SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
December 20, 1976
The future of mankind depends largely upon how well we protect the environment—the air, land, water and all that lives in or upon them. In the United States we have often misused these precious resources. Concerned citizens—once few in number, but now multitudes—have made environmentalism the No. 1 American social enterprise. This special article relates the story of their considerable undertaking
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December 20, 1976

My Country, 'tis Of Thee

The future of mankind depends largely upon how well we protect the environment—the air, land, water and all that lives in or upon them. In the United States we have often misused these precious resources. Concerned citizens—once few in number, but now multitudes—have made environmentalism the No. 1 American social enterprise. This special article relates the story of their considerable undertaking

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A variety of incidents, occurring with increasing frequency during the two postwar decades, raised the environmental consciousness of the nation. There were preservationist disputes about Grand Canyon dams, the Everglades, the passage of wilderness and endangered-species acts. Information accumulated, and anger grew over the poisoning of songbirds, fish and coyotes. There was a militant reaction to smog, water pollution, interstate-highway construction, littering, beach erosion, oil spills and the population crisis. Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac), John H. Storer (The Web of Life) and Paul L. Errington (Of Men and Marshes), among other talented naturalists, wrote books that popularized ecological thought and speculation. In retrospect, three events stand out not only because of their particular importance but also because they so well illustrate the environmental ferment. They are:

The Echo Park Dam Controversy In 1950 the Bureau of Reclamation proposed the construction of a hydroelectric and irrigation dam in the 200,000-acre Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah-Colorado border. Local agricultural, industrial and construction interests supported the dam on the grounds that it would stimulate the economy in that area. However, the proposal was attacked by the Audubon and Wilderness societies, the Izaak Walton League, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Association and virtually every other conservation organization. These groups argued that the proposed Echo Park dam would flood and destroy forever a complex of unique wilderness canyons and that the dam would not solve regional and water problems. The conservationists, brilliantly using the national media as a forum, eventually were successful. In 1956, six years after the original proposal, plans to build a dam at Echo Park were abandoned.

Beyond the immediate preservationist objective, it was a famous victory. The campaign was one of the first in which the conservation Establishment had focused all its energies and resources on one issue. From this joint effort there emerged an important strategic principle. Conservationists had fared badly when they fought the dam on local grounds, where many residents stood to gain in immediate economic ways. The conservation coalition succeeded when it made Echo Park a national issue and brought to bear the power of its members, most of whom lived thousands of miles from the canyon wilderness but who had Representatives and Senators in Washington. Their success in arousing public opinion against the Echo Park dam convinced national politicians as nothing else had that conservationists had by now become an extremely formidable group, which in the future it would be prudent to placate and foolhardy to antagonize.

Nuclear Protest On April 26, 1953, Troy, N.Y. was pelted by a rain that proved to be highly radioactive. Soon it was disclosed that Troy was not unique, that contaminated rain was falling elsewhere as a result of the testing of nuclear devices in the atmosphere. Among other things, the hot rain contained strontium 90. Quite suddenly, strontium 90 became nationally infamous. It was said to cause birth defects, cancer and other diseases as slowly, unseen and unfelt, it drifted down into the food chain, into our bones and into the milk drunk by our babies. Abruptly, nuclear protests became more personal and environmental than they had been. All manner of people, from scientists to housewives to pacifists, who previously had been outside the conservation movement, became concerned about how environmental degradation was affecting them. The nuclear test-ban treaty of 1963 was in part the result. Perhaps even more important, the nuclear issue drove home the ecological point as nothing else had: that our life-support systems were interconnected and that we had an immense, immensely dangerous capacity for tampering with them.

Biochemist Barry Commoner joined in the nuclear protests. He has since become one of the best-known environmental thinkers and spokesmen. Commoner wrote, "I learned about the environment from the United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1953. Until then, like most people, I had taken the air, water, soil and our natural surroundings more or less for granted."

The Poison Problem In 1962 the late Rachel Carson, an enormously talented writer and naturalist, published Silent Spring. It remained on the bestseller lists for weeks and is one of the seminal works of the environmental movement. In a quiet, understated way, Carson said we were poisoning the land, water, air, flora and fauna and ourselves because of our increasingly careless use of a variety of toxic substances, especially pesticides. The power of Carson's warning was magnified because she was not talking about some exotic device such as a nuclear warhead, but about common substances that most of us used and seemed to benefit from.

Until the postwar period there was a sense that while we had environmental problems, they were essentially aberrations; that is, specific mistakes caused by ignorance, carelessness or greed, which in theory could be corrected by passing new laws or developing new technological fixes. Silent Spring and subsequent environmental-ecological literature and thought suggested that our basic environmental problems do not rise so much from exceptional activities as they do from our common life-style, based on high technology and high rates of development and consumption. Obviously, this idea is a revolutionary one, and that is why ecology is sometimes called the subversive science. Nevertheless, the question of whether our traditional economic, social and political systems are compatible with environmental stability has become the fundamental environmental issue.

There was no single moment in which all these postwar concerns coalesced to create the environmental movement. However, the movement gathered momentum in the late '60s, and its existence was an inescapable fact of American life by the early 70s. The March 1965-February 1966 issue of Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature listed seven entries under the heading "Environment" and five under "Ecology." Five years later there were hundreds of entries. The public was being bombarded with news and opinion about the environmental crisis. In the winter of 1970 Time, Fortune, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated published environmental cover stories. Charles Reich's The Greening of America, a book suggesting that if we all lived joyfully, youthfully and in environmental harmony most of our national problems would be solved, was published in the fall of 1970 and soon topped the bestseller lists. In the spring of 1970 several million Americans took part in the Earth Day celebration, which featured community cleanup projects, protest marches, anti-Establishment rhetoric—and FBI spies.

High school students in Princeton, N.J. filled in a construction excavation which they said scarred the face of Mother Earth. In the same community the president of Pan American Airlines allowed as how the aviation industry accounted for only 1% of the country's air pollution. The New Jersey commissioner of environmental protection ordered 500 householders to repair faulty chimneys. In New York's Central Park, Earth Day celebrants fished 1,000 beer cans and a chaise longue out of a duck pond. At Boston's Logan Airport there was a die-in, featuring 12 caskets (symbolic of future air pollution victims), but it was poorly attended because of bad weather. Indiana University coeds pelted an Earth Day crowd with birth control pills to draw attention, so they said, to the connection between overpopulation and environmental degradation. In Long Beach, Calif. a mound of garbage was collected and was ceremoniously named The Mountain of Shame. Among ad hoc groups created were YUK (Youth Uncovering Krud) and SCARE (Students Concerned About a Ravaged Environment). The largest Earth Day crowd, 50,000 or so persons, showed up in Washington. Some marched on the Interior Department. Some threw oil on the sidewalks to make a symbolic point about the pollution of Gulf of Mexico beaches.

Originally Earth Day was planned as a massive annual event, but in that respect it quickly fizzled out. Perhaps its most important consequence was that it attracted the interest of young activists who went on to become effective environmental professionals.

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