The first Earth Day is the most famous little-known event in modern American history. Because we still pay ritual homage to the planet every April 22, everyone knows something about Earth Day. Some people may also know that Earth Day 1970 made the environmental movement a major force in American political life. But no one has told the whole story before.
The story of the first Earth Day is inspiring: it had a power, a freshness, and a seriousness of purpose that are difficult to imagine today. Earth Day 1970 created an entire green generation. Thousands of Earth Day organizers and participants decided to devote their lives to the environmental cause. Earth Day 1970 helped to build a lasting eco-infrastructure―lobbying organizations, environmental beats at newspapers, environmental-studies programs, ecology sections in bookstores, community ecology centers.
In The Genius of Earth Day, the prizewinning historian Adam Rome offers a compelling account of the rise of the environmental movement. Drawing on his experience as a journalist as well as his expertise as a scholar, he explains why the first Earth Day was so powerful, bringing one of the greatest political events of the twentieth century to life.
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Adam Rome teaches environmental history and environmental nonfiction at the University of Delaware. Before earning his Ph.D. in history, he worked for seven years as a journalist. His first book, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism, won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the Lewis Mumford Prize.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1 The Prehistory of Earth Day
Earth Day was not the work of a well-established movement. Indeed, commentators did not begin to speak about “the environmental movement” until the run-up to Earth Day. Though many Americans had sought to address environmental issues before 1970, their efforts were fragmented. Few organizations worked on both rural and urban problems. The old conservation groups focused on wildlife and wilderness. The fight against air pollution largely was led by single-issue organizations, from Stamp Out Smog in Los Angeles to Citizens for Clean Air in New York. The only “environmental” organization in the late 1960s—the Environmental Defense Fund—essentially was a handful of lawyers and scientists who pursued high-profile lawsuits. The Natural Resources Defense Council was a month old on Earth Day.1
Because the environmental movement still was inchoate in the 1960s, Earth Day had no obvious precursors. That made Earth Day quite different from the biggest civil-rights and antiwar demonstrations of the era. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the culmination of nine years of activism: the Montgomery bus boycott, the Greensboro sit-ins, the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham. The 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam came after four years of protests, from the antiwar teach-ins of 1965 to the 1967 march on the Pentagon.
The lack of antecedents reveals much about the significance of Earth Day. Earth Day did not just mobilize activists to demonstrate the growing power of their cause. In several ways, Earth Day helped to create the movement. Earth Day gave environmental activism a name. Earth Day also convinced many Americans that pollution, sprawl, nuclear fallout, pesticide use, wilderness preservation, waste disposal, and population growth were not separate issues: All were facets of a far-reaching “environmental crisis.” Perhaps most important, Earth Day brought together activists who had worked separately before.
The new movement drew support from a variety of people, but members of five groups were critical. In the course of the 1950s and 1960s, many liberal Democrats, scientists, middle-class women, young critics of American institutions, and conservationists became more concerned about environmental issues. Though the activists in those groups did not become a concerted force until Earth Day brought them together, they made Earth Day possible.2
In the mid-1950s, a handful of Democratic intellectuals began to reconsider the liberal agenda, and their efforts intensified after Adlai Stevenson’s defeat in the presidential election of 1956. What could liberalism offer in a time of unprecedented affluence? Many Democratic policy advisers and elected officials soon concluded that one answer to that question was a commitment to environmental protection. In coming to that conclusion, they were influenced by the arguments of experts in a growing number of professions concerned about the environment. They also were responding to growing grassroots activism. But the Democratic intellectuals and politicians were leaders as well as followers. By making environmental issues part of a broad new liberal agenda, they fundamentally changed the terms of debate.
The most influential advocates of the new liberalism were the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. The two Harvard professors were unusually well positioned to shape political debate. Both wrote speeches for Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and both were founders of Americans for Democratic Action. Both also served on the domestic policy committee of the national Democratic party. In the late 1950s, both men became advisers to John F. Kennedy, and their influence in Democratic politics continued into the 1960s.3
For Schlesinger and Galbraith, a liberal agenda for the 1960s followed from two related ideas about the nation’s postwar prosperity, and both ideas provided a powerful new justification for expanding the role of government in protecting the environment. First, liberals needed to move beyond the basic goals of the New Deal. In an age of abundance, government could and should do more than ensure that Americans enjoyed a minimum of material comfort. Schlesinger put the point succinctly: “Instead of the quantitative liberalism of the 1930s, rightly dedicated to the struggle to secure the economic basis of life, we need now a ‘qualitative liberalism’ dedicated to bettering the quality of people’s lives and opportunities.” Second, liberals needed to address what Galbraith called “the problem of social balance.” Though the postwar economic boom enabled people to buy more and more consumer products, the private sector could not satisfy the increasing demand for a number of vital community services. Accordingly, the challenge for liberals was to offer a compelling vision of the public interest.4
Though neither Schlesinger nor Galbraith was a noted conservationist, both pointed to environmental problems to support their argument for a new liberalism. The state of the environment clearly affected the quality of life. If the nation’s streams were polluted, then fewer people could enjoy the pleasures of fishing or boating. The quality of the environment also was a classic example of a public good, since consumers could not simply buy fresh air, clean water, or sprawl-free countrysides.
Schlesinger addressed the issue first. “Our gross national product rises; our shops overflow with gadgets and gimmicks; consumer goods of ever-increasing ingenuity and luxuriance pour out of our ears,” he wrote in a 1956 essay on the future of liberalism. “But our schools become more crowded and dilapidated, our teachers more weary and underpaid, our playgrounds more crowded, our cities dirtier, our roads more teeming and filthy, our national parks more unkempt, our law enforcement more overworked and inadequate.”5
In The Affluent Society—a bestseller in 1958—Galbraith used more evocative language. “The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered, and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground,” he wrote. “They pass into a countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial art … They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?” Those lines would become the most famous in the book.6
The fame of the passage was not due simply to Galbraith’s acerbic style. In a few nauseating images, Galbraith had caught a growing concern about the deterioration of the nation’s environment. By the time The Affluent Society appeared, many Americans no longer could take for granted the healthfulness of their milk, because radioactive fallout from nuclear testing had contaminated dairy pastures. Across the country, people had begun campaigns to save “open space” from the sprawl of suburbia. The smog over California’s exploding cities had become a symbol of the perils of progress, and federal health officials had organized a national conference on the hazards of air pollution. Thousands of homeowners in new subdivisions had watched in shock as detergent foam came out of their kitchen faucets. As Galbraith suggested, countless families also had come face-to-face with pollution while trying to enjoy new opportunities for outdoor recreation.7
Sputnik also gave bite to Galbraith’s words. Even before the Soviet satellite orbited the earth in 1957, a handful of social critics had begun to question the fruits of abundance, and the stunning Soviet success turned those lonely voices into a resounding chorus of self-doubt. Had the United States become too comfortable? The question helped to provoke a spirited end-of-the-decade debate about the nation’s mission. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund commissioned a series of studies of “the problems and opportunities confronting American democracy,” and the studies appeared with great fanfare under the title Prospect for America. In 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed a presidential commission on national goals. The editors of Life and The New York Times asked Americans to reflect on “the national purpose.”8
Much of the debate focused on the Schlesinger/Galbraith argument about the imbalance between private wealth and public poverty. In a series of articles early in 1960, The New York Times reported that many officials in Washington had concluded that “the most important continuing issue of American policy and politics over the next decade will be the issue of public spending—what share of America’s total resources should be devoted to public as distinct from private purposes.” Though Americans enjoyed more consumer goods than any people in the history of the world, the newspaper summarized the liberal side of the argument, that the public sector of society was impoverished: “Education is underfinanced. Streams are polluted. There remains a shortage of hospital beds. Slums proliferate, and there is a gap in middle-income housing. We could use more and better parks, streets, detention facilities, water supply. The very quality of American life is suffering from these lacks—much more than from any lack of purely private goods and services.”9
As The New York Times summary suggests, the problem of pollution was cited again and again by the advocates of a more expansive public sphere. The problem of suburban sprawl also figured often in “the great debate.” In the Life series on the national purpose, two of the ten contributors wrote about the deteriorating environment. The political scientist Clinton Rossiter argued that the private sector was not equipped to deal with “the blight of our cities, the shortage of water and power, the disappearance of open space, the inadequacy of education, the need for recreational facilities, the high incidence of crime and delinquency, the crowding of the roads, the decay of the railroads, the ugliness of the sullied landscape, the pollution of the very air we breathe.” Adlai Stevenson agreed. Though the nation’s manufacturers were providing cars and refrigerators in abundance, the booming private economy could not protect against “the sprawl of subdivisions which is gradually depriving us of either civilized urban living or uncluttered rural space. It does not guarantee America’s children the teachers or the schools which should be their birthright. It does nothing to end the shame of racial discrimination. It does not counter the exorbitant cost of health, nor conserve the nation’s precious reserves of land and water and wilderness. The contrast between private opulence and public squalor on most of our panorama is now too obvious to be denied.”10
In the report of the presidential commission on national goals, the urbanist and housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster gave considerable attention to the problems of “vanishing open space and spreading pollution.” Wurster also offered a shrewd psychological explanation for the reluctance of taxpayers to accept a rise in community spending. Because the average citizen often had no chance to participate directly in the large-scale decisions that shaped the public environment, she argued, the public world was less satisfying than the private sphere. “Since he has more sense of personal power and choice in the consumer goods market, he tends to spend more money on … automobiles than on public services, and is likely to vote down higher taxes even though a park, or less smog, might give him more personal pleasure than a second TV set.”11
The bestselling social critic Vance Packard made similar arguments about pollution, sprawl, and national purpose in The Waste Makers. Packard already had questioned the consumerism of the 1950s in The Hidden Persuaders and The Status Seekers, and The Waste Makers extended the critique. In addition to the insights of a few conservationists, Packard drew on the arguments of both Schlesinger and Galbraith. As the nation entered a new decade, Packard wrote, the great unmet challenges all involved the provision of public goods. “A person can’t go down to the store and order a new park,” he explained. “A park requires unified effort, and that gets you into voting and public spending and maybe soak-the-rich taxes.” But the effort was essential. The consumption of ever-greater quantities of “deodorants, hula hoops, juke boxes, padded bras, dual mufflers, horror comics, or electric rotisseries” could not ensure national greatness. Instead, Americans needed to improve the quality of the environment, to stop the spread of pollution and “the growing sleaziness, dirtiness, and chaos of the nation’s great exploding metropolitan areas.”12
Though the national-purpose debate was bipartisan—the conservative columnist Walter Lippmann wrote often about the need to give a higher priority to public goods—the Democrats seized the issue of the deteriorating quality of the environment. When Life asked both presidential candidates in 1960 to define the national purpose, only John F. Kennedy mentioned environmental problems. “The good life falls short as an indicator of national purpose unless it goes hand in hand with the good society,” Kennedy wrote. “Even in material terms, prosperity is not enough when there is no equal opportunity to share in it; when economic progress means overcrowded cities, abandoned farms, technological unemployment, polluted air and water, and littered parks and countrysides; when those too young to earn are denied their chance to learn; when those no longer earning live out their lives in lonely degradation.”13
In the White House, Kennedy’s top domestic priority was a growth-boosting tax cut. But he took a few important steps to address the issue of environmental quality. He supported a new federal program to assist local and state governments in acquiring open space, and he endorsed a measure to preserve wilderness. In 1962, he held a White House Conference on Conservation, the first since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Kennedy instructed his science advisers to report on the use of pesticides. He also appointed an activist secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, who energetically promoted the cause of environmental protection.14
Like Kennedy, Udall borrowed from Schlesinger and Galbraith. He argued again and again that “the new conservation” was a vital effort to improve “the quality of life.” He also argued that the nation’s deteriorating environment was a sign of “the disorder of our postwar priorities.” In The Quiet Crisis—a 1963 call to action—he began by pointing out the stark contrast between the economic and environmental trends of the postwar decades. “America today stands poised on a pinnacle of wealth and power,” he wrote, “yet we live in a land of vanishing beauty, of increasing ugliness, of shrinking open space, and of an overall environment that is diminished daily by pollution and noise and blight.”15
The growing Democratic interest in the environment went beyond the Kennedy administration. By 1961, the California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action had deemphasized the old economic issues of unemployment and workmen’s compensation; instead, the group was focusing on “qualit...
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