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An Expansive and Diverse Nation, Americans and the Environment

industrial expansion, arid land, highest hill, urban sprawl, domestic consumption

The people of the United States used this remarkable array of natural resources to build their society. At first, and for many years, the United States was primarily an agricultural society. Until the second decade of the 20th century, most Americans lived and worked on farms. Rich agricultural land allowed Americans to produce, process, and deliver enough food, not only for the United States, but also for millions of people in other countries.

Americans developed the land’s natural resources in many other ways as well. They used water from the nation’s vast river systems to irrigate arid land and to transport people and goods. They built harbors for ports along the coastlines in order to ship and receive goods from all over the world. They exploited the forests and the fisheries, building major industries providing goods for domestic consumption and for export.

Industry developed early in the United States. During the first half of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution spread from Europe and stimulated the rapid growth of industry in the Northeast. Raw materials were brought to the Northeast from other parts of the country by ship and by a rapidly expanding rail system. Industrial plants processed the raw material into finished products for export and for domestic consumption.

From 1850 to 1920, industrial expansion continued and moved westward. Chicago, Illinois, became the leading meatpacking center of the United States. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became synonymous with steel. Detroit, Michigan, emerged as the automobile capital of the world. Other large U.S. cities developed their own specialties. By the beginning of World War I (1914-1918), America had become the world’s greatest industrial giant.

However, as Americans developed the land and its resources, they sometimes created environmental problems. Forests and natural grasslands began disappearing as early as colonial times (17th and 18th centuries), as settlers converted more and more wilderness into farmland. In the 20th century, urban sprawl and industrial expansion led to pollution of the air and water. A growing population, and its demands for a convenient lifestyle, generated tremendous amounts of pollution and waste. By the mid-1990s, Americans created 2.0 kg (4.3 lbs) of trash per person per day. Often the highest hill around a typical U.S. city consisted of the waste buried at the local sanitary landfill.

In the last 30 years of the 20th century, however, Americans have become more aware of environmental problems and have begun programs to reduce pollution and conserve natural areas. People also learned to recycle, to reuse resources, and to protect endangered species.

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