Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Silent Spring": The Environmental Movement of the 1960s and 1970s

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the impact of the environmentalist movement in the 1960s, how it shaped American politics, and the splintering of the movement into factions dominated by mainstream lobbyists like members of the Sierra Club, and more radical, direct action protestors like those in Earth First!

One way in which young protestors in the 1960s sought a more authentic life was through a closer relationship to nature. Even as many Americans marveled at the technology that made space travel possible, and marveled at big cars, highways, new television sets and oversized factories, young people came to disdain the belching smokestacks of foul, smelly industrial waste.

A 55-year-old woman became the unlikely inspiration to an emerging, youth-oriented environmental movement. The year 1962 saw the publication of "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson, a zoologist who charged that the chemical pesticides used in American agriculture killed birds and left their eggshells dangerously thin. The problem worsened markedly in 1942 when farmers started spraying fields with DDT, a chemical that killed insects on contact. The United States Department of Agriculture’s 1957 fire ant eradication program, involving intense use of DDT, provoked Carson’s scientific investigation of pesticides. "Chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world--the very nature of life,” Carson said.

Since the mid-nineteen forties, over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as pests, and they are sold under several thousand different brand names. The sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes--non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the good and the bad, to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams--to coat the leaves with a deadly film and to linger on in soil--all this, though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called 'insecticides' but 'biocides'.

In May 1963, President Kennedy’s Scientific Advisory Committee issued a report on pesticides that vindicated Carson’s warnings. Dr. Jerome B. Wiesner declared that the unregulated use of pesticides represented "potentially a much greater hazard" to survival of life on the planet than radioactive fallout from atomic weapons. Carson’s efforts led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other chemical pesticides and helped inspire the environmental movement of the late 1960s. Scientific investigation after Carson’s death from breast cancer in 1964 demonstrated that chemicals such as DDT found their way inside humans and caused soft-tissue cancers.


Pollution became a topic addressed both in newsmagazines like Time and humor magazines largely read by kids, such as Mad. A major oil spill off the Santa Barbara, California coastline in 1969 outraged not just committed environmentalists, but also middle class voters who saw a beautiful beach spoiled and worried about the chemicals entering their bodies. Radio stations in the early 1970s gave heavy rotation to songs like John Denver’s “Colorado Rocky Mountain High” that celebrated the glories of unspoiled nature and Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” that mourned the loss of wilderness. “You paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” Mitchell caustically sang.

The Beat poet Gary Snyder saw a connection between the industrial assault on the environment and the Vietnam War. Snyder compared trees to African Americans and the Vietnamese. All were victims of modern American capitalism. Entertainer Marvin Gaye, known primarily for love songs and sexy rhythm and blues tracks, devoted a large part of his 1971 "What’s Going On?" album to environmental issues. In his hit song “Mercy, Mercy Me,” Gaye offers the following plaint:

Ah, mercy, mercy me/
Things ain’t what they used to be/
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north, south and east/
. . . Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas/
Fish full of mercury/
. . . Radiation underground and in the sky/
Animals and birds who live nearby/
Are dying.

The public in large numbers celebrated the first “Earth Day” April 22, 1970. The initial push for Earth Day came from Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin who believed the health of the planet to be “the most critical issue facing mankind” and who, borrowing an idea from the anti-Vietnam War movement, encouraged a nationwide “teach-in” about the environment in which Americans would be educated about the harm of industrial pollutants, the devastation of wildlife and related issues. Nelson, who had witnessed the devastation of the oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, wanted “Earth Day” to be non-confrontational, to address environmental issues but not an occasion for claiming that pollution was an inevitable byproduct of capitalism, as some more radical environmentalists believed.

When April 22 arrived, about 10 million Americans, plus millions more across the globe, celebrated Earth Day by hiking, planting trees, picking up litter and so on. Earth Day became an annual event and promoted the growth of grassroots environmental activism. Sensing the popularity of the issue, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Clean Air Act of 1970, which for the first time established national air quality standards and set caps on harmful emissions by automobiles. Privately, Nixon had little interest in the environment. “I think interest in this will recede,” he wrote in an internal memo. He later dismissed the environmental movement as “crap” for “clowns.”

Nixon badly underestimated the concern over pollution. One in four Americans named the environment as the “nation’s most pressing problem,” according to historian Dominic Sandbrook. Responding to public pressure, the Congress passed a spate of environmental laws in the early 1970s, including the statute that created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. The Endangered Species Act in 1973 protected not only endangered animals but also the inhabitants they depended on that were threatened by economic development. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 gave the EPA the power to set standards in terms of chemical content for water across the United States.

The movement remained mostly white and middle and upper class, but environmentalists learned much from the sit-ins and non-violent protest tactics of the African American Civil Rights Movement. Organizations like the Abalone Alliance in California used civil disobedience, using up to 2,000 activists to occupy and block entrances of work crews at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant located near a fault line by San Luis Obispo, California. The protestors, however, failed to stop the opening of the plant.

Such defeats did not dim the idealism of committed environmentalists. According to the New York Times, the spontaneous “back-to-nature movement” had created 2,000 communes and 5,000 collective farms by the beginning of the 1970s. At Red Rocks in Colorado, 25 people shared a geodesic dome where they “cooked, worked, slept, healed the sick, gave birth; all children born in the dome received the surname ‘Red Rocks.’”

Such grassroots activists at times irritated mainstream environmentalist groups like the Sierra Club, particularly those more radical elements who embraced “Deep Ecology,” the belief that animals and even trees and plant life have rights that need to be balanced with human needs. Groups like Earth First! inspired by the radical 1975 novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang" by Edward Abbey, alarmed more conventional activists as they used sabotage to stop forest logging and vandalized laboratories engaged in animal research.

Two incidents in the 1970s dramatized the need for environmental regulation. In Niagara Falls, New York, the Hooker Chemical & Plastics Corporation had poured 22 tons of toxic chemicals into a dry canal called Love Canal between 1947 and 1952 and concealed the dump with layers of clay soil. The local school district, short of cash and experiencing a local population boom requiring construction of new campuses, bought the land from Hooker for $1 and built an elementary school on top of the poisonous underground stew.

Other schools were rapidly constructed nearby. As the community later grew to a population of 75,000, residents complained of bad smells in their basements and of chemicals leaking to the surface that sometimes caught fire. Heavy rains and melted snow following a blizzard exposed more of the waste. The affected area covered 36 square blocks. EPA investigators would later find higher-than-normal rates of miscarriages and birth defects, elevated levels of toxic chemicals in the milk of breastfeeding mothers and increased cancer rates in the neighborhood.

New York Department of Health Commissioner Robert Whalen proclaimed the Love Canal site a threat to human health in 1978. Four months later, authorities placed a barricade around the old landfill and ordered the closing of the 99th Street School that had been built on top of the dump. The New York state government purchased the entire neighborhood and evacuated around 800 families.

In response to the crisis, the Congress in 1980 passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, better known as the “Superfund” law. The law set aside federal money to aid states in cleaning up toxic waste sites near residential areas. Love Canal became the first Superfund-designated site. Love Canal area was not declared clean by the federal government until 2004. The publicity surrounding Love Canal and the near meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979, deepened the public distrust of American corporations and increased awareness of the immense dangers posed by industrial capitalism to the natural world.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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