An Importance Of Environmental Protection in America

February 13, 2022 by Essay Writer

One of the most important periods in the history of American environmentalism lasted through much of the 1960s and early 1970s. The environmental movement during these years has been called the “second wave” of environmentalism (Shabecoff 2001, 7); it followed an earlier “first wave” environmental movement around the turn of the century, which was perhaps more accurately described as a conservation movement and which led to the establishment of national parks and forests (Shabecoff 2001, 2-3). The “second wave” went beyond conservation, becoming the first broad “environmental movement.” It arose after some people started bringing attention to environmental problems as early as the mid-1950s; the most prominent issue was pollution, but other ones received attention as well, such as the loss of natural land and depletion of resources. The idea of environmental protection gained support and eventually gave rise to an influential movement, especially from 1970 onward. This resulted in the passing of several laws that protected against environmental threats, especially pollution that could be harmful to people and ecosystems. These laws meant that the environmental movement of the period was, to some extent, a success. The environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s succeeded for a few reasons, including broad support for environmental protection among the American public and the personal dedication of certain officials.

By 1970, there was an “elevation of environment… to sacred status in American thought” (DiMento and Oshio 2009, 24). Several people had helped to encourage this cultural transition during the 1960s. According to environmental historian Adam Rome, “five groups were critical” in advancing the environmental movement in the 1960s, which were “liberal Democrats, scientists, middle-class women, young critics of American institutions, and conservationists” (Rome 2013, 10). People from these groups are still active as environmentalists today, although their advocacy likely has less of an impact because they are no longer publicizing a previously unheard-of cause. Scientists were some of the starters of the movement, playing a “critical role” in “the surge of concern about environmental degradation” (Rome 2013, 20). It was helpful that science had become a larger focus in politics in the 1950s, due in part to “the nuclear era” and “the Sputnik-initiated space age” (DiMento and Oshio 2009, 23). One such scientist was Rachel Carson, who published Silent Spring in 1962, a book “often credited with launching the modern environmental movement” (Woodhouse 2008, 59). The book raised concerns about chemical pollutants, and communicated that this now-widespread pollution could end up in organisms’ tissue and ultimately harm humans. She specifically addressed pesticides and radioactive materials released from the testing of nuclear weapons, both of which could be harmful (Rome 2013, 23-24). The book became a bestseller (Rome 2013, 24), and it inspired a sense of “fear” in many readers that contributed to the prevalence of environmental concerns (DiMento and Oshio 2009, 24). The book certainly made an impact on policy: after its publication, for example, “[President] Kennedy instructed his science advisers to report on the use of pesticides” (Rome 2013, 16).

Another important scientist was Barry Commoner, a biologist and activist who wrote the book Science and Survival in 1966. Commoner began in the late 1950s by raising awareness about the effects of radioactive materials from nuclear weapons testing (Rome 2013, 20-22); this threat was one of the common concerns that gave rise to the environmental movement in the 1960s (DiMento and Oshio 2009, 23). In the 1960s, Commoner went on to speak about other environmental issues as well, such as pesticides, air pollution, and risks from nuclear power (Rome 2013, 20-23). A third scientist was Paul Ehrlich, who wrote the book The Population Bomb in 1968; this book argued that Earth’s resources might not be able to sustain the human population if it continued to grow rapidly (Rome 2013, 26-27). The American Association for the Advancement of Science also encouraged its members to learn about environmental issues; the association’s meeting in 1966 had an environmental theme, and the association’s journal Science started containing articles about environmental science (Rome 2013, 28).

The environmental cause was associated with the Democratic Party since the mid-1950s, when some Democrats were considering new goals for the party’s ideology and decided that it should promote environmental protection (Rome 2013, 10). Two of the people most responsible for this idea were Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Kenneth Galbraith; these were both Harvard professors who wrote speeches for the Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II, were co-founders of the liberal lobbying organization Students for a Democratic Society, and later served as advisers to John F. Kennedy. Democrats such as Schlesinger and Galbraith reasoned that, now that the U.S. was in a very wealthy period, the Democrats had to go beyond the simply economic concerns of their earlier New Deal-based liberalism. They believed that the government should aim to improve the quality of life instead of just the quantity of wealth, and that a clean environment was essential to a happy and healthy society (Rome 2013, 11-13).

These views were shared by many Americans, who started to observe that the economic growth since World War II had had “environmental costs” (Geary 2003). They cited problems such as water pollution, air pollution, and disappearing countryside due to suburban sprawl as evidence that the country should focus more on maintaining the quality of public goods. These concerns were raised by a number of prominent liberal figures around 1960, including the political scientist Clinton Rossiter, the urbanist Catherine Bauer Wurster, and the bestselling author Vance Packard (Rome 2013, 15). In the early 1960s, environmental concerns became more common among members of the government. One politician who was especially committed to the cause was Kennedy’s secretary of the interior Stewart Udall, who wrote a book called The Quiet Crisis that addressed pollution and disappearing nature. Another such politician was the Maine senator Edmund Muskie, who was called “Mr. Pollution Control” for his efforts (Rome 2013, 16-17).

Conservation groups, some of which had been around since the “first wave” conservation movement of the early 20th century, also contributed to the new movement. The National Wildlife Federation became more active in the 1960s, letting individuals join for the first time (instead of just state wildlife federations). The organization also started a magazine, National Wildlife, that discussed both conservation and pollution issues such as pesticides (Rome 2013, 48-49). It was also in the 1960s that the National Audubon Society changed from being a bird-protecting organization to one that proclaimed its focus on “the total environment”. It founded its own environmental magazine and spoke out against threats such as DDT (Rome 2013, 51-53). The Sierra Club also became more active in the 1960s; it used newspaper ads to advocate for the conservation of various places, published photo books that aimed to convey the value of the natural world, and admitted many (mostly young) members (Rome 2013, 53-55). These organizations were influenced by the growing wave of environmental consciousness of the time, and contributed to it themselves as well.

Many of the countercultural young people of the 1960s also took part in the movement. The counterculture of the period represented “broad questioning of traditional ideals and priorities”, such as monetary wealth (DiMento and Oshio 2009, 24). Hippies, today a symbol of the 1960s, were known for their affinity with nature and their efforts to live a way of life that was closer to nature. “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” (Rome 2013, 40), which meant that their ideals contributed to environmentalist sentiment in the rest of American society. The college movements that made up what was called the “New Left” were also significant; in the late 1960s, the students in the New Left began to incorporate environmentalism into their “overall critique of modern, American society” (Woodhouse 2008, 73). The Vietnam War was one source of environmentalist views among New Left protesters; reports of the U.S. military spraying herbicides on forests and rice fields in Vietnam suggested that the U.S. was fighting a “war against nature” (Rome 2013, 43), which, like the human effects of the war, was reprehensible to many in the New Left. An oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969 was another incident that prompted many New Left students to protest corporate pollution (Rome 2013, 42). This oil spill also received significant media coverage and raised awareness about environmental issues among the general public as well (DiMento and Oshio 2009, 26-27).

Middle class women, often housewives, also played an important role in the emerging environmental movement. This was mainly due to gender roles and the view of environmental protection as “a natural extension of their concerns as housewives and mothers” (Rome 2013, 34). Many of these women believed that it was their responsibility to look out for their children’s health and happiness, which could be threatened by pollution and a lack of open space. The League of Women Voters raised awareness about water pollution in the 1950s and lobbied the government for water protection in the 1960s (Rome 30). Many women also organized grassroots campaigns in their local communities towards various environmental goals; the goal was often the preservation of undeveloped land, but women in certain cities, such as New York (Rome 2013, 30) and Pittsburgh (Rome 2013, 36-37), also started groups that were against air pollution.

Some of the first environmental legislation of the “second wave” came during the 1960s. President Lyndon Johnson’s administration was responsible for the creation of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration and the National Air Pollution Control Administration, as well as many minor pieces of conservation and pollution-related legislation (Rome 2013, 19-20). Johnson’s dedication likely came partly from a personal connection to environmental concerns, as “his wife had a keen interest in nature” (Rome 2013, 17). However, his action on environmental problems can also be partly attributed to his advisers, who encouraged him to address these problems in his “Great Society” program. These advisers were inspired by the same “qualitative liberalism” idea that the aforementioned Schlesinger and Galbraith had advocated (Rome 2013, 17). Another important piece of legislation was the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), passed in 1969, which “requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions” (EPA, 2015). The political scientist Lynton Cadwell, who served as a consultant to the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, wrote the original draft that became the National Environmental Policy Act. Cadwell’s desire to support environmental policy in the U.S. can be traced back to his work in international development in other countries. While working in Hong Kong in 1963, he had “realized that many of the places he had studied in the last decade, places like Hong Kong, suffered from severe problems—environmental problems—that governments felt fell outside of their concerns” (Robertson 2008, 582). Lyndon Johnson and Lynton Cadwell were two examples of individuals whose personal belief in the importance of environmental protection led to the passage of environmental legislation.

1970 was an important year for the environmental movement, and the first thing that marked it as such was the creation of Earth Day. Earth Day was founded by a senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson. He had worked on environmental causes before, such as by promoting conservation when he was governor in the early 1960s, and proposing legislation to ban certain pollutants and maintain clean bodies of water (Rome 2010, 196). His environmentalist views were related to his “faith that government could do good” (Rome 2013, 59), his personal love for nature, and his observation of contemporary issues such as water pollution (Rome 2013, 61-65). Inspired by the “teach-ins” that the contemporary anti-war movement had used, Nelson had an idea to promote discussion of environmental problems through teach-ins. In late 1969, he proposed the idea of a day of environmental teach-ins around the country, and the idea quickly gained a large amount of media coverage and became popular. Nelson hired a staff of young activists to lead the event and they helped local organizers prepare for teach-ins. In many cities and schools, however, people began organizing for Earth Day events themselves. These people included housewives, young professionals, science students, and teachers (Rome 2010, 197-198). When the time came, “millions of people took part in thousands of Earth Day teach-ins, protests, and celebrations across the United States”, in colleges, schools, churches, temples, parks, and “in front of corporate and government offices” (Rome 2010, 194-195). The “teach-in” events around the country had a diverse array of speakers; many of the speakers were professors, but Rome notes that many politicians, including “roughly two-thirds” of Congress, also gave speeches for the occasion in various locations (Rome 2010, 195), showing that the majority of the U.S. government viewed environmental protection favorably in 1970.

In his book The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, Adam Rome argues that environmental activism had not added up to a single organized, integrated movement until the first Earth Day: as one piece of evidence, “commentators did not begin to speak about “the environmental movement” until the run-up to Earth Day” (Rome 2013, 9). He explains that while environmental organizations existed before 1970, most of them did not have a holistic focus on all environmental problems, with the notable exception of the Environmental Defense Fund. Instead, organizations focused on more specific problems, with some being the “old conservation groups” focused on “wildlife and wilderness”, and others being air pollution-fighting groups (Rome 2013, 9). This implies that although the environmental movement did exist before 1970, it was fragmented and not a united entity. One way in which Earth Day encouraged the united presence of an environmental movement was by prompting media coverage about the environment; for example, “Earth Day inspired more [news]papers to assign reporters” to write about environmental issues (Rome 2010, 201).

New environmental organizations were founded soon after Earth Day; one was the National Resources Defense Council, which was an environmental law firm and later took part in the environmental lobby. Other new organizations were Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which “used direct action and public information campaigns to alert Americans to what was being done to the natural world that sustained them” (Shabecoff 2001, 6-7). Environmental activists like the ones in these groups were inspired by the other movements of the time period: “[t]he new environmentalism emerged out of the social ferment and activism of the 1960s”, such as the “anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements” (Shabecoff 2001, 6). For example, Gus Speth, one of the founders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a February 2015 interview that “[w]e had had been through the civil rights revolution, we had seen the importance of litigation, of demonstrating and protesting, of pushing your cause, of getting powerful legislation like the civil rights legislation of ’64 and ’65 and that was our model” (Speth 2015).

Environmental lobbying took off after Earth Day: “the “group of ten” environmental organizations—including the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Wilderness Society, Environmental Defense Fund, and others—formed an influential lobby in Washington, D.C., to leverage federal power” in the early 1970s (Woodhouse 2008, 78). One lobbying organization was Environmental Action, which was founded by the federal Earth Day staff after the day (Rome). The environmental lobby was one reason for the passage of environmental legislation following Earth Day: for example, Rome states that Environmental Action’s lobbying was a significant factor in the passage of the Clean Air Act later in 1970 (Rome 2010, 200).

One of the main successes of the movement happened in 1970 after Earth Day when President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Two of the most important pieces of environmental legislation from the 1970s were passed soon after. One was the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, which “requires EPA to establish national ambient air quality standards for certain common and widespread pollutants based on the latest science” (EPA 2013). The other was the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, which “implemented pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry” and “set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters” (EPA 2015).

Although “Nixon was “no “green” radical”, he created the EPA because he was “keenly attuned to the political zeitgeist” (Shabecoff 2001, 5). Environmental protection was clearly supported by many Americans by 1970: William Ruckelshaus, the first Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a 1993 interview that “[p]ublic support… began to explode in the late 1960s” (Ruckelshaus 1993). The fact that groups as disparate as scientists, housewives, and hippies were all proclaiming the need for better treatment of nature shows that environmental concerns transcended demographics in 1970 and the preceding years, being a common factor of diverse segments of American society. In the view of many, “ecology was truly an issue that could unite the nation, bringing together those who had been bitterly divided on the issues of civil rights and Vietnam” (DiMento and Oshio 2009, 35).

It was also helpful that there were no major groups actively opposing the cause: the aforementioned Gus Speth noted in 2014 that “there was little organized opposition from the business community or anyone else” (Speth 2014). Shabecoff indicates that this lack of effective resistance from corporations was because they did not yet see the movement as a serious threat: “[t]he business community… originally viewed anti-pollution efforts as a temporary if annoying fad” (Shabecoff 2001, 8). He also states that corporations were “caught off guard” by the rise of environmentalism (Shabecoff 2001, 8), implying that they were not expecting the new movement and did not have time to build a strong resistance before policy was passed. Starting in the 1980s, the business community was more successful at uniting against environmentalism (Shabecoff 2001, 8); this is one factor that has impeded efforts towards environmental regulation ever since.

The media echoed the supportive stance of much of the public and likely contributed to it: Speth remembers that “[t]he media overall were powerfully supportive” (Speth 2014). Politicians are likely to take actions that have a broad base of approval among their constituents, and the widespread support for environmental protection that existed in the later 1960s and early 1970s was a major cause of the government’s environmental legislation during the period. According to William Ruckelshaus, public support “led to the creation of EPA, which never would have been established had it not been for public demand”. Ruckelshaus seems to view this demand as the main impetus for governmental environmental action both then and since, saying “you’ve got to have public support for environmental protection or it won’t happen” (Ruckelshaus 1993).

Some of the environmental concern among the American public resulted from current events in an increasingly interconnected world. In the mid-1960s, India experienced crop failures that led to food shortages. The crisis was publicized in the U.S., partly because it prompted Johnson’s administration to give large amounts of aid to India. Many environmentalists saw the situation in India as proof that a less healthy environment could threaten human well-being (Robertson 2008, 578-581). According to Thomas Robertson, “[t]he pessimistic biological models that emerged to explain the failures in India and other parts of the Third World can help… explain why the environmental movement exploded when it did” (Robertson 581).

However, public support was motivated mostly by the environmental situation in the U.S. itself. Pollution (the main issue of the “second wave”) could directly harm people’s health, which made the government more likely to respond to concerns about it: Ruckelshaus said in a 2008 interview that “the primary focus of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act back in the ’60s and ’70s was public health, and that really gets people’s attention” (Ruckelshaus 2008). Gus Speth made a similar statement in a 2011 interview when he referred to the pollution issues of the 1960s and 1970s as “backyard issues” and “acute issues”. He pointed out that, unlike the current problem of climate change, air and water pollution were not “remote in time and space from the everyday lives of people” (Speth 2011). After early voices in the movement (such as Carson) drew people’s attention to pollution, the problem was clearly visible to them, and it seemed urgently necessary to act on it. Ruckelshaus also contrasted the 1960s/early 1970s movement with later environmentalism, saying that “[w]hen [movements] first start, they tend to point up imperfections in the society which are almost universally accepted as problems… [and] that every fair-minded person agrees should be righted. It’s only in the subsequent phases of the movement that they begin to get into more controversial questions” (Ruckelshaus 1993). This implies that a major reason for the environmental movement’s success in the 1960s and early 1970s was that its demands during this period were limited and were generally seen as reasonable and unobjectionable. This was likely a reason that there was so much support for the movement’s goals not only among the public, but also among the politicians who spoke on Earth Day and passed environmental legislation.

Congress’s own support was of course an essential factor in the success of the environmental legislation that it passed. Some members of Congress simply had the foresight to call for environmental action themselves, without it necessarily being due to public support or lobbying. Speth wrote that laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act “were driven more by far-sighted legislators like Edmund Muskie (D-ME) and John Sherman Cooper (R-KY) than by environmental lobbying or even public pressure” (Speth 2014). This again shows that the efforts of government officials themselves played a major role in the success of the environmental movement. Another factor of the legislation’s success was that environmental protection was not associated exclusively with either political party in the early 1970s: “[t]here was actual leadership in the Congress, and it was bipartisan” (Speth 2014).

To summarize, the driving forces behind the creation of environmental policy in the 1960s and 1970s included the efforts of various groups who championed environmental protection, widespread support for environmental protection among the American public and media, and the personal efforts of individuals in the government such as Lyndon Johnson, Lynton Cadwell, Gaylord Nelson, and other Congress members who advocated and voted for pieces of environmental legislation. Widespread support for environmental protection came mainly from the fact that pollution issues had a direct relevance to people’s lives and well-being. Later, Earth Day led to more support and united activism, new environmental organizations were created, and the environmental lobby used its influence to encourage environmental legislation. Circumstances are different today than during that period, as the current environmental movement attempts to address new issues and faces new obstacles. However, the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s continues to provide an illuminating example of a successful movement, one that can serve as an inspiration to activists – environmental or otherwise – today.

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