life and human safety. Increasing numbers of women in Michigan and across the United States became active environmentalists to protect the safety of their children and the sanctity of their homes and neighborhoods from environmental threats. Established organizations such as the League of Women Voters raised public awareness about environmental issues, especially water pollution. The majority of these women activists, however, banded together to form local groups around specific issues such as the hazards of industrial pesticides, radioactive fallout from nuclear testing, and over-development of open spaces.

Environmental Injustice: Creek with

Steel Plant Effluent Run-Off (1972)

Air and water pollution disproportionately affected working-class, poor, and nonwhite communities in urban and rural areas alike, a pattern that ultimately merged civil rights, labor rights, and environmental consciousness into the environmental justice movement. Although they often have received less attention, African American activists also participated in early environmental campaigns, such as protests about lead poisoning in inner-city neighborhoods which, with the assistance of leading ecologist Barry Commoner, ultimately led to local government action in St. Louis. Mexican American and migrant farmworkers in California also protested against exposure to agricultural pesticides as part of the United Farm Workers movement, and industrial labor unions such as the United Automobile Workers (UAW) played a crucial role in promoting environmental protection that history has largely forgotten. The environmental movement, therefore, began with grassroots efforts from concerned citizens across the country and transformed into a national movement that combined wilderness protection with environmental justice, with many different types of activist pioneers demanding action from the government and polluting corporations. Though environmental awareness and activism, historically marginalized groups such as women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and working-class union members also participated in the groundswell for change during the 1960s and 1970s.

Environmental Crisis: Sewage in Cuyahoga River, Cleveland

Public pressure and grassroots activism ensured that environmentalism would move to the the forefront of the liberal agenda in the 1960s during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which promised to improve the quality of life of all Americans and enacted several early federal laws. After President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, the burgeoning environmental movement and its allies in Congress demanded even more aggressive action and more comprehensive regulation. Several major events that year contributed to a widespread sense of "environmental crisis," including the Santa Barbara oil spill and the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. Liberal Democrats sponsored the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which required an environmental impact assessment before approval of government and corporate development projects and allowed citizen activists and environmental groups to file lawsuits against prominent polluters. Richard Nixon reluctantly signed the legislation and promised to launch a national crusade to protect the environment, although environmental activists often criticized his administration for failing to back up its strong words with tough enforcement against corporations. Environmental politics also became central to the anti-Vietnam and New Left movements on college campuses, as the decade of activism in the 1960s set the stage for the Earth Day teach-ins and demonstrations that inaugurated the mass environmental movement of the 1970s.

Chad Montrie, The Myth of Silent Spring: Rethinking the Origins of American Environmentalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), 1-24

Chad Montrie, A People's History of Environmentalism in the United States (New York: Continuum, 2011)

Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013)

Adam Rome, "'Give Earth a Chance': The Environmental Movement and the Sixties," Journal of American History (September 2003), 525-554

"A Century of Environmental Action: The Sierra Club, 1892-1992," California History (Summer 1992)

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962)

News and Information Services (University of Michigan) Photographs, 1946-2006, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Philip A. Hart Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

How did Earth Day begin?

First Earth Day occurred on April 22, 1970

The movement was backed by Senator Gaylord Nelson

National and global awareness of environmental issues was growing

Just a year before, the nation watched as the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland caught on fire

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had also been published in 1962 and had become very popular

Earth Day originally began as an idea for teach-ins at colleges and universities to educate people about the environmental impacts of many of our practices

These teach-ins mimicked the teach-ins that occurred about the Vietnam War

Although Senator Gaylord Nelson was the instigating force for Earth Day, it was largely coordinated by a Stanford University student Denis Hayes

Earth Day was supposed to act as a means of getting environmental issues on the national policy agenda, and it was largely successful

The first Earth Day included 20 million people demonstrating in the name of the Earth!

Earth Day 2021: This year’s theme, significance and origin of International Earth Day

The theme of this year's Earth Day as decided by the United Nations is 'Restore Our Earth.'

Earth Day 2021, History of Earth Day: The world celebrates the 51st anniversary of the International Mother Earth Day today. The day gives an opportunity to the nations, international bodies, Non-Governmental Organisations, Corporate bodies and each and every human living on this planet to bolster efforts towards the protection of Earth from environmental degradation. Even the current crisis of Coronavirus pandemic has been linked by many climate activists to the incessant degradation of the planet. The whole world celebrates Earth Day today on April 22 and is taking efforts to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic. The theme of this year’s Earth Day as decided by the United Nations is ‘Restore Our Earth.’

UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a brief statement on the occasion of International Earth Day said that the recovery of the whole planet from the Coronavirus pandemic was a chance to put the progress of Earth on a greener and more sustainable path. The Secretary General also said that the world needed to shift to a more sustainable economic system that could sustain both the planet and its people in a beneficial manner.

Origin of Earth Day
April 22 was first celebrated as Earth Day in the year 1970 when more than 20 million people walked on the streets to protest against exploitation of the environment. While the immediate trigger for the protests was the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill incident, people across the countries gathered on streets to protest against smogs and polluted rivers that had become a permanent feature of their life.

Theme of World Earth Day 2021
This year’s Earth Day focuses on the emerging green and pollution free technologies and novel solutions that can put the brakes on continuous environmental degradation. The special coincidence that marks this year’s World Earth Day is the fact that over seven climate related meets are being conducted today including the Leaders’ Summit on Climate hosted by newly elected US President Joe Biden.

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Earth Day: A Story Of Us

For the first Earth Day in 1970, cartoonist Walt Kelly trenchantly captured the core tension of humanity’s relationship to its home world as expressed through environmentalism and climate change: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

This tagline was incorporated into a poster specifically created for the inaugural Earth Day and featured his main cartoon persona, Pogo.

The tagline, with its use of the strong word “enemy,” was a rephrasing of Commodore Oliver Perry’s declaration during the War of 1812 that “we have met the enemy and they are ours.” Undoubtedly, too, Kelly’s language drew on this particular moment in history, reflecting the deep social and political tensions over the Vietnam War.

In the succinctness of this tagline, Kelly expressed the foundational problem of environmentalism — and the present climate crisis — that looms ever larger over the human present and future: What are we to do about the foundational disruptions to our home world for which we are responsible? Over more than 50 years, each Earth Day has been a reenactment of this question—and of the ever-increasing stakes in addressing it.

Yet how has engagement with this question changed with time?

In 1970, the focus of environmentalism was on smog, trash, and despoiling of land and water resources, by-products of consumer and disposable lifestyles that took off after World War II. Today, primary attention goes to a deeper issue: That such consumption, and how it is sustained, has resulted in ever-increasing release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide. This planetary atmospheric warming is pushing major Earth systems into changes not seen in millennia. We are, in short, in a crisis of our own doing.

As one example, ocean circulation, which through planetary-scale currents distributes energy between the cold polar regions and warm equatorial waters, is essential in maintaining temperatures hospitable to human existence. As highlighted in data gathered by NASA, NOAA, and other nations’ satellites, this vital mechanism is in danger of breaking down. As ice cover and glacial sheets melt, they disgorge freshwater into the salty ocean. Freshwater is lighter and does not sink to lower ocean depths at which the cold polar water flows back to the equator. This seemingly small change in water composition can disrupt this critical means for regulating planetary temperatures.

Such a change, as radical as it would be, would not be isolated. The ocean interacts with the atmosphere, influencing its circulation. That change, coupled with a warming atmosphere, would intensify severe weather events such as heat waves and droughts. This is indicative of how all earth systems, including plant and animal life, are interdependent and work together in shaping climate.

This deepened knowledge of climate change has made clear that Kelly’s “we have met the enemy and he is us” obscures the vast differences between those parts of the world that have been the drivers of the climate predicament and those that have not—but who already are and will bear disproportionately the consequences of a warming world. Though the climate crisis will affect humanity in its entirety, some bear a greater responsibility for its resolution.

Organizing and committing to responsible action to address the crisis is the single, overriding issue of our time—who, how, and with what resources will such action be accomplished to ensure the future of all life on the planet? In climate science, the concept of “tipping points” is used to clarify the stakes of our Earth edging toward an inhospitable state. The change to ocean circulation sketched above is one example. One might apply this concept to the individual and collective response to the climate crisis: Are we at a tipping point in mobilizing the political and social commitment to mitigate the crisis? Or, will conflicts over political values delay action to the detriment of the planet and its peoples?

As part of our new slate of exhibitions, the Museum is devoting greater attention to climate change and the complex of issues connecting science, politics, and a viable human future. As the fundamental issue of our time, we look to bring our visitors into this conversation to share the stakes for them as individuals and for their communities—and to hear their voices. We are collecting objects that convey the scientific and technical dimensions of climate research. And we are collaborating with other Smithsonian museums and research centers to bring forward the social and cultural challenges caused by climate change.

World Environment Day

World Environment Day (WED) is celebrated annually on 5 June and is the United Nations' principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment. First held in 1974, it has been a platform for raising awareness on environmental issue such as marine pollution, human overpopulation, global warming, sustainable consumption and wildlife crime. World Environment Day is a global platform for public outreach, with participation from over 143 countries annually. Each year, the program has provided a theme and forum for businesses, non government organizations, communities, governments and celebrities to advocate environmental causes. [1] [2]

Environment day
Official nameUN World Environment Day
Also calledEco Day, Environment Day, WED (world environment day)
SignificanceEnvironmental issues awareness
ObservancesEnvironment Protection
Date5 June
First time5 June 1974 47 years ago ( 5 June 1974 )

Going mainstream

When Yeampierre joined UPROSE in 1996, she says she considered herself a social justice activist, and she had no history of working on environmental issues. But as young people in the community began telling her their concerns, she recognized common fights.

“They started talking to me about asthma, about truck traffic, about paint,” she remembers. “It became clear that if we couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t fight against bad policing.”

It may seem now as though community-based organizations like UPROSE, which started organizing around climate justice in the early 2000s, would be the natural heirs to the grassroots organizers behind the early Earth Day movement. But throughout the ’90s and the 2000s, many small organizations felt that the mainstream green conversation — which focused on sustainability, enacting bipartisan climate policy, and promoting climate science — left out the needs of justice activists.

Rome attributes much of this disconnect to the original Earth Day movement’s success. After agreeing to make changes to their business models to preserve the environment, companies began to recognize the financial cost of environmental regulations and push to have them relaxed. Ronald Reagan unleashed a wave of pro-business activity in the Republican Party, and the GOP took up the mantle of deregulation.

The “eco infrastructure” set up in the wake of Earth Day mobilized to save what their movement had created. With partisan divisiveness escalating, grassroots movements — including movements helmed by people of color — were left by the wayside as a more nationally oriented white, middle-class environmental movement took hold.

“The big green groups are always happy to have the help of somebody who's not an environmentalist,” Rome explains. “A labor union wants to help them, great, but they're not on the street picketing when labor goes on strike. We think that the environmental movement is sort of lefty, but a lot of environmental organizations are not self-identified as part of a broader progressive movement.”

Yeampierre says that big green groups — which have carried the national conversation, run the policy agenda, and received much of the green funding since Earth Day — have not only ignored activists of color but exploited them.

“The big greens always knew who we were because we got into fights about the distribution of resources, the distribution of power, how the big greens would sort of heavy-foot into our communities and undermine the work that we were doing, how they would supplant not only our leadership, but make it impossible for us to move the dial,” she says. “The culture of these institutions has been an extractive culture.”

Watch the video: History Of Earth In 9 Minutes


  1. Lonnell

    I think I get to correct the decision.

  2. Halwn

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  3. Jujind

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  4. Amet

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