The proposition that "unspoiled" nature was good for us and had recreational and spiritual values and therefore should be preserved was accepted and fiercely defended by an exceptionally influential minority.
As it did in so many areas, World War II had an enormous impact on the environment and the development of environmentalism. The war stimulated all manner of economic and industrial activity. As we stepped up production we increased the rate at which we used our natural resources and also further polluted the land, water and air. This trend intensified following the war. Having come through the hard times of the Depression and the deprivations of war, Americans were hell-bent on indulging themselves and generally had the means to do so. We were eager for new homes, schools, recreation facilities, cars, appliances, clothes, entertainment. To satisfy these pent-up wants, we set off on a mighty producing and consuming spree—the great boom of the two postwar decades. Though it was not our overt intention, all this hyped-up activity created massive new pressures on the environment. Existing problems were magnified and brand-new ones were spawned. The wartime development and subsequent civilian demands for plastics, pesticides, herbicides and off-road vehicles, among other things, were to cause new ecological crises, many of which were not immediately perceived.
Along with the great national making-buying-using orgy, there was another development that was to have considerable influence on the growth of environmental thought and action. Following the war, military gear, lightweight tents, clothing, sleeping bags, dried foods, rubber rafts—all manner of nylon and plastic marvels—became available, and millions of Americans were turned on to outdoor recreation. In unprecedented numbers and with boundless enthusiasm we began camping, backpacking, climbing cliffs, descending into caves, watching birds, paddling canoes down wild rivers.
Quickly the new postwar outdoorsmen became conscious of the environmental havoc that the industrial boom was wreaking. In an effort to do something about the degradation of places they admired, they began joining conservation organizations and became increasingly receptive to anti-development causes. What might awkwardly be called the "environmentalization" of a man named Bob Waldrop serves as an example of this process. Waldrop grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. As a teen-ager in the 1950s he spent a lot of time fishing, hunting and rambling about in the Potomac River bottomlands. In the course of these pursuits he became acquainted with some of the young postwar outdoor recreationists. Through them he became involved in rock climbing, spelunking and white-water canoeing (in which he eventually became a fine competitor).
He enrolled at the University of Maryland as an economics major and after graduation began working for a bank. However, neither economics nor his job satisfied him. "I didn't use the word then, but what I really was dreaming of being was an environmentalist," he says. "I'd see streams I once played around in turning foul, pieces of woodland where I hunted being bulldozed down for developments, highways going through wild places I'd camped and climbed. All of it made me mad. I didn't have much idea what could be done about it, but it seemed something should be, that this was a symptom of a national malady."
In the early '60s Waldrop got a job with the Washington-based Conservationist Foundation and then one with the Sierra Club. "I had a chance to read, be around people who were thinking and talking about conservation problems and policy," he says. "Russ Train [now the chief administrator of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency] and David Brower [then the administrator of the Sierra Club and now head of the Friends of the Earth] had a lot of influence on me. All of a sudden I became an absolutely true believer—an environmental crusader."
Among other activities, Waldrop helped organize the 1970 Earth Day festival-protest in Washington—which got him into an FBI dossier. "In Washington the groups I was working with, my friends, operated with a lot of passion," he says. "We took on every good cause and maybe tended to treat each one as the ultimate crisis. We thought people needed to be forced to see the truth, and when they did, the reforms would inevitably follow and the bad guys would be defeated.
"But for me, at least, there was a period of depression in the 70s. Part of it probably came from just being very tired, having spent so much passion on so many things. It seemed like we were trying to hold back the sea with a cup. There were so many things that seemed should be done, and in the end so little change. I looked at my life and saw that I was so busy organizing committees and writing memos to save a river or a wilderness that I was no longer getting out on the rivers or into the wild. Those were the things that had got me into it, and I was being cut off from them."
Quite abruptly, Waldrop quit his professional environmental work. He moved to Alaska, where for most of the next five years he roamed the wilder parts of the state, supporting himself by guiding environmentalists into the Brooks Range wilderness and as a photographer. Then in 1976 the cycle completed itself. He was asked to become a special assistant to the commissioner of natural resources for Alaska, and did. "I'd had enough of being an outsider. I decided that I really wanted to get back into public-policy work related to the environment, and that it was important. I've changed, naturally. I see issues as being more complex than I did 10 years ago. But I feel we need to make a long-term commitment to coping with our environmental problems. That is more or less my commitment. I'm satisfied that I have made it."
Time and again in professional environmental organizations and agencies, the essentials of Waldrop's story are repeated. Staffers will explain that they were simply people who enjoyed some kind of outdoor recreation or interest, became angry at the abuses of nature they observed and in consequence became practicing environmentalists, often devoting their careers to sophisticated problems considerably removed from the simple pleasures of the woods and waters.