In 1962, a marine biologist named Rachel Carson published a book, Silent Spring, that would do more to awaken environmental consciousness than any other single work. Carson’s work described how DDT and other chemical pesticides contaminated nature's food chain, killing large numbers of birds and fish and causing human illnesses. This book helped initiate the most influential environmentalist movement in modern American history.
Modern environmentalism began at the end of the 19th century. In 1872, Congress created Yellowstone, the first national park. In 1891, the Forest Reserve Act gave the president the power to set up national forests. The next year, the Sierra Club was founded, the nation's first organization committed to protecting wilderness areas.
During the Progressive era, conflicting visions of the environment struggled for dominance. Some individuals, like Gifford Pinchot, the head of the U.S. Forest Service under Theodore Roosevelt, were primarily interested in using scarce natural resources more rationally and efficiently. Others, like John Muir, the naturalist and the Sierra Club's first president, were eager to preserve wilderness and wildlife for their own sake and to prevent industrial development from despoiling nature's beauty.
Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal initiated a number of important conservation projects. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put three million young men to work restoring national parks and forests. The Tennessee Valley Authority restored the region's forests by planting trees, controlled flooding, and provided cheap electricity by building dams. The Soil Conservation Service combated the poor farming and ranching practices that contributed to the loss of topsoil during Dust Bowl of the early 1930s.
It was during the 1960s, however, that environmentalism became a mass movement. A series of environmental horror stories broadened the environmentalist constituency from naturalists to include a majority of Americans transcending party lines: Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire; toxic residues were discovered in mothers' breast milk; acid rain was killing lakes and streams. Americans became increasingly alarmed about "killer smog," off-shore oil drilling, the paving over of farm land, and the loss of wetlands. Greater affluence also contributed to environmentalism, since a wealthier society could afford to pay for a cleaner environment.
Scientists played a critical role in arousing public awareness. Paul R. Erhlich, a Stanford ecologist and author of the 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, warned that world population growth was outstripping the earth's supply of food, fresh water, and mineral resources. Barry Commoner, a Queens College professor and author of The Closed Circle, alerted Americans to the dangers of nuclear radiation and made them aware of the fragility of the natural environment.
Growing public interest in environmental protection was evident in the establishment of new organizations, like the Environmental Defense Fund. Founded in 1967, the fund heightened interest in "organic farming" and "natural foods" produced without synthetic chemicals. One sign of renewed interest in the environment was apparent with the Congressional passage in 1969 of the National Environmental Policy Act, which required preparation of environmental impact statements for all federally funded highways, dams, pipelines, and power plants. But it was the celebration of the first "Earth Day" that underscored heightened public concern for the environment. On April 22, 1970, some 20 million Americans observed "Earth Day" by staging demonstrations, planting trees, and gathering in parks.
In Earth Day's wake, Congress combined 15 federal pollution programs to create the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, to set and enforce pollution standards; passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, also in 1970; and enacted the Endangered Species Act in 1973, to protect threatened species of wildlife. Since these initial measures were adopted, environmental concern has surged and ebbed. During the mid-1970s, when the United States experienced severe oil shortages and economic productivity dipped, fewer Americans were willing to sacrifice economic growth or a high standard of living for environmental protection. During his presidency, Ronald W. Reagan argued that the solution to environmental problems could be found in the workings of the marketplace rather than government regulation. But whenever news reports of environmental degradation appeared, public concern quickly resurfaced. Reports in 1978 that dangerous chemicals buried beneath Love Canal in New York led Congress to create the "Superfund" to finance the clean-up of the nation's most dangerous toxic waste sites. Publicity over the dangers of "ozone depletion" led the United States and most other nations to negotiate a 1989 treaty cutting production of chlorofluorocarbons which destroy the atmosphere's protective ozone shield. Also in 1989, a U.S. tanker, the Exxon Valdez, spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Price William Sound, sparking intense public concern.
The report card on the nation's environmental record offers a mixed picture. Contamination levels of DDT, lead, and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls have declined sharply. By 1995, environmental regulations had reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by 53 percent; carbon monoxide by 57 percent; smoke and soot by 59 percent; and smog by 39 percent; and had made America's water supply the cleanest in the industrial world. Strict federal rules curbed automobile and industrial emissions, while increasing automobile mileage and the efficiency of appliances. As a result, while the American economy grew by half between 1970 and 1995, energy usage increased by only 10 percent.
Today’s environmental record is far from positive. In spite of scrubbing, or the elimination of power plant smokestacks, fish life in 4,000 lakes remains threatened by acid rain. While automobile tailpipe emissions have been sharply curtailed, half of the population lives in counties that violate federal clear air standards. Despite efforts to clean the nation's rivers and lakes, many freshwater fish contain dangerous levels of toxic chemicals. And as some older environmental hazards have been addressed, new concerns have arisen, such as global warming--the greenhouse effect caused by the buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the stratosphere--and depletion of the earth's protective ozone shield. Eco-populists warn about dangers posed by genetic engineering and electromagnet radiation. Animal rights activists call on Americans to replace an "anthrocentric" perspective with an outlook respecting the value of all living things.
Public opinion polls indicate that Americans overwhelmingly support environmental protection, and over three-quarters consider themselves environmentalists. Membership in environmental organizations has increased sharply; the national symbol, the bald eagle, once threatened by extinction, is now labeled as "threatened" rather than "endangered."
But whether a fundamental change has taken place in Americans’ relationship to nature remains uncertain. Despite limited efforts at recycling, America remains a "throw-away" society that produces twice as much garbage as Europeans. America also remains an extraordinarily mobile society relying on private cars for transportation. With just 2 percent of the world's population, the United States uses 24 percent of the world's energy--twice as much as Japan and Western Europe. And the United States remains a growth oriented society, which continues to absorb millions of acres of crop land each year for highways, tract housing, and office buildings. Each year the federal government continues to add 35 to 50 names to the list of endangered species.
Copyright 2016 Digital History