Lecture #19: Environmentalism Triumphant?

Suggested Readings:


Samuel P. Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the U.S. (1987)
Lewis L. Gould, Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment (1988)
Noel M. Burns, Erie: The Lake that Survived (1985)
Consumer Reports, I'll Buy That!: 50 Small Wonders and Big Deals That Revolutionized the Lives of Consumers (1986)
Mark Kurlansky, Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man (2012)
Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (2001)
Christopher Sellers, Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America (2012)
Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (2013)
David Stradling, The Environmental Moment: 1968-1972 (Classic Texts) (2012)


I. Mounting Crisis and the Beauty of America

By the mid-1960s, the older traditions of the Progressive conservation movement were gradually undergoing a sea change with the emergence of a new movement called "environmentalism."

As we've already seen, multiple cultural and political strands came together under this new rubric :

  • concerns about overpopulation
  • fears of resource exhaustion
  • nuclear anxieties relating to the atomic bomb and Cold War fears of nuclear war
  • apocalyptic sense that survival itself might be threatened by modern technologies
  • new suspicions of science and professional expertise
  • politicization of science (with scientists arguing with each other in public)
  • pesticides and other forms of toxic pollution
  • romantic values of nature as antidote to civilized modernity
  • growth of outdoor tourism, growing concerns to protect parks and wilderness

Environmentalism saw these things as much in terms of a crisis of values as much as of resources.

From an earlier conservationist ethic focused on production -- efficient use of natural resources for utilitarian human ends -- environmentalism focused as much on consumption as much on leisure as on work.

Romantic concerns about the importance of beauty for the human spirit were a surprisingly strong feature of the movement, viewing the ugliness of human landscapes as a key issue to be addressed, in stark contrast to the beauty of nature. Urban "blight," litter, and billboards all became objects of aesthetic criticism (with "blight" sometimes carrying racial undertones when applied to ghettos).

The single most effective champion of the anti-litter/billboard cause was Claudia Alta Taylor, a.k.a. Lady Bird Johnson. She married Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) on 11/17/34. When he became President after Kennedy's assassination in 1963, she joined him in the White House with a strong political agenda for advocating on behalf beauty in America, whether in urban, rural, or wild areas.

First Ladies in the twentieth century (following on the model of Eleanor Roosevelt) could become significant political movers when they wished to shape Washington politics. "Beautification" became Lady Bird's chief theme. Her first effort was to plant flowering plants in Washington DC to improve the beauty of the nation's capital.

She joined Laurance Rockefeller to organize a White House Conference on Natural Beauty in May 1965, eventually issuing a report entitled Beauty for America. It declared that "ugliness is bitterness" threatening a crisis of the spirit that needed to be addressed. You can read the actual report here: https://archive.org/details/beautyforamerica00whitrich

10/22/65: the Highway Beautification Act created a fund to purchase billboards and wall off junkyards to make American highways more beautiful. It was never as successful as Lady Bird had hoped, and actually proved to benefit billboard companies in certain ways.

Nonetheless, note older themes of the course in Lady Bird's vision of America as a garden: the flowering plant as symbol of restored beauty.

Laurance Rockefeller’s Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) report in 1962 (appointed by Eisenhower, reported to Kennedy, implemented by Johnson) recommended a remarkable array of new laws that would reshape the American landscape in myriad ways: Wilderness Act (1964); Land and Water Conservation Fund (1964); national lakeshores, seashores, and recreational areas; wild and scenic rivers, etc.. The ORRRC argued for a broad commitment to access to outdoor recreation: a very important but little-remembered commission. For more details, see:

II. Air, Water, and the Premature Death of Lake Erie

The perceived national crisis of beauty was not limited to billboards; pollution too was seen as a source of ugliness and sickness.

There was mounting public concern about the hazards of air pollution, smog in cities, and factory emissions. Citizens protests against these usually took place at the local level, as was true of many such pollution actions.

Hostility toward corporate pollution was an easy target because of its point-source nuatre; fear too of science and technology echoed earlier controversies about fallout and pesticides. But there was an echo of the anti-flouride campaigns of the 1950s, attacking flouridation of public water supplies as toxic, anti-libertarian, Communist threat. This helps explain the Mom & Apple Pie marketing of Crest when it was introduced as the first flouride toothpaste in 1956...and the black humor of Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), in which a general launches a nuclear war because of his fear that his virility has been threatened by flouride poisoning.

Water was as much a source of ugliness as air, with corporate polluters as easy objects of attack because they too were point-source nature.

Classic instances of dramatic pollution episodes in the late 1960s: Torrey Canyon tanker disaster in Europe in 1967, Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. Santa Barbara oil spill was described as "the blowout heard around the world," running wild for ten days, fouling beaches, killing wildlife. Images of oil-laden birds and marine animals become symbols of devastated nature.

Lake Erie was an equally famous case of pollution that was reported widely in the media: Cleveland's Cuyahoga River actually caught fire in 1969 (as it had many times before reaching back to the mid-19th century, but the nation suddenly paid attention in 1969). The unnaturalness of a river catching fire seemed a sign of the (apocalyptic) times.

Erie was the shallowest of the Great Lakes and the most industrial. It had seen steady accumulations of heavy metals since the 19th century, with rising mercury levels in fish, DDT byproducts in sediments, etc.

Worse: eutrophication from over-fertilization of water with the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous. These triggered algal blooms, and the algae died, the decay of the dead plants yielded an oxygen deficit that produced massive fish kills.

By the mid-1960s, scientists and activists were announcing "the death of Lake Erie": was it irreversible?

But eutrophication was caused less by industry than by more domestic sources: agricultural fertilizers heavy in nitrates, and home laundry washed with new phosphate detergents, introduced by Proctor & Gamble in 1933 as "Dreft," which dramatically increased the phosphate content of sewage & lake water, including here in Madison.

(NB: apocalyptic predictions of Lake Erie's "death" in the 1960s did not actually come true: shifts in detergents and sewage treatment slowed many eutrophication processes. Although pollution by toxics and heavy metals continues, early prophecies proved considerably exaggerated.)

III. The Unexpected Consequences of a Consumer Society

The problem of disposing of soapy water was akin to the problem of disposing growing quantities of solid waste from non-returnable bottles, heavily packaged goods, and fast foods.

There were important links here to underlying structural changes in American life: mass housing communities like post-WWII Levittown made affordable housing widely available to lower-income Americans. Most were increasingly dependent on automobiles.

Key shifts occurred in the marketing of foods with the rise of automobile suburbs: the coming of refrigerators cheap enough for ordinary consumers to afford allowed families to store much fresher food for longer periods, reducing the labor of cooking.

This shift depended on the invention of chlorofluorocarbons -- CFCs -- as easily compressed gases capable of very efficient cooling even with modest compression. CFCS seemed attractive because they were very stable compounds, non-reactive with most other chemicals, very low in toxicity. These attractive traits solved serious risks and expenses associated with previous industrial refrigeration using toxic, explosive compounds like ammonia.

The automobile and the refrigerator (and freezer) changed the nature of food marketing for post-WWII suburbs: as one symbol of these complex shifts, daily shopping using small handbaskets was replaced during this period by weekly shopping using large supermarket grocery carts, introduced in 1937.

Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956) tried quick freezing fish in 1923 based on his experiences in Labrador. He was able to freeze meat and vegetables by 1928, founding General Foods Co., which made frozen food widely available by the 1930s. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarence_Birdseye

Assembly line factory manufacturing of food began to replace home cooking in the 1950s, with the "TV dinner" as a metaphor for modern food: this paralleled the increasing participation of women as wage workers in the economy.

Simultaneously: the rise of the fast food industry, symbolized by Ray Kroc purchasing franchise rights to the McDonald Brothers' hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, in 1954. Kroc's first franchise was in Des Plaines, Illinois, and he went on to purchase the entire company in 1961:
Col. Harland Sanders launched his Kentucky Fried Chicken (later KFC) franchise in 1956. A host of others followed, all providing alternative auto-dependent diets outside home.

All of these changes in food and diet were tied to changes in marketing: frozen and canned convenience foods were all sold in disposable packages, the printing on which became key to advertising and marketing the products inside.

Ergo: rising quantities of solid waste in the decades following WWII. Motorized refuse collection had begun in some cities in 1910-20 period, but large-scale garbage collection was essential in most American cities by the 1950s because of growing waste streams.

Hence corporations and factories were not the only sources of this problem: American standards of living were also responsible. Walt Kelly's cartoon character Pogo captured this insight with his famous remark: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." It became a key slogan of the new environmental movement.

IV. Earth Day

There was a growing sense of apocalyptic change at the end of a decade of turmoil: Civil Rights movement; urban riots; Vietnam War and its associated protests; continuing Cold War with its threat of nuclear war; all combined with the famous vision of "earthrise" over Apollo 8's moon (photo taken on 12/24/1968), suggesting the unity of humanity and its dependence on a vulnerable planet earth: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthrise

Environmentalism represented a call to unity, an expression of collective guilt, in the face of a national crisis of divisiveness.

On the one hand: it was a grassroots movement that white middle-class people could feel unthreatened by, seen in the eyes of critics as sidetracking attention from more conflicted areas of social justice, racial conflict, and the Vietnam War. On other hand, it was also a genuine collective impulse toward action on behalf of the whole community, with a rhetoric of inclusiveness even if it failed to engage or address underlying conflicts.

Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, 1968: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_Earth_Catalog

In September 1969, Wisconsin's Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed a day of national reflection on environmental crisis. After much organizing, this became the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. It generated widespread activism and media attention, in what has been called the largest mass produce in American history, with more than 20 million people participating.

Earth Day saw declarations of crisis, calls for a new spiritual vision, and practical suggestions: returnable bottles, protest pollution, preserve open space, put bricks in toilets to reduce waste of water.

But was there a problem here? Were these small acts really adequate responses to the fear of a potential world-wide apocalypse? Earth Day suggested at least the possibility of some tension between a rhetoric of threatened doom and responses that didn't always seem commensurate with that threat.