A Brief History of the Modern Green Movement in America

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What is the green movement?

The green movement as we think of it today has evolved considerably since the early days. Since there are some popular assumptions about environmental history that are incorrect, if you have an interest in green issues this article will serve as a helpful guide to the origins and evolution of “green”. To understand the modern green movement, we have to trace its origins back to the beginning.

Let’s get started:

While many people associate the beginning of the green movement with Rachel Carson’s breakthrough book Silent Spring and the legislative fervor of the 1970s, environmentalism is in fact rooted in the intellectual thought of the 1830s and 1840s. In fact, the “environmental movement” is a significant thread in the fabric of American philosophical thought – first developed by the Transcendentalists (most famously Henry David Thoreau) but tangibly expanded upon during the era of American pragmatism in the latter half of the 19th century. Environmentalism isn’t a trend, or a cult, or a form of hysteria. It is rooted in American philosophy and, being at once innovative and practical, idealistic and active, one could easily define modern environmentalism as quintessentially American.

Environmentalism in America today is defined as:

“Environmentalists advocate the sustainable management of resources and stewardship of the environment through changes in public policy and individual behavior. In its recognition of humanity as a participant in (not enemy of) ecosystems, the movement is centered on ecology, health, and human rights.”

But how did we get from Thoreau and Teddy Roosevelt to “treehugging” and finally, the eco-friendly consumer-driven developments of today?

1. Roots of Environmentalism

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) certainly helped foster a reawakening of environmentalism, but it was Henry David Thoreau, in his book Maine Woods, who called for the conservation of and respect for nature and the federal preservation of virgin forests.

George Perkins Marsh was another key figure during the first half of the 19th century who championed preserving the natural environment. Leading intellectuals of the antebellum era called into question the standard Puritan pastoral ethic – the belief that cultivating and using the land was inherently moral and leaving the land alone to be “wild” was wasteful and uncivilized (this belief developed in large part because of the violent cultural clash between early Americans and Native Americans – something we tend to forget about in modern times). To this day there are ingrained negative associations between preserving wild lands and pantheistic or pagan values. This tension flares up in popular discourse from time to time (“environmental wackos”, “treehuggers”, and so forth). The classic American conflict between secular rationalism and Puritan morality is certainly not exclusive to our management of natural resources!

2. The Pragmatist Era

Though Transcendentalism was famously reverent of nature, it was the thrust of can-do American Pragmatism (widely viewed to be America’s original contribution to philosophical thought) that doubtless inspired a series of steps to conserve nature. Beginning in the 1860s, the United States government saw fit to create parks and set aside wild lands for public good. Yosemite was claimed in 1864 (John Muir moved there in 1869). It was made our first national park in 1872. The Audubon Society was founded in 1872 and Sequoia and General Grant parks were established. The only setback during this era was the Mining Act of 1890, which is controversial to this day. The Forest Reserve Act finished the era of pragmatism with federal impetus. John Muir was elected president of the new Sierra Club in 1892.

3. Conservation and Teddy Roosevelt

Though the federal government had begun taking actions to preserve lands, it was Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir – a bit of an unlikely pair – who publicized and popularized conservation. Teddy’s visit to Yosemite in 1903 gained national publicity. By 1916 the National Park Service had been established with leadership by Stephen Mather.

But just as swiftly, the World Wars – sandwiching the traumatic Great Depression – forced environmental concerns to the background of public thought. While the Sierra Club continued to grow rapidly and became instrumental in establishing many parks during these years, environmentalism as we know it today was not a concern for most Americans – or, consequently, the federal government. It would take disasters and threats to bring environmental issues out of the organizations and ivory towers and into the mainstream again. In future posts, you can expect these events to be explored in greater detail. Your questions are welcome.

4. Conservation and Catastrophe

After WWII, environmental efforts continued to be focused on conservation of land rather than more personal issues like food safety or consumer products. That soon changed. The 1948 disaster at Donora (called the “death fog”) prompted national outcry; also during this time David Brower became Executive Director of the Sierra Club (1952).

5. Things Get “Personal”

The technological and industrial developments of the Cold War era and a series of surprising events (most notably Donora) fueled a new environmental concern that went beyond saving forests and establishing parks. Carson’s bestseller set off a furor with its expose of toxins in consumer products and philosophical claim that controlling nature is both arrogant and morally bankrupt. The Sierra Club prevented the damming of the Grand Canyon and an oil spill at Santa Barbara caused public outrage. The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 to limit the construction of dams and other structures on important lands and landmarks. During these years the Environmental Protection Agency was founded. The late 1960s and 1970s saw the rise, then, of the modern green movement.

6. Activism and Codification

The 1970s saw numerous steps to clean up the environment: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the founding of Earth Day, the banning of DDT, the Water Pollution Control Act, and the Endangered Species Act (which the Supreme Court upheld in 1977. Disasters at Love Canal in 1978 and Three Mile Island in 1979 terrified the public with the visible consequences of toxic waste, pollution, and contamination. The 1980s were plagued with oil spills (the Exxon Valdez in 1989, among others), and while there was continued significant backlash from industry against environmental strictures, the various Acts were not overturned.

7. Treehuggers and That Infamous Owl

The 1990s saw the offshoot of radical environmentalism in the face of corporate mistreatment of the land – and groups like PETA, Earth First and ELF got plenty of media attention. As conservative radio hosts went on tirades about minnows and the spotted owl and the merits of clear cutting, passionate young activists famously chained themselves to or took up residence in trees – earning the nickname “treehuggers“. These actions gained notoriety, but unfortunately also had the effect of politicizing and emotionally charging key environmental issues. Environmental protection was alternately depicted as being religious, cult-like, anti-society, anti-property ownership and anti-capitalist. Criminal stunts from fringe environmental groups did nothing to dampen the image of environmentalism as extreme. Vegetarianism experienced a popular resurgence with ground-breaking books like Diet for a New America (Robbins) but it also became the brunt of many a late-night comedian’s routine. The concept of climate change was ridiculed by many as an overreaction from misguided “environmentalist wackos”.

9. The “New” Environmentalism

Sobering international events, catastrophic weather, visible climate change, 9/11 and war, gas shortages and scientific consensus legitimized environmental concerns during the early years of the new century. Al Gore’s blockbuster film An Inconvenient Truth seared the climate crisis into the popular consciousness. Suddenly, the problems were obvious everywhere you looked: our food was chemically treated and genetically modified, our water was contaminated with toxic chemicals, our resources were running out, our wasteful habits were filling landfills, New Orleans was virtually destroyed, and gas prices were soaring – to name but a few key issues that have spurred millions to “go green”.

This post merely reviews the environmental movement as it relates to the United States. Consider: American leaders have yet to sign the Kyoto Protocol or earmark serious funding to green-collar jobs and sustainable technologies and energy. But American citizens have taken it upon themselves join a global movement, to learn more despite the gridlock in Washington; to conserve, to drive the development of eco-friendly consumption, to buy hybrids or use mass transit, even to telecommute. More and more people now recycle, compost, “go organic”, grow gardens and understand the connection between saving money, improving health and helping the environment. More people are interested in technology and efficient living than ever before. And more and more people are becoming curious about the natural world in all its majesty and strangeness.

The great opportunity is that every individual can be a part of the green revolution in some way. Everyone can learn and take a positive step in a greener direction. No one’s perfect, but together we can solve the problems we face. Welcome to the “new” green movement.

Consider this your crash course in environmentalism. In future articles you will learn more about each stage of the green movement, as well as learn about both international and American contributions, challenges and solutions. Our mission is to provide interesting, educational, practical green information and ideas and we welcome everyone.

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