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The Environmental Movement

April 22, 2019

During assembly on Monday, April 22, Martha Keeley (science) continued the assembly series on 1968. She spoke about the environment and the environmental movement which hit a watershed in the late 60s with the first Earth Day. Her remarks follow:

We are a year away from the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970. As we commemorate 1968 this school year, I want to share with you what was happening with America’s land, water, and air in the late 1960s and how people responded to that, as well as some of the progress that’s been made as a result of their work. Maybe we can learn some things from 1968 that we can apply to our current situation.

The roots of the modern environmental movement go back to John Burroughs and his fellow conservationists in the late 1800s. During this time, protecting the environment was focused on very local issues. John Burroughs (on the right) was a central figure in the conservationist cause through his essays and poems. He is pictured with his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, who protected about 230 million acres of public land during his presidency.

Two World Wars later, in 1945, our outlook on nature was changing quickly - the technological achievements that had helped win the war contributed to a feeling that even nature could be brought under human control.

This graph shows what’s referred to as the Great Acceleration and documents how much the country was changing after 1945. The graph starts way back at 1750, and the vertical black line is at 1950. The curves on the graph represent things like US population and the production of goods and services. All of these curves begin a dramatic change just before that line at 1950, and they just keep increasing faster and faster after 1950.

As part of these dramatic changes, Americans were surrounded with seemingly miraculous new products. And more and more people were becoming better educated, making more money, and having more children. They were able to worry less about just earning a living and more about pursuing a higher quality of life. This often involved enjoying more time outdoors, and people noticed that the outdoors was getting less and less pleasant. This bright and shiny vision of civilization with its amazing advances was brought about by technology and manufacturing, and that brought a host of pollutants and toxic chemicals into the air and water.

Another big factor in post WWII America was a mass migration out of the main cities and into suburbs. Suburban sprawl resulted in the development of a huge amount of land that had previously been fields, forests, and marshes.

By the 1950s, the result was an environmental crisis. There were no environmental regulations in place, and factories and cities were free to dump their waste without financial consequences. Up to this point the country had seemed enormous, with endless space to get rid of waste without causing a problem, by just adding it to the vast open spaces. But now the land, water, and air seemed to be filling up with trash and sludge, plus there was less and less open space as the cities expanded.

This picture is of the Cuyahoga River, which runs through my hometown: Cleveland, Ohio. By the time this fire occurred in 1952 there were no signs of visible life in the Cuyahoga — “not even leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes” — and it was occasionally catching on fire because of the layer of oil that floated on top. In the 1960s, Time Magazine described the river as being so full of sewage and industrial waste that it “oozes rather than flows.” Cleveland got a bad reputation for its polluted river catching on fire, but it was NOT the only one. Unregulated dumping of waste from cities and industries befouled nearly every river that passed through a major metropolitan area.

Some of the water and land pollution was a result of oil spills from tankers, refineries, and pipelines. Before 1970 the number of major oil spills was not even tracked, but there’s no question that there were a LOT.

Nuclear fallout from above ground nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War also had environmental consequences. Much of the radioactive fallout later came down to Earth, invisible and tasteless, in the rain.
The United States conducted 210 above-ground nuclear weapons tests in the years between the end of WW2 and 1962; some of them were over the ocean but many of them were over Nevada.

Also by the 1960s there was a realization that a pesticide called DDT that had saved millions of people in the fight against malaria had lethal consequences for wildlife. The ... the number of malaria cases fell dramatically after DDT was introduced to control mosquitoes: a huge step forward for public health.

... One of the breakdown products of DDT in the environment causes thinning of birds’ eggshells. This is considered to be responsible for the major declines of bald eagles and other species across the country.

..., people did not have to go looking for an obvious example of pollution during the 1950s and 1960s – examples were everywhere. Plenty of people were getting upset about it and working to try to make things better. These activists fell into five major categories and mostly they worked separately from each other until the first Earth Day in 1970, when their efforts became combined and focused. The work they had already been putting into improving things throughout the 1960s is what enabled the first Earth Day to bring about lasting change.

Along with other Americans, politicians had their worldview changed by the space race. The stunning Soviet success of the Sputnik satellite sparked a resounding chorus of self-doubt across America. Maybe the US had become too comfortable to be competitive.

In the early 1960s President Johnson’s Great Society programs addressed a growing desire to move the country beyond complacency and start solving really big problems like poverty, racial injustice, and pollution.

President Johnson, whose wife was an avid advocate for nature and wildlife, proceeded to pass a significant amount of environmental legislation that was critical in the evolution of the environmental movement. For the first time, this legislation firmly established the principle of federal responsibility for the quality of the nation’s air and water.

Up to this point scientists had avoided direct political action and propagandizing, feeling that it was important for them to remain detached and objective.
Rachel Carson, a biologist, took an entirely different approach in her 1962 book “Silent Spring” which focused on the effects of DDT and nuclear fallout. Her book was widely read by the public, and it created a tide of public opinion about ecology that made it impossible for professional ecologists to remain on the sidelines. The concern stoked by Carson’s book eventually led to the banning of DDT in the US in 1972.

Following Rachel Carson’s lead, ecologists like Barry Commoner (in St. Louis) and Paul Ehrlich began to speak out with great urgency about pollution and the degradation of land, air, and water due to the exploding population.

The percentage of married women working outside the home was rising sharply, but the women who played a major role in environmental activism in the 1960s mostly described themselves as housewives. For many middle-class women, the environmental cause seemed a natural extension of their concerns as housewives and mothers. And in the domestic sphere – unlike the worlds of politics and business – women did not have to wait for men to lead the way. Many women found the work liberating and eventually became paid consultants, leaders in environmental organizations, or elected officials.

St. Louis women were especially active, partnering with Wash U ecologist Barry Commoner in coordinating the St. Louis Baby Tooth Drive. They collected and analyzed 320,000 baby teeth over 12 years to find out whether radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing was being absorbed by children in their bones and teeth. The data showed that the answer was yes. The results contributed to the signing of an international treaty to ban such testing.

The counterculture of hippies and commune dwellers helped in a variety of ways to put the environment on the protest agenda. They argued in 1966 that as long as business interests ruled, the quality of the nation’s land, air, and water would continue to deteriorate. Young people were becoming wary about human attempts to control nature, and they were more willing than their parents to restrain economic growth and technological development in order to preserve the natural environment.

In 1950 the Conservation movement was weak and fragmented.

In 1965, however, an event occurred that gave conservationists a cause to rally around. Congress approved a plan to build two dams in the Grand Canyon, for the purpose of generating power. The Sierra Club rallied with full page ads in the New York Times like this one that urged people to help.

The public rallied to the idea of saving the canyon with letter writing and fundraising, and Congress and the administration were forced to abandon the dams.

Then Congress went further, banning dams anywhere in the Grand Canyon and expanding the National Park. This was a big victory, and the battle served as a rallying cry for a whole generation of activists.


The “environmental crisis” became part of the larger American consciousness and became intertwined with other movements of the time, including the Civil Rights movement. While James Farmer’s focus was on Civil Rights, this quote shows the solidarity of purpose shared by many of these overlapping movements in the late 1960s.

For some, the movement to end the Vietnam War and the movement to protect the environment became aspects of one all-encompassing struggle. Strategic damage to Vietnam’s jungles was linked by critics to environmental damage at home, because the chemicals used in the war were produced in the US and the waste impacted the environment here.

It was a major consciousness changer for Americans to see the Earth from space in 1969 and 1970. The big idea that took hold of many Americans was that we live on a finite planet with a limited capacity to support life. It was the broad realization that Earth’s resources are finite that mushroomed just after 1968 into the Earth Day movement.

The first Earth Day, in 1970, would bring together the efforts of all of these groups that were already working on ecological concerns: politicians, scientists, women activists, young people, and conservationists.

US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin spent much of the 1960s championing environmental causes and pushing for change, but he was mostly met with indifference from his fellow politicians. Frustrated, in the fall of 1969 he announced that a National Teach-In on the Environment would be held on campuses across the country in the spring of 1970. The Teach-In was renamed Earth Day.

The Earth Day coordinating group let campuses and cities make their own plans that were relevant to the pollution and other concerns in their specific location. And in every part of the country, there was something going on in the drinking water or in the air.

20 million people turned out for Earth Day on campuses and in cities across the country, because of the buildup of so many concerns that had been voiced and acted on by these different groups of people throughout the country over the previous decades.

Across the country the day was filled with lectures, workshops, debates, trash pickups, films, concerts, field trips, days without the use of cars where everyone rode their bikes, marches to publicize local issues…a huge variety.

So what became of the energy that was gathering around the environmental crisis in 1968 and that resulted in 20 million people turning out for Earth Day in 1970?

A new and unified Environmental Movement was launched out of the smaller, more limited efforts that had preceded it. Nationally, Earth Day created a tide so strong that it swept up both Republicans and Democrats. Earth Day had resonated with a huge portion of the public, and the political will to make change was now in place on both sides of the aisle.

A series of landmark Environmental Protection Laws were approved in the Nixon Administration: the creation of the EPA, the strengthening of the Clean Air Act, an expanded Clean Water Act, a new Endangered Species Act, and in the Carter Administration came the creation of Superfund to deal with the cleanup of toxic waste sites.

Another important factor is that a new group of lawyers, the Natural Resources Defense Council, became the enforcers of these laws. They sued polluters and the government when they were not in compliance. Over time, pollution was dramatically reduced as industries and cities came into compliance with the new standards.

Having worked in industry as an engineer, I can tell you that environmental regulations are effective in changing the behavior of corporations. The company I worked for tried very hard to reduce waste and we spent a lot of time and effort complying with regulations. We referred to this diligence as “maintaining the freedom to operate.” We didn’t want to be sued for violating environmental regulations, and we didn’t want to lose the public’s trust in us as a neighbor either.

It would be hard to overstate the role that legislation and emission standards have had in allowing the country to make significant progress toward cleaning up the messes that we’ve made.

If you need some confirmation that the enforcement of these environmental regulations had an impact…in 2013 Smithsonian Magazine published two undoctored pictures of this park in South Boston. The smoggy photo on the left was taken in 1973, and the photo on the right was taken in 2012 after four decades of the Clean Air Act.

Here’s my hometown, Cleveland. The photo below shows the Cuyahoga River in the days when there were no signs of visible life. Remember? “Not even…leeches and sludge worms….”. It should go without saying that nobody was boating on the Cuyahoga River when I was growing up in the 70s. Taken two years ago, the picture on the right shows a busy and revitalized Cleveland riverfront with standup paddleboarders and boaters on the water. It’s like a different city.

The regulations required, and still do, that companies and cities that polluted or allowed pollution in the form of toxic waste are held responsible for paying for the cleanup of the area. The cleanup is usually complicated and difficult, and for a variety of reasons this is taking a very long time. After four decades of Superfund’s existence there are still over 1300 sites that have not yet been declared clean. One of those is the West Lake Landfill here in St. Louis.

Some toxic waste sites have been reclaimed, though, such as the one pictured here. In 1978 it probably would have been difficult to imagine healthy grass growing on this Superfund site.

A major new aspect to the environmental movement in the last three decades has been the fight for environmental justice.

Across the country, as a result of the persistent power disparity, landfills and incinerators tend to be in predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods. These communities bear the brunt of environmental risk, and there are countless examples. Environmental justice is an area in which the country has a long way to go.

With so much progress having been made toward cleaning up air and water as a result of the enforcement of environmental regulations, much of the more recent attention to the Earth has been on the short and long term effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Evidence gathered by scientists about ancient warming and cooling trends reveals that the current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of a normal warming pattern after an ice age. The probability is greater than 95% that most of the current warming is the result of human activity since WW2, and it is proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented. 97% or more of the actively publishing climate scientists agree.

According to NASA and most other leading scientific organizations worldwide, there is no question that the increased levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are contributing to the current rate of warming of the Earth.

In 2005 the US National Academy of Sciences, never the first one to jump on a bandwagon, stated: "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking steps to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."

In the United States, finding the political will to take those steps has been very difficult. None of the three major international agreements shown here have resulted in the kind of binding, enforceable framework that can help slow down climate change in the same way that the enforceable environmental legislation of the early 1970s helped ensure the cleanup of pollution.

Just as in 1968, it seems like young people might contribute significantly to the momentum to shift public opinion and build the political will to make real changes in environmental policy.

Coordinated through social media by middle school and high school student volunteers in 125 countries and regions, the Youth Climate Strike spread across more than 2,000 events and included tens of thousands of students last month.

The students say they are frustrated because grown-ups could have fixed the climate change problem if they had taken more action earlier. But instead they have left the problem to future generations. For the co-leaders of Youth Climate Strike—and for kids across the world—this one day of strikes is the beginning of their movement.

Looking back at 1968, we can see that the dedication of many different people over time finally resulted in major improvements. Just like in 1968, the political will to create solutions today won’t come from the top down. It will instead arise from many people continuing to stand up and say “It doesn’t have to be this way.” Right now in addition to Youth Climate Strike there are about 30,000 organizations around the world working on issues of social justice and the environment.

This indicates that momentum is currently building among young people, politicians, scientists, and environmental activists. A more diverse group of people than ever hold decision-making positions in business and government. My hope is that these conditions will enable the next set of major enforceable steps forward in repairing the damage we’ve caused. If so, future generations will be able to look back knowing that the work of people in our time made a difference, too.

Thank you for your attention, and Happy Earth Day!