Late Lessons from Early Warnings

8 chapters of the environmental history

Sometimes, faith in progress can be so overwhelming that the world is willing to go to any lengths to ensure a new technological leap forward – regardless of the threat it may present to both mankind and his environment.

The eight film under the common title “Late Lessons from Early Warnings” is a historical exploration of how and to which extend we as an international community are able to respond to warnings about the hazards that some the technological innovations have represented during the last century. We haven’t been that successful – as stated in one of the films: “Often when people are inspired by great visions – rarely do they look back – only ahead.”

A 8-part series about the history of the environment

Lead for Life

In the beginning of the 1920s, the leading American oil- and automobile industry add lead to gasoline to get a more efficient fuel.

At that time, lead was already a known poison, harmful to the nervous system – especially to children.

Quickly, lead out competes other harmless additives, and the profit of the oil industry is huge in the decades to come. But hundred thousands tons of lead are spread around

Cities of Smog

During the last 100 years, the world has experienced an enormous growth, unequalled in the entire history of mankind.

Production has increased more than 13 times, and this enormous step is linked to our capacity of exploiting the fossil fuels – coal and oil.

In early industrialization, smoky chimneys, swinging cranes and burning melting furnace were potent symbols of power, optimism and money.

But progress had its price. During the 20th century, millions of people die of lung cancer, heart- and respiratory diseases – only because of the air pollution in the big cities all over the world.

A Predictable Catastrophe

40 years ago, the Aral Sea was one of the largest seas of the world.

For generations this gigantic fresh water reserve has provided fish for millions of people. But for more than half a century ago, authorities started to put into reality a mastodon of a vision.

The water from the Aral Sea should transform the never ending desert steppe into blooming fields of cotton.

Very soon, it became clear, that the project will have serious consequences for the sea and the surrounding society. But, at that time, the enthusiasm for the conquest of nature had been too great.

Evil Dust

During the last hundred years asbestos fibers have been used in thousands of different products in the construction industry, in shipyards, and in households.

It was known as a magic mineral and the use of million of tons of asbestos created a successful and very profitable industry.

Almost simultaneously, the industry has known that asbestos is extremely dangerous to people.

But despite the knowledge, the use of asbestos does not only develop into the biggest occupational problem of the century, with thousands of deaths – but the mineral can also be a threat to others – from construction workers and ship yard builders to housewives.

A Smoking Epidemic

For generations, the Tobacco industry has tried to convince millions of people that smoking is cool, sexy and completely harmless.

And they have done a good job -for every day, we smoke billions of cigarettes – year in and year out. In fact it is one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history and one in which seduction, suppression and the distortion of facts have been a crucial element.

Because for more than 50 years, it has been a well-known fact that smoking causes cancer, and despite the fall in tobacco consumption in developed countries, the global consumption of tobacco continues to rise.

Smoking is still one of the most frequent causes of death in the world, and the number of people who die due to smoking is now over four million a year. The epidemic, as World health Organisation calls it, will apparently never end.

The Hole in the Sky

The pursuit of new chemical compounds has always proved to be a fascinating journey and chemical invention has created several major technological steps forward – though not, however, without unpredictable and dire consequences.

Back in 1974, two American scientists published a theory which claimed that the apparently harmless gasses used in refrigerators and spray cans were destroying the protective and delicate ozone layer in the atmosphere.

Should the theory proves to be true, it would not only mean a substantial increase in the numbers of those contracting skin cancer, but also have completely immeasurable consequences for food production.

So for several years, scientists worldwide were searching for proof of the validity of this theory – but without success. Nevertheless,

should the theory be proven, mankind would faces yet another fatal dilemma. And how should we react in the face of a warning, which up until then have mainly been theoretical?

An Immortal Poison

Unlike any other substance, PCB has demonstrated that once chemicals are released into the environment, they remain there for generations.

When PCBs were first introduced in the 1920s, they were considered invaluable in electrical equipment, in buildings and in machinery.
The chemicals are practically invisible and not something ordinary people come into contact with.

But a mere a few generations later, PCBs have imperceptibly spread all over the world, and are now to be found in both animals and human organism – as well as in foodstuffs.

When in the 1970s it first became evident that PCBs are a health hazard, they are banned by most the developed countries. PCBs don’t simply disappear, on the contrary – they continue to do harm to this very day.

The last Antibiotic

Perhaps the most ground-breaking discovery in the history of medicine was the development of penicillin, a substance which upon its discovery, was called a true miracle. Finally, a drug had been found which could cure people of the most dreaded infections.

And although several pathogenic bacteria became resistant to penicillin, new types of antibiotics were found to suppress these illnesses. However, due to abuse and an over-consumption of penicillin, many pathogenic bacteria soon outwitted the miracle drug.

Resistant bacteria are gaining ground, and in the meanwhile, the development of new medicines has practically come to a halt.


  • Director & Producer:

    Jakob Gottschau

  • Photography:

    Michael Daugaard

  • Film Editor:

    Jesper Osmund

  • Music:

    Niels Mosumgaard

  • Narration:

    Brian Patterson