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Environmental Engineering Projects that Changed the World

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Environmental engineering is a practice that is predicated on the human experience with the environment. Some people would say that the Human Condition involves seeking comfort, or at least, joy. However, I also would extend this to say that I believe environmental engineering is the process of inventing more comfortable and convenient ways to make the most of our environment. Some are better and more sustainable than others. Some methods are massively destructive in ways we have yet to fully understand. But nonetheless, many environmental engineering projects are essential for modern life.

We are frail. We get cold. We get hot. We get thirsty, hungry, and we die if we don’t do something about it.

For all of human history, these things have been the same. At no other time in history have we had such access to technologies that help us to control our environment at every scale.

From engineering the interior of canned veggies to be safe for human consumption (this actually took years and resulted in many deaths from Clostridium botulinum before we did it right), to building walls with bare hands across entire landscapes to keep control of resources and power.

At many times in history, environmental engineering projects have changed and shaped to our cultures. Throughout history, we have found ways to harness or control our environment. Regardless of where we are on earth, the environment dictates our ability to survive. As humans, we have divided incredible solutions to these limitations over time. By creating ways to circumvent the conditions of our immediate environment, we have grown in our understanding of almost every aspect of our world!

But hey, we still have a TON more to learn!

Let’s jump right in,

Here are 5 Environmental Engineering Devices or Projects that have Shaped History

From Oldest to Newest:

The Plow

This is one of the most essential tools of human history. Without the plow, setting in one place and curating foods for survival would have been much more difficult. The Plow was utilized across the ancient world and experienced many advancements in technology over time. But even so, the plow remained much the same for thousands of years. The plow allowed humans to really settle down and thrive.

Some may swear by a newly developed method of agriculture called “no-till” gardening. The method allows decomposition to occur directly, instead of supplementing.

The Great Wall of China

This project was a security fence for an entire civilization and remains so significant that it makes many current environmental projects look like Lego sets. The Great Wall of China stretches thousands of miles and was built with only human labor. The need for this wall was essentially a result of economic and territorial pressure from other growing nations. Needless to say, this wall impacted the environment. species migratory patterns were disrupted, and many thousands of bricks made of the earth were created and used in this wall. It is indeed a breathtaking project.

Great Wall of China stretching off into the distance

Image via Pexels

The Aqueducts of Rome (and many other places)

Aqueducts are utilized across almost every nation in the modern world, and many civilizations utilized aqueducts for thousands of years. Without a method to transport water, many areas would be too arid or variable to live in. Thankfully, Rome and other civilizations before ours understood how to measure the topography to allow fresh water to flow to the city in the most efficient ways. Today, gravity and pump stations create water flow across lands that may otherwise be barren. Thanks to modern takes on ancient aqueducts, I am blessed to be able to obtain water from a faucet.

The Microscope

Anton van Leeuwenhoek invented a microscope which was then used by Lous Pasteur to discover the existence of Bacteria in the 17th Century. Although the microscope itself isn't so much an environmental engineering project, it certainly paved the way for us to do so. The invention of the microscope and the combination of microbiology and internal medicine absolutely and fundamentally changed the way that humans could survive in places that were otherwise potentially extremely dangerous. What's more, the modern understanding of microbiology allows the longevity of humans to be greatly extended. Health and happiness are worth a great deal and can be severely impacted by things not feeling right. Without the fundamental discoveries of people who study microbiology, many people would die. Just look at COVID as a recent example...

The Panama Canal

The canal was the most significant environmental project ever undertaken at that time. Hundreds, if not thousands of people died during the construction in mudslides, bad working conditions, and floods. When the canal was completed and the lake filled, it was estimated that hundreds of native citizens of the region were forced out of their areas by rising waters. Although the Panama Canal was both an environmental travesty and an engineering marvel at the time, I don’t believe it would be possible to find out how much carbon has been saved by the short cut that it made for the shipping industry. Many hundreds of thousands of miles of transit are saved in some cases, but this may not be the most effective way to manage transport of goods. Sustainability may require reworks of our global economy.

Thank you for reading about some of the worlds most incredible technologies. If we learn to utilize and harness our environment to our advantage, we can often make our lives much more comfortable. History has shown that we can sometimes bite off more than we can handle though. Mother nature will always be stronger than human nature.

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