ERA THREE: Modern Environmental Movement – A Wake-Up Call

A variety of concerns and experiences in the United States and abroad motivated the birth of the Modern Era of environmental history. To begin, World War II produced the greatest increase of industrialization in human experience, which still continues today. Even after the dust had settled from the war, societies were still trying to figure out how to handle such rapid industrial change; conservationists were no exception. One book in particular helped to shape the movement’s response. In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold sought to address several of the contradictions facing the conservation movement and develop a way forward in the post-war 20th century. In the process, Leopold wrote what many consider to be the “sequel” to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, providing a much needed rationale for the emerging new phase of the conservation movement, defining his philosophy of the “land ethic” (“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”) and of conservation itself (“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land”).

Like Leopold’s Almanac, another book by a former government scientist further propelled the issue of conservation, or its new catch-all, environmentalism, into the forefront of people’s minds. The publication of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring (1962) represented a watershed moment for the Modern Era. Her book graced the cover of The New Yorker and sold more than 500,000 copies in twenty-four countries; Carson’s highly publicized media tour made her an instant household name. Perhaps more than any other person, Carson’s efforts to make people aware of the dangers of chemical pesticides contributed to raising public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and human health. The influential nature of her work was apparent then and continues to grow today. At the time, President John F. Kennedy ordered his President’s Science Advisory Committee to review her findings (which were later confirmed). In 2009, Time Magazine named Rachel Carson one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Simultaneously, the advancements of many sectors of society were signaling the rise of this new understanding in daily life. The first images of Earth from outer space gave people a new perspective of a fragile planet and helped to inspire the need to take care of our only home. It also seemed that there were visible signs of pollution and environmental degradation everywhere: trash being hauled out to sea on barges and dumped, untreated waste being discharged into rivers, and open land and animal species disappearing. In 1969, a large pollution fire on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio shot flames 50 feet high into the air and an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California caused the death of thousands of birds, mammals, and other marine organisms. These two events in particular galvanized citizens to act. The larger backdrop to these events was the threat of nuclear war and, especially, the strong sentiment against the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Citizens were aware that their natural environment was threatened, and they sensed that many elected officials did not share such concerns. Few environmental laws even existed.

Gaylord Nelson, former Governor of Wisconsin and a U.S. Senator (D - WI) in the late 1960s, saw the opportunity to bring together the concerned public and the energetic, largely student anti-war movement by generating a large environmental demonstration that would “force this issue onto the national political agenda.” In September 1969, Sen. Nelson announced that there would be a “nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment.” Denis Hayes, a twenty-five-year-old enrolled at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, was named the National Coordinator of the event. As a result of concerned citizens across the world, the first Earth Day occurred on April 22, 1970 and included an estimated 20 million participants in the United States. In October 1993, more than twenty years later, American Heritage Magazine wrote this analysis about the event:

On April 22, 1970, Earth Day was held; one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy…20 million people demonstrated their support…American politics and public policy would never be the same again.

In many ways, Earth Day solidified the environmental movement as a new cornerstone of political and social life during the Modern Era of environmental history. In the United States, a sweeping array of legislative accomplishments were passed that created the legal rationale for government-based environmental protection. Several of these laws were truly ground-breaking in their day; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, tasked to specifically protect the nation’s environment, is a prime example. Globally, several of these laws paved the way for a broader international framework for environmental protection. In 1972, the United Nations convened the Stockholm Conference to exclusively chart a course of globally orchestrated environmental protection. With these initial successes, the environmental movement appeared to be almost mainstream in the Modern Era. Despite its popularity, many of its deep-seated conflicts would eventually reveal themselves and belabor the future direction of the movement. For example, what, if anything, should be done about the exponentially increasing global population? Was technology the root problem, and going “back to the land” the solution? Should this new movement take an economic, legislative or educational approach? These questions and others would continue to shape the trajectory of environmentalism, whom it represents and why.

Page 11. Beyond Earth Day. Gaylord Nelson (2002).