The first Earth Day is the most famous little-known event in modern American history. Because we still pay ritual homage to the planet every April 22, everyone knows something about Earth Day. Some people may also know that Earth Day 1970 made the environmental movement a major force in American political life. But no one has told the whole story before.
The story of the first Earth Day is inspiring: it had a power, a freshness, and a seriousness of purpose that are difficult to imagine today. Earth Day 1970 created an entire green generation. Thousands of Earth Day organizers and participants decided to devote their lives to the environmental cause. Earth Day 1970 helped to build a lasting eco-infrastructurelobbying organizations, environmental beats at newspapers, environmental-studies programs, ecology sections in bookstores, community ecology centers.
In The Genius of Earth Day, the prizewinning historian Adam Rome offers a compelling account of the rise of the environmental movement. Drawing on his experience as a journalist as well as his expertise as a scholar, he explains why the first Earth Day was so powerful, bringing one of the greatest political events of the twentieth century to life.
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About the Author
Adam Rome teaches environmental history and environmental nonfiction at the University of Delaware. Before earning his Ph.D. in history, he worked for seven years as a journalist. His first book, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism, won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the Lewis Mumford Prize.
Read an Excerpt
1 The Prehistory of Earth Day
Earth Day was not the work of a well-established movement. Indeed, commentators did not begin to speak about “the environmental movement” until the run-up to Earth Day. Though many Americans had sought to address environmental issues before 1970, their efforts were fragmented. Few organizations worked on both rural and urban problems. The old conservation groups focused on wildlife and wilderness. The fight against air pollution largely was led by single-issue organizations, from Stamp Out Smog in Los Angeles to Citizens for Clean Air in New York. The only “environmental” organization in the late 1960s—the Environmental Defense Fund—essentially was a handful of lawyers and scientists who pursued high-profile lawsuits. The Natural Resources Defense Council was a month old on Earth Day.1
Because the environmental movement still was inchoate in the 1960s, Earth Day had no obvious precursors. That made Earth Day quite different from the biggest civil-rights and antiwar demonstrations of the era. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the culmination of nine years of activism: the Montgomery bus boycott, the Greensboro sit-ins, the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham. The 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam came after four years of protests, from the antiwar teach-ins of 1965 to the 1967 march on the Pentagon.
The lack of antecedents reveals much about the significance of Earth Day. Earth Day did not just mobilize activists to demonstrate the growing power of their cause. In several ways, Earth Day helped to create the movement. Earth Day gave environmental activism a name. Earth Day also convinced many Americans that pollution, sprawl, nuclear fallout, pesticide use, wilderness preservation, waste disposal, and population growth were not separate issues: All were facets of a far-reaching “environmental crisis.” Perhaps most important, Earth Day brought together activists who had worked separately before.
The new movement drew support from a variety of people, but members of five groups were critical. In the course of the 1950s and 1960s, many liberal Democrats, scientists, middle-class women, young critics of American institutions, and conservationists became more concerned about environmental issues. Though the activists in those groups did not become a concerted force until Earth Day brought them together, they made Earth Day possible.2
In the mid-1950s, a handful of Democratic intellectuals began to reconsider the liberal agenda, and their efforts intensified after Adlai Stevenson’s defeat in the presidential election of 1956. What could liberalism offer in a time of unprecedented affluence? Many Democratic policy advisers and elected officials soon concluded that one answer to that question was a commitment to environmental protection. In coming to that conclusion, they were influenced by the arguments of experts in a growing number of professions concerned about the environment. They also were responding to growing grassroots activism. But the Democratic intellectuals and politicians were leaders as well as followers. By making environmental issues part of a broad new liberal agenda, they fundamentally changed the terms of debate.
The most influential advocates of the new liberalism were the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. The two Harvard professors were unusually well positioned to shape political debate. Both wrote speeches for Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and both were founders of Americans for Democratic Action. Both also served on the domestic policy committee of the national Democratic party. In the late 1950s, both men became advisers to John F. Kennedy, and their influence in Democratic politics continued into the 1960s.3
For Schlesinger and Galbraith, a liberal agenda for the 1960s followed from two related ideas about the nation’s postwar prosperity, and both ideas provided a powerful new justification for expanding the role of government in protecting the environment. First, liberals needed to move beyond the basic goals of the New Deal. In an age of abundance, government could and should do more than ensure that Americans enjoyed a minimum of material comfort. Schlesinger put the point succinctly: “Instead of the quantitative liberalism of the 1930s, rightly dedicated to the struggle to secure the economic basis of life, we need now a ‘qualitative liberalism’ dedicated to bettering the quality of people’s lives and opportunities.” Second, liberals needed to address what Galbraith called “the problem of social balance.” Though the postwar economic boom enabled people to buy more and more consumer products, the private sector could not satisfy the increasing demand for a number of vital community services. Accordingly, the challenge for liberals was to offer a compelling vision of the public interest.4
Though neither Schlesinger nor Galbraith was a noted conservationist, both pointed to environmental problems to support their argument for a new liberalism. The state of the environment clearly affected the quality of life. If the nation’s streams were polluted, then fewer people could enjoy the pleasures of fishing or boating. The quality of the environment also was a classic example of a public good, since consumers could not simply buy fresh air, clean water, or sprawl-free countrysides.
Schlesinger addressed the issue first. “Our gross national product rises; our shops overflow with gadgets and gimmicks; consumer goods of ever-increasing ingenuity and luxuriance pour out of our ears,” he wrote in a 1956 essay on the future of liberalism. “But our schools become more crowded and dilapidated, our teachers more weary and underpaid, our playgrounds more crowded, our cities dirtier, our roads more teeming and filthy, our national parks more unkempt, our law enforcement more overworked and inadequate.”5
In The Affluent Society—a bestseller in 1958—Galbraith used more evocative language. “The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered, and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground,” he wrote. “They pass into a countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial art … They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?” Those lines would become the most famous in the book.6
The fame of the passage was not due simply to Galbraith’s acerbic style. In a few nauseating images, Galbraith had caught a growing concern about the deterioration of the nation’s environment. By the time The Affluent Society appeared, many Americans no longer could take for granted the healthfulness of their milk, because radioactive fallout from nuclear testing had contaminated dairy pastures. Across the country, people had begun campaigns to save “open space” from the sprawl of suburbia. The smog over California’s exploding cities had become a symbol of the perils of progress, and federal health officials had organized a national conference on the hazards of air pollution. Thousands of homeowners in new subdivisions had watched in shock as detergent foam came out of their kitchen faucets. As Galbraith suggested, countless families also had come face-to-face with pollution while trying to enjoy new opportunities for outdoor recreation.7
Sputnik also gave bite to Galbraith’s words. Even before the Soviet satellite orbited the earth in 1957, a handful of social critics had begun to question the fruits of abundance, and the stunning Soviet success turned those lonely voices into a resounding chorus of self-doubt. Had the United States become too comfortable? The question helped to provoke a spirited end-of-the-decade debate about the nation’s mission. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund commissioned a series of studies of “the problems and opportunities confronting American democracy,” and the studies appeared with great fanfare under the title Prospect for America. In 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed a presidential commission on national goals. The editors of Life and The New York Times asked Americans to reflect on “the national purpose.”8
Much of the debate focused on the Schlesinger/Galbraith argument about the imbalance between private wealth and public poverty. In a series of articles early in 1960, The New York Times reported that many officials in Washington had concluded that “the most important continuing issue of American policy and politics over the next decade will be the issue of public spending—what share of America’s total resources should be devoted to public as distinct from private purposes.” Though Americans enjoyed more consumer goods than any people in the history of the world, the newspaper summarized the liberal side of the argument, that the public sector of society was impoverished: “Education is underfinanced. Streams are polluted. There remains a shortage of hospital beds. Slums proliferate, and there is a gap in middle-income housing. We could use more and better parks, streets, detention facilities, water supply. The very quality of American life is suffering from these lacks—much more than from any lack of purely private goods and services.”9
As The New York Times summary suggests, the problem of pollution was cited again and again by the advocates of a more expansive public sphere. The problem of suburban sprawl also figured often in “the great debate.” In the Life series on the national purpose, two of the ten contributors wrote about the deteriorating environment. The political scientist Clinton Rossiter argued that the private sector was not equipped to deal with “the blight of our cities, the shortage of water and power, the disappearance of open space, the inadequacy of education, the need for recreational facilities, the high incidence of crime and delinquency, the crowding of the roads, the decay of the railroads, the ugliness of the sullied landscape, the pollution of the very air we breathe.” Adlai Stevenson agreed. Though the nation’s manufacturers were providing cars and refrigerators in abundance, the booming private economy could not protect against “the sprawl of subdivisions which is gradually depriving us of either civilized urban living or uncluttered rural space. It does not guarantee America’s children the teachers or the schools which should be their birthright. It does nothing to end the shame of racial discrimination. It does not counter the exorbitant cost of health, nor conserve the nation’s precious reserves of land and water and wilderness. The contrast between private opulence and public squalor on most of our panorama is now too obvious to be denied.”10
In the report of the presidential commission on national goals, the urbanist and housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster gave considerable attention to the problems of “vanishing open space and spreading pollution.” Wurster also offered a shrewd psychological explanation for the reluctance of taxpayers to accept a rise in community spending. Because the average citizen often had no chance to participate directly in the large-scale decisions that shaped the public environment, she argued, the public world was less satisfying than the private sphere. “Since he has more sense of personal power and choice in the consumer goods market, he tends to spend more money on … automobiles than on public services, and is likely to vote down higher taxes even though a park, or less smog, might give him more personal pleasure than a second TV set.”11
The bestselling social critic Vance Packard made similar arguments about pollution, sprawl, and national purpose in The Waste Makers. Packard already had questioned the consumerism of the 1950s in The Hidden Persuaders and The Status Seekers, and The Waste Makers extended the critique. In addition to the insights of a few conservationists, Packard drew on the arguments of both Schlesinger and Galbraith. As the nation entered a new decade, Packard wrote, the great unmet challenges all involved the provision of public goods. “A person can’t go down to the store and order a new park,” he explained. “A park requires unified effort, and that gets you into voting and public spending and maybe soak-the-rich taxes.” But the effort was essential. The consumption of ever-greater quantities of “deodorants, hula hoops, juke boxes, padded bras, dual mufflers, horror comics, or electric rotisseries” could not ensure national greatness. Instead, Americans needed to improve the quality of the environment, to stop the spread of pollution and “the growing sleaziness, dirtiness, and chaos of the nation’s great exploding metropolitan areas.”12
Though the national-purpose debate was bipartisan—the conservative columnist Walter Lippmann wrote often about the need to give a higher priority to public goods—the Democrats seized the issue of the deteriorating quality of the environment. When Life asked both presidential candidates in 1960 to define the national purpose, only John F. Kennedy mentioned environmental problems. “The good life falls short as an indicator of national purpose unless it goes hand in hand with the good society,” Kennedy wrote. “Even in material terms, prosperity is not enough when there is no equal opportunity to share in it; when economic progress means overcrowded cities, abandoned farms, technological unemployment, polluted air and water, and littered parks and countrysides; when those too young to earn are denied their chance to learn; when those no longer earning live out their lives in lonely degradation.”13
In the White House, Kennedy’s top domestic priority was a growth-boosting tax cut. But he took a few important steps to address the issue of environmental quality. He supported a new federal program to assist local and state governments in acquiring open space, and he endorsed a measure to preserve wilderness. In 1962, he held a White House Conference on Conservation, the first since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Kennedy instructed his science advisers to report on the use of pesticides. He also appointed an activist secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, who energetically promoted the cause of environmental protection.14
Like Kennedy, Udall borrowed from Schlesinger and Galbraith. He argued again and again that “the new conservation” was a vital effort to improve “the quality of life.” He also argued that the nation’s deteriorating environment was a sign of “the disorder of our postwar priorities.” In The Quiet Crisis—a 1963 call to action—he began by pointing out the stark contrast between the economic and environmental trends of the postwar decades. “America today stands poised on a pinnacle of wealth and power,” he wrote, “yet we live in a land of vanishing beauty, of increasing ugliness, of shrinking open space, and of an overall environment that is diminished daily by pollution and noise and blight.”15
The growing Democratic interest in the environment went beyond the Kennedy administration. By 1961, the California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action had deemphasized the old economic issues of unemployment and workmen’s compensation; instead, the group was focusing on “quality of life” issues, including the preservation of open space and the planning of metropolitan growth. In the early 1960s, a new breed of policy entrepreneurs in Congress sought to establish national reputations by championing consumer and environmental legislation, and Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine soon earned the nickname “Mr. Pollution Control.”16
After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson resolved to finish the unfinished environmental business of the Kennedy administration. But he hoped to do more. Johnson had a more personal stake in the issue than Kennedy. His wife had a keen interest in nature. In the field of conservation—as in so many areas of policy—Johnson sought to surpass the achievements of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like his mentor, Johnson wanted to go down in history as a great conservation president.17
The decision to give a higher priority to environmental protection made perfect sense to Johnson’s domestic advisers. Early in Johnson’s presidency, they proposed “the Great Society” as the overarching theme that would give historic weight to the 1964 campaign, and the roots of their vision lay in the Schlesinger/Galbraith call for a qualitative liberalism. The historian Eric Goldman and the speechwriter Richard Goodwin especially found inspiration in the arguments of the late 1950s about the challenge of abundance.18
As the president’s house intellectual, Goldman asked Galbraith to serve as “the quality of American life” adviser to the Johnson brain trust. He had written admiringly of Galbraith’s contribution to the debate over national purpose in 1960, and he spoke several times in the next few years about the proper goals of a “post-affluent” society. “Material concerns were still pressing—particularly the disgraceful and dangerous economic position of the Negro—but the nation had reached a general affluence which permitted it to give attention not only to the quantity but to the quality of American living,” he argued in 1964. The next generation of Americans at last could escape the burdens of the “dull society,” the “overmaterial society,” and the “ugly society.”19
Goodwin recognized that a part of the Johnson agenda needed to do what the New Deal had not done to guarantee a modicum of comfort and security for all Americans. But he concluded that the great opportunity for going beyond the old liberalism lay in acknowledging “that private income, no matter how widely distributed, was only a foundation; that private affluence, no matter how widely distributed, could not remedy many of the public conditions that diminished the possibilities of American life.” For Goodwin, that meant tackling the issues of pollution, suburban sprawl, and environmental health.20
In a speech written by Goodwin, President Johnson spoke to those issues in May 1964. The speech was the president’s first attempt to define the Great Society, and he addressed only a few points. The Great Society required the abolition of poverty and racial injustice, he argued, “but that is just the beginning.” The Great Society would spark the imagination, offer stimulating forms of leisure, and provide the satisfactions of true community. “It is a place where man can renew contact with nature,” the president continued. “It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.” Perhaps because the occasion for the speech was a college graduation, the president spoke passionately about the need to ensure that “every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talents.” But the rest of the speech focused on the problems of the metropolis and the countryside. The president decried the social and environmental costs of suburban growth, including the loss of open space. He also called for action to protect the natural splendor of the nation. “We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful,” he explained. “Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.”21
The speech was not merely talk. Johnson made the environment a major focus of the Great Society. Though scholars have paid much more attention to the civil-rights acts, the War on Poverty, and the expansion of health and education programs, Johnson himself considered the environmental agenda no less important. As historian Robert Dallek concludes, “he had no real priority” among the Great Society initiatives—“he wanted them all.” Johnson aggressively used the power of the presidency to draw public attention to environmental problems. He convened a White House Conference on Natural Beauty, and he asked the President’s Science Advisory Committee to report on ways to restore the quality of the environment. He devoted several major addresses to his environmental proposals. The result was a torrent of legislation: Johnson signed almost 300 conservation and beautification measures. The most important bills addressed the problems of air and water pollution, solid-waste disposal, wilderness preservation, and endangered species. The Johnson initiatives also created national lakeshores and seashores, increased the number of national parks, and provided funds to state governments for land and water conservation.22
To be sure, the legislation of the mid-1960s was not enough to solve the most serious environmental problems. In the fight against pollution, the truly landmark acts did not come until the early 1970s. But the achievements of the Great Society were critical in the evolution of the environmental movement. Before the 1960s, the problem of pollution was not a principal concern of the federal government. In 1960—just before leaving office—President Eisenhower vetoed a clean-water act with a blunt declaration that water pollution was “a uniquely local blight.” John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson both rejected that view, and the legislation of the mid-1960s firmly established the principle of federal responsibility for the quality of the nation’s air and water. That responsibility was institutionalized in two new agencies with the ability to research and publicize environmental problems. The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration and the National Air Pollution Control Administration both helped to strengthen the demand for tougher legislation to protect the environment. The new bureaucracies were agenda setters.23
When Time published a special issue on the environment before Earth Day, the magazine put biologist Barry Commoner on the cover. The magazine could have chosen a number of people to symbolize the environmental movement. The decision to use Commoner acknowledged the critical role of scientists in the surge of concern about environmental degradation. Though members of many professions contributed to the new movement, scientists were especially active.24
For some scientists, the cause largely was pedagogical. They introduced environmental issues to the classroom, and their courses inspired a generation of eco-activists. Other scientists put environmental issues on the public agenda by speaking at community meetings, testifying at hearings, writing essays for popular periodicals, and organizing groups to seek action. A few scientists became famous author/activists. Paul Ehrlich—author of The Population Bomb and founder of Zero Population Growth—even became a frequent guest on The Tonight Show.25
The environmental activism of scientists was both surprising and predictable. Unlike landscape architects or civil engineers or doctors, scientists had no commitment to the ideal of service. Just the opposite: They prided themselves on their detachment. As The New York Times argued in a profile of Ehrlich, “scientists as a group have long disdained direct political action and propagandizing, feeling it compromised their objectivity.” Yet almost every environmental problem had a scientific component. Once scientists decided to speak publicly, they often addressed what many called “the environmental crisis,” not just one or two issues.26
Commoner did more than anyone to rally scientists to the cause. He argued repeatedly that scientists had a duty to provide citizens with the scientific knowledge needed to make informed decisions about environmental issues. He helped to establish influential institutions dedicated to the public-information mission. His 1966 book Science and Survival became a classic—a call for “a new conservation movement” that would focus on preserving “life itself,” not just forests or soils or places of sublime beauty.27
Commoner intended to be an activist long before the environment became an issue. As a graduate student in the 1930s, he was active in the American Association of Scientific Workers, a leftist group keen to ensure that science served the public good. That organization focused on social justice, not the environment. But Commoner began to be concerned after World War II about the unintended environmental consequences of technological development. The fallout issue drove the danger home. The testing of atomic weapons in the deserts of the Southwest caused radioactive rain to fall over a vast region. Because radiation settled on dairy pastures, milk became contaminated. Yet the tests continued without a thorough understanding of the environmental consequences—and with little discussion of the wisdom of aboveground testing. To Commoner, that was appalling.28
At first, Commoner pressed the American Association for the Advancement of Science to act. In 1956 and again in 1960, he chaired AAAS committees that called for scientists to take part in public debate about the potentially destructive effects of science. Both committees argued that the vastly greater control over nature afforded by modern science brought unprecedented risks as well as wondrous opportunities. “In some situations our enhanced ability to control nature has gone awry and threatens serious trouble,” the 1956 committee concluded. To ensure that science served society, scientists no longer could remain mute. They had to concern themselves with “social action.” The 1960 committee recommended that the AAAS make public information a priority.29
The AAAS did not rise to the challenge, but Commoner pressed on. In 1958, he joined a group of St. Louis women to form a grassroots organization to draw attention to fallout. The Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee on Nuclear Information soon earned a national reputation for effective activism. In addition to organizing local events, the committee invited parents to send baby teeth to St. Louis to be tested for radioactivity, and the response was overwhelming. The committee also published a newsletter, Nuclear Information, that evolved into the first magazine devoted solely to environmental issues: Environment.30
With several veterans of the AAAS committees, Commoner formed a national organization, the Scientists’ Institute for Public Information, in 1963. “Scientists today,” he explained, “are the first to live with the knowledge that our work, our ideas, and our daily activities impinge with a frightening immediacy on national politics, on international conflicts, on the planet’s fate as a human habitation.” Affiliate organizations soon formed in several cities, and observers began to speak about a public-information “movement” among scientists.31
The new movement helped to make activists of many graduate students. At Rockefeller University in New York, chemist Glenn Paulson heard about the local committee from several professors, and he soon was devoting much of his time to public science. Though his dissertation was about pesticides, he became an expert on several other environmental issues, from air pollution to nuclear power. In the late 1960s, he talked to PTA groups, testified at City Hall, and spoke with journalists. He coauthored a well-publicized report on the carbon monoxide hazard of a proposed Manhattan expressway. He led a campaign to reduce lead poisoning among city children. He also worked with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union to publicize both occupational and environmental threats to health. In 1970, he helped to organize Earth Day events.32
Though a few scientists had no hesitation about speaking publicly, many only reluctantly became activists. Some were goaded to action by the fallout issue. Many more began to question the ideal of detachment after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962.
With a clarity no one had managed before, Carson warned that the human power to alter nature had become profoundly dangerous:
During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life. Strontium 90, released through nuclear explosions into the air, lodges in soil, enters into the grass or corn or wheat grown there, and in time takes up its abode in the bones of a human being, to remain until his death. Similarly, chemicals sprayed on croplands or forests or gardens lie long in the soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death. Or they pass mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells. As Albert Schweitzer once said, “Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation.”
Silent Spring became both a bestseller and a subject of intense controversy.33
For life scientists, the debate over Carson’s work was both technical and moral. Was she right? If she was, what responsibility did biologists have to help avoid the threats she made so vivid?
Silent Spring was especially troubling to members of the Ecological Society of America. Though the society was established in 1915, ecology still was a young discipline. The first celebrated textbook in the field only appeared in 1953, and the first academic departments of ecology were established in the mid-1950s. What kind of enterprise was ecology going to be? Carson’s book made a powerful case that citizens needed to understand ecology, but would ecologists assume roles as educators of the public? In 1963, the ESA created a public affairs committee. The society’s ecology study committee—charged with assessing the future of the discipline—also made “public welfare and policy” a major focus of its 1965 report.34
“The question of Society participation in public affairs has been a contentious issue for years,” the study committee wrote. “There are members of the Society who still doubt the wisdom or necessity of becoming involved in controversial issues, but there are clearly areas of public interest which ecologists can no longer avoid, either as individuals or as a Society.” The human impact on ecosystems had increased tremendously, and the public needed to understand that impact. “Ecologists have a definite obligation to make their views known when they can provide information which might avert environmental disaster,” the committee argued. “While members of the Society have testified as individuals, ecologists have never collectively brought their influence to bear on the range of environmental problems that are properly within their area of competence. It is the feeling of the Ecology Study Committee that they should and must … Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring created a tide of opinion which will never again allow professional ecologists to remain comfortably aloof from public responsibility.”35
The committee acknowledged that spelling out the details of that responsibility would not be easy. The tax code barred lobbying by tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, so the society could only offer counsel, not organize campaigns to pass legislation. On some important issues, the society could not speak with one voice. Though most academic ecologists were concerned that pesticides might reduce biological diversity, the committee noted, many applied ecologists did not share that concern. ESA members also might disagree about the limits of ecological expertise. The profit motive had become a driving force in many ecosystems, the committee argued, but the ESA might not be able or willing to offer an ecological assessment of capitalism. Still, the committee concluded, the society needed “to furnish the best possible data and to contribute the most responsible, scientific judgment that is possible” on relevant issues of public import.36
The debate about the social obligation of ecologists went beyond the in-house publications of the ESA. In 1964, for example, the journal BioScience devoted a special issue to the future of ecology, and the issue editors made clear that they were prompted by concern about the environmental impact of modern technologies. For the first time, they argued, we faced the possibility that we could contaminate the environment “beyond its capacity to support life.” They cited the hazards of fallout and DDT, and they illustrated the issue with a series of photographs that collectively formed an essay on environmental degradation. Almost all of the contributors called for ecologists to become more involved in public life. But they offered different assessments of what specifically ecologists needed to do. Eugene Odum made a boosterish argument that ecology should be a basic tool of ecosystem “management.” Paul Sears, in contrast, argued that ecology was “a subversive science,” a phrase that became a rallying cry for many ecologists later in the decade. “By its very nature, ecology offers a continuing critique of man’s operations within the ecosystem,” Sears wrote. As he understood the field, ecology cast doubt on “the current glib emphasis on economic ‘growth’ as the solution of all ills.” The editors did not try to resolve the disagreements. But they argued that ecologists had “a responsibility, a challenge, an obligation to revised and/or extended thinking.” By 1970, many ecologists had accepted that argument.37
Paul Ehrlich ultimately became the most famous activist to draw inspiration from Silent Spring. He began to worry about pesticides long before Carson’s work appeared: As a teenager, he feared that pesticides were killing butterflies, his great passion. When he was a graduate student in the late 1950s, he joined the Chicago Society for Exterminating Exterminators, a group formed to protest the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s campaign to eradicate the fire ant. But he did not speak publicly about the environment until 1965. By then he had become a tenured professor at Stanford. He also had come to see the pesticide issue as part of a broader challenge. Humans had become vastly more adept at manipulating the environment, and that ability had led to vastly greater human numbers. Yet meeting the needs and wants of an exploding population—more food, more power, more water, more living space—threatened environmental catastrophe.38
The ever-increasing scale of human endeavor imposed new burdens on scientists, Ehrlich concluded. Scientific research no longer was academic. Scientists needed to “consider the consequences of their activities.” How would their results be used? But the responsibility of scientists went beyond their own work. “We must come out of our ivory towers and take an active part in the political life of our society,” Ehrlich argued. “Following Rachel Carson’s lead we must fight abuses wherever they occur.”39
Once freed from the shackles of scientific dispassion, Ehrlich quickly developed a prophetic voice. His talks in San Francisco attracted raves. After hearing Ehrlich speak, Sierra Club executive director David Brower invited him to write a short book about the population issue. Ehrlich took just three feverish weeks to produce The Population Bomb, which appeared as a paperback original in May 1968. By Earth Day, Ehrlich’s tract had sold almost a million copies.40
The tone of the book was unlike anything Ehrlich had written before. If we failed to meet the challenge of exploding population, he wrote, “mankind will breed itself into oblivion.” Hundreds of millions of people would starve. The quality of life of the survivors would be reduced drastically, because population growth was eroding the world’s most fertile soils, poisoning the water and the air, destroying the habitats of countless species, and even changing the climate. Because the trends all pointed toward self-destruction, every nation needed to control population—by voluntary means if possible, but otherwise by compulsion. People also needed to act immediately “to reverse the deterioration of the environment before population pressure permanently ruins our planet.” No task was more urgent. “Somehow we’ve got to change from a growth-oriented, exploitative system to one focused on stability and conservation,” Ehrlich concluded. “Our entire system of orienting to nature must undergo a revolution.”41
Critics called Ehrlich an alarmist, and Ehrlich did not shrink from the charge. “I am an alarmist,” he told Playboy, “because I’m very goddamned alarmed. I believe we’re facing the brink because of population pressures.” Though some scientists were appalled by Ehrlich’s “unscientific” rhetoric, many others were inspired. By the summer of 1969, a year after The Population Bomb was published, journalists were reporting on “the new Jeremiahs,” the growing number of scientists who were warning of environmental catastrophe.42
Like grassroots activists, most scientists had to educate themselves about environmental issues. The AAAS contributed to that process of self-education. Though the association did not directly support activism, the AAAS encouraged members to learn more about the most pressing problems.
The association’s 1966 meeting explored “How Man Has Changed His Planet.” Because the annual meetings rarely had themes, the decision to focus on the environment underscored the importance of the subject. (The last AAAS conference with a theme was 1948, when the meeting celebrated the association’s centennial.) “The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” was the subject of one keynote address. In a second keynote, insurance executive Thomas Malone called for scientists to take the lead in warning the nation’s leaders about the possible consequences of global climate change. “The point is that there is still time for reflective thought, for setting objectives, for weighing alternative courses of action—in short, to act responsibly,” he concluded. One plenary interdisciplinary symposium focused on pollution, and a series of three sessions explored population growth. Hundreds of specialized sessions addressed environmental issues as well. Many conference participants argued that scientists had to become activists.43
In the late 1960s, the AAAS journal Science effectively became a continuing education course in environmental studies. A cross between a news magazine and a scholarly publication, Science had everything from editorials to research reports. Because the environment was relevant to so many scientific disciplines, almost every issue addressed the subject in some form.
For some scientists, Science even became the road to Damascus. Geneticist Wes Jackson exemplifies the journal’s influence. In 1967, keen to make his introductory biology class more relevant, he began to clip the journal’s environmental material. The more he clipped, the more concerned he became about the future. He soon remade the bio course into an “ain’t it awful?” survey of environmental problems. He pressed his college administration to make “survival studies” a focus of the curriculum. In 1970, he turned his course materials into a pioneering environmental reader: In the first edition of his Man and the Environment, roughly half of the readings came from Science. He also helped to organize the college’s Earth Day events, and he began to speak prophetically about the environmental crisis. He was one of many.44
The environmental activism of middle-class women did not begin in 1960. In the Progressive Era, women actively supported the conservation movement. They also lobbied for smokeless skies, clean water, pure food, and urban parks, and they often justified their efforts as “municipal housekeeping.” Women continued to press for environmental protection in the decades after World War I. For several reasons, however, the number of women active in the environmental cause increased dramatically in the late 1950s and 1960s. In some cases, the activists worked through old conservation or women’s organizations. More often, women formed ad hoc groups to stop pollution, save open spaces, or protect wildlife. The activism of women was crucial in making the environment an issue in communities across the nation.45
The League of Women Voters played a vital role in the battle against water pollution. One of the first popular books about the issue—Donald Carr’s Death of the Sweet Waters—was dedicated to the league’s members. The national leadership of the league made water a focus for education and activism in 1956, and many local chapters soon launched clean-water campaigns. To win support for a sewage-treatment plant in Idaho Falls, Idaho, league members put flyers about polluted drinking water in every restaurant menu in town, convinced milkmen to distribute leaflets to every milk box, painted slogans on sidewalks, and erected road signs to direct people to the Snake River sewage outlet: “It’s a shocker!” By 1960, the league had become a major player in the debate about the federal responsibility for water quality, and league members continued to lobby for government action throughout the 1960s. Their effectiveness was especially evident at the end of the decade, when the league organized a coalition of almost forty labor, municipal, and conservation groups to wage the Citizens Crusade for Clean Water.46
Activist women often became identified with the rivers and lakes they sought to save. In the mid-1960s, Marion Stoddart of Massachusetts earned the epithet “Mother Nashua” after forming a group to save one of the nation’s most polluted rivers: The Nashua River Clean-up Committee played a key role in the passage of the Massachusetts Clean Water Act in 1966. The campaign of Verna Mize to stop a mining company from polluting Lake Superior became a national symbol of effective citizen action. In one account of her campaign, the author even imagined the lake offering Mize words of thanks.47
In many cities, women worked aggressively to stop air pollution. New Yorker Hazel Henderson organized a group called Citizens for Clean Air by passing out leaflets to mothers during her daily walks in the park with her infant daughter. The group soon had more than 20,000 members; roughly 75 percent were women. Despite the obstacles to success, Henderson wrote in a 1966 article in Parents’ Magazine, the work was satisfying for a young mother. “You are exercising the responsibilities of citizenship, and you are setting an example to your children, at the same time that you are working for their health and welfare,” she explained. “Best of all, you are learning firsthand about one of the most exciting frontiers of our growing knowledge and technology—how to manage our natural heritage so that it can support the needs of our increasing population, and at the same time remain orderly and beautiful, a fitting and joyous setting for future generations.”48
Women also organized in the 1960s to address new forms of pollution. On November 1, 1961, approximately 50,000 “concerned housewives” went on strike to protest the hazards of the arms race. Instead of cooking and cleaning, the women lobbied elected officials, picketed nuclear installations, and marched in the streets. In all, the founders of Women Strike for Peace organized events in sixty cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, St. Louis, Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Many of the marchers pushed baby carriages or held photographs of children. Though a number of the women called for a ban on nuclear weapons and a halt to the arms race, the immediate goal was to stop atmospheric weapons testing, since radioactive fallout from nuclear tests posed a threat to life. “This movement was inspired and motivated by mothers’ love for children,” one Women Strike for Peace member explained. “When they were putting their breakfast on the table, they saw not only the Wheaties and milk, but they also saw strontium 90 and iodine 131.” In the months after the strike, the membership of Women Strike for Peace grew rapidly, as women rallied to the cause: “Pure Milk,” they demanded, “Not Poison.”49
Like nuclear fallout, the wanton use of pesticides inspired women to act. Women’s organizations helped to make Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring both a bestseller and a political force. Though Carson took pains not to appeal solely to women—she used a variety of arguments and rhetorical strategies—she recognized that women were likely to be quicker to share her concerns. “I believe it is important for women to realize that the world of today threatens to destroy much of that beauty that has immense power to bring us a healing release from tension,” she argued in a speech to Theta Sigma Phi, a national sorority of women journalists. “Women have a greater intuitive understanding of such things. They want for their children not only physical health but mental and spiritual health as well. I bring these things to your attention because I think your awareness of them will help, whether you are practicing journalists, or teachers, or librarians, or housewives and mothers.” Carson cultivated a network of women supporters—and women eagerly championed her work. They used Silent Spring as a basis for educational pamphlets, wrote letters to the editor, and lobbied politicians. The most active were the American Association of University Women, the National Council of Women, the Garden Club of America, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Carson also had support from members of the League of Women Voters and from women in wildlife conservation and animal-rights groups.50
In many communities, women also led campaigns to preserve open space. Often, the activists sought to save undeveloped woods or fields where children played. But some of the open-space campaigns were more ambitious. In California, a trio of Berkeley faculty wives—including Catherine Kerr, the wife of the university’s president—organized the Save San Francisco Bay Association in the early 1960s: The group soon helped to secure passage of one of the first state laws regulating land use. Because the open-space campaigns often succeeded, journalists in the mid-1960s began to point to the activism of women as a model for a new kind of conservation. A short guide to open-space preservation published in 1964 began with the story of one woman’s successful campaign to preserve a marsh from development. “The war Ruth Rusch has been waging in her little corner of suburbia contains immense significance for all of us,” the author wrote. “For it shows not only that we can win the fight to save our landscape from the despoilers but also specifically how to go about it.”51
The list could go on and on. Lady Bird Johnson worked as First Lady to protect and restore “natural beauty,” and her efforts led to the Highway Beautification Act in 1965. After the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, women were the driving force behind Get Oil Out, a grassroots group that sought to end offshore drilling. A Seattle housewife collected over 250,000 signatures on a petition to halt the development of the supersonic transport. From New York to California, activist women campaigned to stop construction of power plants in scenic areas. No matter what the issue, environmentalism at the grass roots depended on a volunteer corps of women.52
The women active in the environmental movement were overwhelmingly white. More often than not, they were in their thirties and forties, they lived in metropolitan areas or college towns, and they were well educated. Most were married to white-collar or professional men, and most had children. At a time when the percentage of married women working outside the home was rising sharply, the women activists usually described themselves as housewives.
Though women often were attracted to the environmental cause for the same reasons as men, the predominance of women at the grass roots was very much a function of gender expectations. As their children grew more independent, many housewives sought new ways to use their talents, and the environmental cause seemed to some to be more challenging and important than traditional volunteer work. For many other women, the decision to become active came in response to an environmental threat that hit home. That was especially true in the fast-growing suburbs.
The residents of postwar suburbs lived in the most rapidly changing environment in the nation. Every year, a territory roughly the size of Rhode Island was bulldozed for metropolitan development. Forests, marshes, creeks, hills, cornfields, and orchards all were destroyed to build subdivisions. Though some of the environmental consequences of suburban development were invisible to untrained observers, others were obvious. Again and again, the destruction of nearby open spaces robbed children of beloved places to play. The suburbs also were a kind of sanitation frontier. Beyond the range of municipal sewer systems, the residents of postwar subdivisions often depended on septic tanks for waste disposal, and widespread septic-tank failures in the 1950s and 1960s caused a host of health and environmental problems.53
Because the suburbs were domestic places—and women traditionally were caretakers of the domestic—threats to environmental quality in suburbia were threats to “the woman’s sphere.” The stakes were the sanctity of the home and the well-being of the family. For many middle-class women, the environmental cause seemed a natural extension of their concerns as housewives and mothers.54
In the early 1960s, the major women’s magazines all published pieces about water pollution, and the articles highlighted the threat to domestic life. Redbook offered a primer on what readers needed to know “to protect your family,” while American Home grabbed attention by describing water-related health problems in children. Good Housekeeping extolled the antipollution efforts of the League of Women Voters in traditional terms. “Here is where intelligent and aroused women can do the most important job,” the magazine concluded. “The clean-up of our rivers to safeguard our precious water supply—this is the biggest housekeeping chore facing the nation today.”55
Even in 1970—after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, after the formation of the National Organization for Women, after the first women’s liberation protests—women in environmental groups often appealed directly to housewives and mothers. Betty Ann Ottinger used traditional arguments to make the case for environmentalism in What Every Woman Should Know—and Do—About Pollution: A Guide to Good Global Housekeeping. The environmental cause “is one that the American woman can really sink her teeth into,” she argued. As housewives, women determined “how more than two-thirds of our consumer dollars are spent. This in itself is a major weapon which is made even more potent by the influence we exert over the decision as to how most of the remaining dollars are allocated.” As mothers, women shaped “the attitudes and lifestyles of the coming generation which will play the key role in choosing whether we follow the road to environmental sanity or strangle in the products of our own affluence.” Eventually, Ottinger hoped, women would work to protect the environment as politicians and business leaders. (Ottinger was the wife of U.S. Representative Richard Ottinger, a liberal Democrat from New York.) But Ottinger concluded that the immediate opportunity for women to make a difference was at home. In the domestic sphere—unlike the world of politics and business—women did not have to wait for men to lead the way.56
Though often attracted to the environmental cause as an extension of their traditional roles as housewives and mothers, many women found the work liberating. Sylvia Troy is a good example. Until her late thirties, Troy was content to be the wife of a doctor. She had little interest in politics. But in 1960 she went to a dinner meeting of the Indiana Save the Dunes Council, and she was impressed by the spirit of the group: “They were all nature lovers—non-political, non-activist, not organizers, not joiners, not cause-oriented.” She became active in the organization, and she soon realized that she had the skills to be a leader. She could network, lobby, recruit, motivate, and negotiate. When the group’s first president stepped down, Troy was chosen to succeed her. She then served as president for more than a decade. “The Save the Dunes Council experience changed me dramatically,” she recalled. “It became a vehicle for my personal growth. I learned a lot about my own capabilities, my own strengths, and my own assertiveness in behalf of a cause.”57
Even for women who did not become leaders of organizations, environmental activism often was consciousness raising. In the group Women Strike for Peace, Amy Swerdlow concludes, “thousands of women who had identified themselves only as housewives found to their surprise that they could do serious research, write convincing flyers and pamphlets, speak eloquently in public, plan effective political strategies, organize successful long-range campaigns, and challenge male political leaders … to whom they had previously deferred.” The result was a new sense of self-worth, a new willingness to take risks, even a new understanding of the ways women were limited by traditional gender roles.58
Again and again, women in environmental organizations struggled against the condescension of men in positions of power. When a group of California housewives met with officials in 1966 to argue against the construction of a highway, a project engineer dismissed a member of their group with a blunt putdown: “Get back in your kitchen, lady, and let me build my road!” The comment only intensified the desire of one of the women to fight on. Because many men considered women irrational, women often found that speaking at a public forum was a trying test. Yet many responded to the challenge with a new resolve. As air-pollution activist Michelle Madoff explained, “I didn’t want to go and testify and be branded as another idiot housewife—hysterical Squirrel Hill housewife in tennis shoes, as we’re referred to—you know, uninformed, emotional.”59
The environmental movement also helped women to find vocations beyond the home. For some women, environmental activism led to elected office. Michelle Madoff drew on her experience as a founder of Pittsburgh’s Group Against Smog and Pollution to win election to the city council. The environmental study groups of the League of Women Voters were particularly good jumping-off places for careers in politics. Other activists moved from volunteer work to paid employment. Many became staff members of environmental groups or consultants to government agencies. After a decade of volunteer work with the Sierra Club in California, Claire Dedrick was appointed the state’s secretary of resources in 1975. Hazel Henderson’s struggle to address the air-pollution issue in New York laid the foundation for a pioneering career in the field of environmental economics.60
In different ways, then, the environmental movement benefited from the gender constraints of the postwar decades. For some college-educated housewives, environmental activism resolved a tension between traditional expectations and unfulfilled ambitions. Because they acted to protect the home and the family, they could enter the public sphere—they could be more than “just” housewives—without rejecting the claims of domesticity. For other women, environmental activism was the first step toward a new sense of mission. As they became more involved, they became more confident of their abilities and more determined to change the world.
At the end of the 1960s, journalists began to report that concern about the environmental crisis was exploding on college campuses. “American youth has found a new supercause,” the Associated Press reported in November 1969. “So far, the young ecologists are not a full-fledged movement. They are unorganized, largely unknown.” That soon would change.61
The environmentalism of the young owed much to the postwar economic boom. For the first time in American history, millions of children grew up in settings designed to bring people into harmony with nature. In the new suburbs, kids often could play in forests and fields just beyond the edge of development. The newly affluent families of the 1950s often vacationed outdoors: Hunting, fishing, and camping became more popular after 1945. Then an unprecedented number of the baby boomers went to college, to spend four years walking across tree-lined quadrangles.62
The environmentalism of the young also owed much to the Bomb. Many baby-boom children had nightmares about atomic war. Would humanity survive? The mounting evidence of environmental degradation in the 1960s provoked similar anxieties about “survival,” a word that appeared again and again in environmentalist discourse. In 1969, when Joyce Maynard read Paul Ehrlich’s shocking bestseller, The Population Bomb, she immediately felt the kind of fear she had felt during the Cuban missile crisis: “Not personal, individual fear but end-of-the-world fear, that by the time we were our parents’ age we would be sardine-packed and tethered to our gas masks in a skyless cloud of smog.” Maynard’s response was common. In a 1969 discussion of the generation gap, Margaret Mead argued that growing up in the shadow of the Bomb made the young more likely to understand the environmental crisis. “They have never known a time when war did not threaten annihilation,” Mead wrote. “When they are given the facts, they can understand immediately that continued pollution of the air and water and soil will soon make the planet uninhabitable and that it will be impossible to feed an indefinitely expanding world population.”63
Though the environmental movement drew young people from all parts of the ideological spectrum, the new cause appealed especially to critics of the nation’s cultural and political institutions. For many rebels against the soul-deadening artificiality of consumer culture, nature became a source of authentic values. For many members of the New Left, the degradation of the environment became a powerful symbol of the exploitive character of capitalism. The horrors of Vietnam also led many people to question “the war against nature.” By 1970, the effort to protect the environment seemed to many activists to be part of a larger movement to affirm Life.64
The countercultural roots of environmentalism went deepest. In the late 1950s, the Beat writers began to tout the open spaces of nature as a kind of antidote to the poisonous conformity of suburbia. In Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, the narrator joins the fictionalized Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg on a quest for truth in the mountains of California. At one point, the Snyder character, Japhy Ryder, dreams out loud about a new generation refusing to stay “imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume.” “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution,” he tells his friends, “thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures.”65
Within a few years, Ryder’s dream was becoming reality as thousands of young suburbanites turned their backs on middle-class life. Many fled to countercultural enclaves in cities. By 1967, dozens of hippie communes also had sprung up in rural areas, and the number increased dramatically in the last years of the decade. “Right now, I’m trying to keep from being swallowed by a monster—plastic, greedy American society,” a nineteen-year-old wrote to the members of one rural commune. “I need to begin relating to new people who are into taking care of each other and the earth.”66
The hippies hoped to feel the flow of the seasons, to grow things, to enjoy the beauty of sunrise, to walk naked. Drugs helped. Indeed, the desire to return to nature was a driving force in the drug culture of the 1960s. In the words of historians Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, “LSD made it possible to have a decent conversation with a tree.” The experience of writer Geoffrey O’Brien was typical. On drugs, he went to “the wilderness.” He felt in tune with the rhythms of the “stars, migratory patterns, planting cycles, the chirping of insects.” Nature talked and he listened, in ecstatic communion. “The planet is a sentient companion! Everything that lives is taking in everything and communicating its response back to everything, without stopping, constantly!”67
Especially in the countryside, however, many of the hippies were not just seeking to commune with nature. They also were motivated by apocalyptic visions of the collapse of industrial civilization. Smog alerts, water shortages, pesticide scares, power outages, traffic tie-ups—all suggested that the urban environment soon would be deadly to both body and soul. As one commune member explained, “Our ecological sophistication told us that the cities and everybody in them were doomed. ‘Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air’ is pretty sound advice these days in the places where most Americans live.”68
Though most of the late 1960s countercultural communities did not last long, the hippies inspired many young people to think more deeply about the earth. Hippie communes typically were open. Anyone could stop by to get a taste of the simple life, and thousands did: According to one scholarly estimate, half a million Americans spent some time at rural communes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Because the mainstream media gave tremendous attention to the counterculture, the hippie argument that the nation needed to find a less environmentally destructive way of life reached a wide audience. The hippies themselves often sought to spread their gospel. Some started countercultural restaurants, with menus that proclaimed the virtue of natural food. Others performed street theater. In New York, a troupe sprayed black mist and passed out blackened flowers at a “soot-in” in front of the Consolidated Edison building. A group of hippies in Eugene, Oregon, formed CRAP—Cyclists Revolting Against Pollution—“to show people there are ways to move other than foul automobiles spewing death.” Throughout the nation, the underground press regularly enjoined readers to “revere nature.” In a variety of ways, then, the counterculture helped to put the environment on the protest agenda.69
For the New Left, the path to environmentalism was more difficult. The first student radicals had little interest in the environment. Unlike the hippies, the founders of Students for a Democratic Society were theoreticians: They were inspired by sociology, not poetry. The Port Huron Statement did not discuss nature at all. The only reference to the environment in the 1962 SDS manifesto was a warning about the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources at a time of rapidly expanding world population. Even in 1970, as millions of young Americans readied for the first Earth Day, many New Leftists dismissed environmentalism as a diversion from the pressing issue of social justice. But the skepticism was not universal. In the course of the 1960s, a minority within the New Left began to articulate a radical interpretation of the environmental crisis.70
The young radicals at first followed the lead of Ralph Nader. In a chapter of his 1965 exposé of the automobile industry, Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader challenged “the power to pollute,” and a few New Left theorists soon joined Nader in attacking corporate polluters. As long as business interests ruled, SDS member Richard Flacks argued in 1966, the quality of the nation’s land, air, and water would continue to deteriorate. By the end of the decade, that argument had become more common, and more radical. The authors of works about “the politics of ecology” and “the ecology of capitalism” called for assaults on concentrated corporate power. In 1969, a Berkeley activist started “Earth Read-Out,” a radical report on environmental issues that soon appeared regularly in more than fifty underground papers. To save the earth, a typical “Earth Read-Out” report insisted, people needed to challenge a “corrupt economic system” and an “unresponsive, undemocratic government.” The editors of the New Left magazine Ramparts also argued aggressively for radical change. “Like the race crisis and the Vietnam War,” one wrote in 1970, “the ecological impasse is not merely the result of bad or mistaken policies that can be changed by a new Administration or a new will to do better. It is, rather, the expression of a basic malfunction of the social order itself, and consequently cannot be dealt with on a piecemeal, patchwork basis.”71
The Santa Barbara oil spill prompted many radicals to think harder about the environment. In January 1969, a disastrous leak at a Union Oil well became national news, and photographs and television images of oil-covered beaches outraged people across the country. The angry response of Santa Barbarans suggested that the issue of environmental degradation had the potential to radicalize people. A group of college students attacked the office of a bank with strong ties to Union Oil—and a number of gas stations owned by the polluters of Santa Barbara Bay. The response of the city’s adults was even more heartening. In a normally Republican community, thousands of people took part in rallies, pickets, and demonstrations against the unchecked power of Big Oil. As one local radical wrote, “It became clear that more than petroleum had leaked out from Union Oil’s drilling platform. Some basic truths about power in America had spilled out along with it.”72
The battle over People’s Park in 1969 also was a critical turning point. In April, a group of Berkeley students and residents began to plant flowers and trees on a vacant lot owned by the University of California. The site quickly became a rallying place for people trying to imagine alternatives to traditional concepts of property ownership. For many, the park also offered the hope of creating a new kind of relationship with the nonhuman world. “The most revolutionary consciousness,” Gary Snyder argued there, “is to be found among the most oppressed classes—animals, trees, grass, air, water, earth.” To the university, however, the construction of the park was a form of trespass. When the university used the National Guard to clear the site in May, a young man was killed. For the first time, the state had attacked people attempting to improve the quality of the environment, and the use of force made the environmental fight seem more like the struggles for peace and justice: All challenged the brute power of a repressive establishment. “The park has brought the concept of the Whole Earth, the Mother Earth, into the vocabulary of revolutionary politics,” a contributor to the leftist magazine Liberation wrote. “The park has raised sharply the question of property and use; it has demonstrated the absurdity of a system that puts land title above human life; and it has given the dispossessed children of the tract homes and the cities a feeling of involvement with the planet, an involvement proved through our sweat and our blood.”73
The Vietnam War contributed in a very different way to the rise of environmental protest. By the late 1960s, the news media had begun to report that U.S. forces in Vietnam were fighting a war against nature as much as a war against people. American troops had sprayed one-eighth of the country with chemical defoliants. Though the herbicide spraying mostly targeted forests, rice fields were targets too. The air war was just as devastating to the landscape. To many observers, the heavily cratered wastelands created by “saturation” bombing looked like the moon. Automated artillery fire also turned forests into biological deserts. Throughout the field of operations, the military used gigantic bulldozers to clear the terrain of potential cover for enemy troops. Even napalm was used to destroy vegetation. In the view of many scientists and activists, the United States was committing “ecocide.”74
For many intellectuals, therefore, the movement to end the war and the movement to protect the environment became aspects of one all-encompassing struggle. Many critics pointed to the complicity of the corporate world in environmental devastation abroad and at home. The same companies that profited from the defoliation campaign in Vietnam also profited from the wanton use of toxic chemicals in the United States. To some critics, the war and the environmental crisis both followed from the deadly logic of technocracy. In Vietnam, we destroyed towns in order to “save” them; here, we degraded the environment in order to make “progress.” According to other critics, the heart of the problem lay instead in the Western drive to conquer the world, to remake societies and landscapes at will. The war in Vietnam was akin to the war Americans had waged against Indians and wilderness. “The white race is the cancer of human history,” the radical critic Susan Sontag wrote in 1966; “it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”75
For many activists, too, the war and the environmental crisis were related causes. In 1969, the magazine of the War Resisters League devoted a special issue to the environment. At the November 15 antiwar rally in Washington, one participant reported, many of the protesters spent free moments rapping about the environment. The strongest student eco-action groups formed at schools in the forefront of antiwar activism. The first environmental teach-in was held at the University of Michigan. At UCLA, a group of antiwar activists turned “eco-freaks” staged a sit-in to protest campus interviews for manufacturers of automobiles and chemical pesticides because their products polluted the air and endangered the health of both people and wildlife. At the University of Wisconsin, the Ecology Students Association focused on water pollution and waste disposal in Madison—and defoliant use in Vietnam.76
The founders of the Youth International Party—the Yippies—also joined antiwar activism and environmentalism. At a news conference early in 1968 to announce plans for a Yippie “Festival of Life” to counter the Democratic “Convention of Death” in Chicago, Allen Ginsberg touted the event as a way to protest the threats of “violence, overpopulation, pollution, [and] ecological destruction.” Both Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin spoke about starting ecology schools. Ed Sanders soon suggested that the Festival of Life might include a “Yippie Ecological Conference,” where people would “spew out an angry report denouncing scheiss-poison in the lakes and streams, industrial honkey-fumes from white killer industrialists, and exhaust murder from a sick hamburger society of automobile freaks.” The eighteen-point manifesto that the Yippies distributed in Chicago demanded both the end of the war and the elimination of pollution.77
Though the Yippie flame quickly burned out, the effort to counter Death with Life became common. The war machine was just one horrid component of a life-denying “system”—as critics often called the nation’s ruling institutions. What kind of society exalted the deadening cycle of getting and spending? What kind of culture made schools into soul-killing “knowledge factories”? What kind of government relied for national defense on the threat of annihilation? What kind of economy depended on relentless destruction of the environment? For a growing number of people, the questions suggested the overriding importance of protecting all the spontaneous, organic, and creative energies of the world.78
To a greater extent than historians of the sixties have recognized, the struggle to affirm Life bridged the divide between the counterculture and the New Left. By 1970, several countercultural writers had begun to contemplate radical action to save the planet. In a series of “revolutionary letters,” the poet Diane di Prima even imagined blowing up petroleum lines and destroying Dow Chemical plants. At the same time, a number of radicals began to sound more like hippies. To counter the argument that student protesters were “nihilists,” the Columbia activist James Kunen opened The Strawberry Statement with a short affirmation of the blessings of life: “I, for one, strongly support trees (and, in a larger sense, forests), flowers, mountains and hills, also valleys, the ocean, wiliness (when used for good), good, little children, people, tremendous record-setting snowstorms, hurricanes, swimming underwater, nice policemen, unicorns, extra-inning ball games up to twelve innings, pneumatic jackhammers (when they’re not too close), the dunes in North Truro on Cape Cod, liberalized abortion laws, and Raggedy Ann dolls, among other things.” The SDS leader Paul Potter found in the ecological concept of interconnectedness a powerful metaphor for community. Instead of seeing ourselves as independent individuals, Potter argued, we needed to acknowledge our dependence on other people and other creatures, so that “all life lives within us”—and so that “we live in all life, seeing with its eyes and feeling with all of its senses.”79
The increasing overlap between countercultural and radical thinking was part of a larger trend that pollster Daniel Yankelovich termed “the new naturalism.” In a series of studies of college students in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Yankelovich discovered a widespread conviction that everything artificial was bad, while everything “natural” was good. As Yankelovich noted, that ideal was open to many interpretations. For some people, the concept meant rejecting hypocrisy; for others, emphasizing cooperation. But the core ideas clearly included a new wariness about the attempt to master nature—and a new willingness to restrain economic growth and technological development in order to preserve the natural environment.80
The most dramatic expression of that new generational sensibility came on Earth Day.
The conservation movement in 1950 was weak and fragmented. In 1954, a sympathetic political scientist suggested that “movement” was a misnomer, because most conservation organizations focused on a single concern. The biggest groups consisted of people who hunted and fished. Then came “groups interested in bird preservation, wildflowers, soil conservation, national parks, and wilderness preservation.” No conservation organization fought against air pollution. The only conservation group with a strong record of opposition to water pollution—the Izaak Walton League—was faltering. The league had 175,000 members five years after its establishment in 1922, but membership in 1950 was just 40,000. That still beat the combined total for the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. Though both organizations were roughly fifty years old in 1950, neither had a national reach. Audubon’s 17,000 members almost all lived in the East. The Sierra Club truly was a club—two members had to endorse applicants for membership—with 7,000 members, mostly in California.81
In the 1950s and 1960s, however, the conservation movement became much bigger and broader. The Audubon Society and the Sierra Club both had more than 100,000 members in 1970. Membership in several smaller organizations increased tenfold between 1950 and 1970. The most successful groups took on many new issues. By 1970, almost all the old conservation groups were pursuing a more “environmental” agenda.82
The transformation of the conservation movement was not inevitable. The Izaak Walton League changed little from 1950 to 1970. In most organizations, some members resisted any redefinition of purpose. Because the organizations had different traditions and missions, they took different paths. In some groups, a visionary leader charted a new course. In other groups, the process of change was more organic: The group recognized new threats to cherished places or creatures and then decided that responding to those threats required a new approach. The histories of the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club illustrate the different routes to rebirth.
The National Wildlife Federation was the first conservation organization to remake itself. Founded in 1936, the federation essentially was the Washington representative of thousands of local hunting and fishing groups. The founding charter limited the organization to efforts to promote appreciation and protection of “wildlife resources.” In 1960, when newly hired executive director Tom Kimball began to transform the organization, the local hunting and fishing groups claimed roughly two million members. Because the local groups were a political force in many states, the federation commanded respect. President John F. Kennedy spoke at the dedication of the federation’s national headquarters in March 1961. Yet the federation was institutionally limited. Individuals could not join: The only members were state wildlife federations, which represented the local groups. The state federations provided little financial support, so the national organization relied on donations and merchandise sales. The federation also lacked a way to mobilize members of the local groups.83
Kimball hoped to lead “a great army” of conservationists. He was convinced that the federation could attract people concerned about the destruction of natural beauty and the threat of environmental degradation. “America was suddenly awakening to the fact that something was rotten in the environment,” he argued. “Recreation areas were smelling and so were the rivers. You couldn’t fish in them or swim in them. Air pollution was so bad it was just like fog, particularly in our larger cities.” In 1961, at Kimball’s urging, the federation opened the door to members who did not hunt or fish. The federation created a membership category for individuals and revised its mandate: Henceforth, the federation would work to protect natural resources of all kinds, including places of aesthetic value.84
To attract members, Kimball inaugurated a publishing program. A bimonthly magazine, National Wildlife, debuted at the end of 1962. The federation started to publish newsletters about conservation issues and legislation in 1963. The first issue of Ranger Rick’s Nature Magazine appeared in 1967, with two goals: “to give boys and girls a year-round program of activities, adventure and knowledge which will help them appreciate and enjoy nature” and to encourage children to “know and respect all things that grow and creatures that move, that all may desire to conserve and wisely use the vital natural resources of the world.”85
Kimball’s strategy worked. By 1965, the federation had 250,000 individual members, and membership reached 540,000 in 1970. As Kimball hoped, many of the members did not belong to a local hunting or fishing group.86
From the first, National Wildlife was more than a “nature” magazine. The second issue included a five-page analysis of the controversy over pesticides. The last issue of volume one reported on water pollution: “America’s Shame.” In the mid-1960s, National Wildlife was the only conservation magazine to devote considerable space to pollution of all kinds.87
Though the federation eventually gained a reputation as the most conservative environmental group, National Wildlife strongly supported the Great Society conservation agenda. Editor John Strohm argued early in 1964 that the presidency of John Kennedy “marked the launching of conservation’s ‘third wave’”—a worthy successor to the efforts of the two Roosevelts. Strohm predicted that Lyndon B. Johnson similarly would be a great conservationist. Because anything that seemed like lobbying could jeopardize the federation’s nonprofit status, National Wildlife rarely endorsed specific legislation. But the magazine repeatedly touted campaigns to clean up the nation’s air and water, save open space, and preserve natural beauty. Almost every report on environmental problems closed with a call for citizen action. “ISN’T IT ABOUT TIME YOU DID SOMETHING?” a 1964 report on water pollution concluded.88
National Wildlife also encouraged readers to adopt an environmental ethic. The December–January issue usually included a reflection on our obligations to the rest of creation. The philosophical essays occasionally seconded Aldo Leopold’s call for an “ecological conscience.” More often, they argued in religious terms. One essay—“God and Man and Natural Resources”—began with quotations from the biblical books of Genesis, Joel, and Luke. Another simply asked: “Is Man a Faithful Steward?”89
To give substance to the ideal of stewardship, National Wildlife updated the Progressive concept of “wise use.” For the conservationists of Gifford Pinchot’s day, that phrase meant scientific forestry and river engineering. But National Wildlife argued that wise use required keeping some open spaces in sprawling metropolitan areas, saving some streams “in their wild, free state,” and setting aside some wilderness areas. “People must live and work and drive,” the magazine argued in 1965, “but they need something to live for, and work toward, and drive to.” In the mid-1960s, National Wildlife also defined water pollution as a problem of wise use: Because Americans had misused so many rivers and lakes, the nation soon might face shortages of water for many essential purposes.90
By 1970, National Wildlife had begun to use a recognizably environmentalist rhetoric. In a twelve-page report in 1969, the magazine introduced a yearly Environmental Quality Index, a pioneering effort to assess the nation’s air, water, soil, forests, wildlife, and mineral resources. The federation judged the overall environmental quality to be “poor,” with air and water particularly bad. The wildlife section epitomized the federation’s shift from the rhetoric of conservation. “Like the miner’s canary, wildlife is a sensitive indicator of a healthy human environment,” the section began. “We are concerned for wildlife, not as sentimentalists or hunters or fishermen, but as humans who know that the presence of healthy wildlife means we are sharing a healthy environment. Unfortunately, some 40 species of birds and mammals have been lost in the U.S. in the last 150 years. Presently 89 more are on the ‘Endangered Species List.’ An ominous omen indeed for the future of man!” The federation soon distributed more than 100,000 reprints of the inaugural index, which drew praise from both Gaylord Nelson and Richard Nixon.91
The National Audubon Society’s transformation was slow, stressful, yet ultimately profound. The society was founded in 1905 to stop hunters from shooting plumage birds. When antihunting laws proved inadequate, the society developed a system of wildlife sanctuaries and a program in nature education. Neither endeavor required a crusading spirit. In the decades after World War II, however, Audubon officials and members began to appreciate that birds faced new threats. Pesticides, large-scale development, oil spills, pollution—all harmed birds. By 1969, the society had broadened its focus to “the total environment.”92
The pesticide issue hit home first, and the reckoning with pesticides made Audubon members more ecologically sophisticated. Audubon officials began to warn about the potential hazards of widespread use of DDT as soon as World War II ended. In 1946, president John Baker argued that broadcasting DDT would open a Pandora’s box of troubles. Yet Audubon struggled to define an institutional response to the growing use of pesticides. At first, the staff hoped that public education would suffice. Audubon urged caution and more research. But beyond that, what could the society do? The sanctuary system offered no refuge from persistent, mobile chemicals. By the early 1960s, a few staff members were pressing for Audubon to endorse a DDT ban. Yet the board of directors had no stomach for a direct assault on pesticide use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the chemical industry were far more powerful enemies than plume hunters. Even after the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, the society was torn. Audubon finally took a stand against DDT in 1967. But the society still was not willing to lead the charge: Instead, Audubon decided to help a legal challenge to DDT by the newly formed Environmental Defense Fund.93
The prospect of jetport development also pushed Audubon in new directions. Jets still were new in the 1960s, and a desire to accommodate bigger and faster aircraft led many communities to expand old airports or build new facilities. Often the construction was in marshland—a critical habitat for many birds. Though a single jetport never threatened ecological disruption on a large scale, the forces that led to one proposed facility surely would lead to more. Jetports were symbols of modernity, of the ever-greater ability of humans to remake the world to suit our convenience. Because air travel was a consumer good, not just a part of the business world, Audubon concluded that disputing the need for more jetports required challenging assumptions about progress.94
The society began to question the relationship between technological progress and “the good life” early in 1967, when officials proposed a jetport in New Jersey’s Great Swamp. “There is a new battle to be waged—to keep man’s technology in check while promoting the welfare of man himself,” declared an editorial in Audubon magazine. “The conservationist—in his struggle to halt the dirtying of our air and water, in his efforts to bring man and his environment into better harmony—is in a farsighted camp. And he is not fighting progress when he questions the need for a new jetport, a new highway or new industry. It is a case of progress for whom and toward what? 95
The Great Swamp proposal never got off the ground, but a proposed jetport in the Florida Everglades finally forced Audubon to mobilize in 1969. The Everglades were almost sacred ground for Audubon: The society was established to save the egrets and herons and spoonbills there. The airport would be a massive island in the middle of the river of grass, with runways six miles long. Highways and pipelines would tie the airport to Miami, and planners predicted that a booming center of commerce would rise from the swamp. The ecological disruption would be devastating. Audubon had a field representative in Florida, Joe Browder, who put together a grassroots coalition in 1969 to oppose the project. Audubon also rallied conservationists nationally. To Audubon, the issue was not just the fate of the Everglades but the survival of humankind. As a call to battle in Audubon argued, the Everglades jetport resulted from “the same philosophy that allows industry to pollute air and water to the brink of disaster, agriculture to use poisons like DDT long after the hazards are known, the Army Engineers to dam rivers and dig canals with no concern for the total environment.”96
In July 1969, Audubon debuted “The Audubon Cause,” a section devoted to grassroots activism. One subsection—“The Bulldozer”—focused on controversies over development. “The Audubon Cause” also included commentaries on issues, reports on legislation, and updates on ongoing campaigns. With every issue, the section argued for a new kind of commitment. Because the threats to the environment no longer were isolated or infrequent, members needed to be ever vigilant.
The Sierra Club was slower than the National Wildlife Federation or the National Audubon Society to redefine its mission. Though the board of directors debated issues ranging from population growth to nuclear power, the club’s conservation agenda remained focused on national parks and wilderness until fall 1969, when the board voted to make “environmental survival” a priority. But executive director David Brower changed the club in the 1960s from a hiking group to a crusading army—and that transformation led to phenomenal growth, especially in the second half of the decade.97
To save wilderness in a time of sprawl and technological hubris, Brower concluded at the end of the 1950s, conservationists needed to act boldly and uncompromisingly. Brower first demonstrated the club’s new militance in campaigns in the mid-1960s to establish a redwood national park and to stop two proposed dams in the Grand Canyon. Working with a hip advertising agency, Brower took out full-page ads in The New York Times and other newspapers. The ads were not just aggressive; they mocked the timber industry and the dam proponents, and they directly challenged the president and the secretary of the interior to defend America’s greatness. After the first Grand Canyon ad, the Internal Revenue Service threatened to revoke the club’s tax-exempt status, but the club did not back down. Thousands of people sent money to help David topple Goliath. The media began to describe the club in a new way. The “Fighting Sierrans,” Newsweek termed them, while Time reported that the club “was willing to fight at the drop of a tree.” By 1967, reporters routinely identified the club as the most powerful, imaginative, and devoted conservation group in the country.98
The club’s growth also owed much to Brower’s innovations in proselytizing. To bring the gospel of wilderness into urban and suburban homes, he produced a series of “exhibit-format” coffee-table books. (The first in the series—This Is the American Land, published in 1960—began as a museum exhibit.) Several of the exhibit-format books were philosophic: The bestselling In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World joined the words of Henry David Thoreau and the photographs of Eliot Porter. Most of the club’s books were calls to defend particular places. But even the “battle books,” as Brower called them, warned against sacrificing natural beauty to “the false gods of progress and growth.”99
Brower worked especially hard to attract young people. In 1967, the club published On the Loose, a photo essay by two twentysomething Californians, Terry and Renny Russell, who celebrated self-reliance and self-discovery in the wilderness—and who railed against those who would reduce “oceans of beauty” to “scattered puddles, muddy and drying up.” The book eventually sold more than a million copies. The club also joined the poster revolution in 1967: Now students could express themselves by putting images of wilderness on their walls. The same year, the club arranged with Ballantine to publish paperback editions of the bestselling exhibit-format books, and soon almost every campus bookstore had copies of In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World. In 1969, the club became the first conservation organization to have a staff person devoted to campus outreach.100
By 1970, thousands of young people had joined the club. They were not just attracted by Brower’s marketing genius. The club’s attacks on the shallowness of materialist values spoke powerfully to the counterculture. Brower also inspired students eager to speak truth to power. As one young admirer wrote in 1969, Brower’s militance “appealed to the growing activism of the decade, and his outrage at the rape of the land by big government and big business dovetailed nicely with its morality.”101
The new members often pushed their older counterparts to pursue a more radical agenda. In Madison, Wisconsin, for example, a young activist ran as a petition candidate for the board of the local Sierra chapter, and his petition was unsparing:
We haven’t realized the radical nature of our cause: that we stand squarely athwart the economic-political ideology of this country; that amid an age that revels in smothering the spirit in convenience, comfort, and ugliness that we live to excite that spirit in challenge and Beauty; that in a country which measures growth primarily in terms of ever bigger numbers, we can stand no more human beings. Our cause is doomed to fail—swallowed up in the oil sludge of a reckless age—unless we act as radicals to change the basic values of this nation. The 2-child—and no more—family must become the accepted norm. Warring in Asia must be stopped immediately so that serious warring against all the pollutions of our exploitive economy can begin. Children must be taught that Beauty is more valuable than Dollars, that forests and parks are needed more than highways and parking lots.
The activist won. His victory accompanied a national shift in the club’s direction. The club began to challenge big business more directly, and to take stands on a broader range of issues.102
The dialectic of young and old was especially important in the run-up to Earth Day. In fall 1969, just after Gaylord Nelson proposed a national environmental teach-in for spring 1970, Brower decided to sponsor a teach-in handbook. By then, Brower had left the Sierra Club and founded Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club soon followed his lead. The Environmental Handbook appeared in January 1970, and the Sierra Club’s Ecotactics came out in April. Both books were largely the work of the young. Both were huge hits. Sales of the handbook reached 1.5 million, while Ecotactics sold 500,000 copies. To many commentators, the handbook was the distilled essence of Earth Day.103
Copyright © 2013 by Adam Rome
Table of Contents
Prologue: "Give Earth a Chance" 3
1 The Prehistory of Earth Day 9
2 Organizers 57
3 Events 116
4 Speakers 165
5 The New Eco-Infrastructure 209
Epilogue: The First Green Generation 259
Note on Sources 201