Though the conservation movement had European roots, many observers maintain that the United States has emerged as the world’s leader in environmentalism.
If America does, in fact, deserve credit for leading the green movement, what made the United States such a crucible for environmentalism? It’s partly due to the immigrants who came to the North American continent in the colonial era and partly to the natural beauty of the land they found when they crossed the Atlantic.
The Early Years of the Green Movement
America, of course, didn’t invent the green movement any more than it invented trees. The basic principles of sustainable forestry management, for example, were known throughout Europe (especially Germany, France and England) since the medieval era. Farming communities in Asia practiced soil conservation through terrace farming and other sustainable agricultural practices.
English writer Thomas Malthus, in his oft-quoted An Essay on the Principle of Population, alarmed much of 18th-century Europe by proposing that an increase in human population beyond sustainable limits would result in a catastrophic plunge in population due to famine and/or disease. Malthus’ writings would inform much of the alarm over the “population explosion” roughly 200 years later.
But it was after the colonization of the Americas by Europeans that writers and philosophers were among the first to propose that wilderness had an intrinsic value beyond its usefulness to humans.
While fisheries, hunting grounds, and timber stands were important to civilization, visionaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau proposed that “in wildness is the preservation of the world” (Thoreau). Their belief that nature possesses a spiritual element that transcends human utility gave these men and their followers the label “Transcendentalists.”
The Green Movement and the Industrial Revolution
The transcendentalism of the early 1800s and its celebration of the natural world arrived just in time to be trampled underfoot by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. As forests disappeared under the ax of reckless timber barons, coal became a popular source of energy. Unfettered use of coal in homes and factories resulted in horrific air pollution in cities like London, Philadelphia, and Paris.
In the 1850s, a carnival huckster named George Gale heard about an immense California redwood that was over 600 years old when Jesus was born. Upon seeing the magnificent tree, nicknamed The Mother of the Forest, Gale hired men to cut the tree down so that its bark could be displayed in his sideshow.
The reaction to Gale’s stunt, however, was swift and ugly: “To our mind, it seems a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree … what in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such a speculation with this mountain of wood?,” wrote one editor.
The growing realization that human industry was obliterating irreplaceable wilderness — and endangering human health — resulted in the earliest efforts at managing natural resources.
In 1872, Yellowstone National Park was created, the first of what became one of America’s best ideas: a network of national parks that were strictly off-limits to exploitation.
The Conservation Movement Takes Root
As the Industrial Revolution continued to wreak havoc on wilderness, a growing chorus of voices sounded the alarm. Among them were John Muir, a visionary poet of the American West and its spectacular beauty, and Theodore Roosevelt, an avid reformer whom Muir convinced to set aside vast tracts of wilderness for conservation.
Other men, however, had different ideas about the value of wilderness. Gifford Pinchot, who studied forestry in Europe and became an advocate for managed forestry, was once an ally of Muir and others in the conservation movement. As Pinchot continued to broker the clear-cutting of virgin forests with influential timber barons, however, he fell out of favor with those who believed in the importance of preserving nature, regardless of its commercial uses.
Muir was among those who decried Pinchot’s management of wilderness areas, and it is Muir’s interest in preservation as opposed to conservation that gave rise to what may be Muir’s greatest legacy. In 1892, Muir and others created the Sierra Club, to “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.”
The Modern Green Movement Begins
In the 20th century, the conservation movement was overshadowed by events like the Great Depression and two world wars. Only after World War II ended — and the rapid transformation of North America from an agricultural society to an industrial one was well underway — did the modern environmental movement begin.
America’s postwar industrialization proceeded at a breakneck pace. The results, while amazing in their breadth, alarmed many with the havoc they wreaked. Nuclear fallout from atomic tests, air pollution caused by millions of cars and factories spewing chemicals into the atmosphere, the destruction of once-pristine rivers and lakes (like Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, which famously caught fire due to pollution), and the disappearance of farmland and forests under suburban developments were a concern to many citizens.
Into this maelstrom stepped a quiet, studious scientist and author. Rachel Carson in 1962 published, a devastating argument against the reckless use of the pesticides that were wiping out populations of birds, insects, and other animals. The now-classic book gave voice to millions of Americans who saw their rich natural heritage disappearing right before their eyes.
Following the publication of Silent Spring and books like Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb, Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson joined many other politicians in adding environmental protection to their platforms. Even Republican Richard Nixon made considerable progress toward incorporating environmental awareness into his administration. Not only did Nixon create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he also signed the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which required environmental impact assessments for all large-scale federal projects.
And on Christmas Eve of 1968, NASA astronaut William Anders, while orbiting the moon with the Apollo 8 mission, snapped a photograph that many people credit with providing a foundation for the modern green movement. His photo shows a small, blue planet Earth peeking over the horizon of the Moon. (See above.) The image of a small planet, alone in a vast ocean of space, showed billions the fragility of our planet and the importance of preserving and protecting Earth.
The Environmental Movement and Earth Day
Inspired by the protests and “teach-ins” that were occurring worldwide throughout the 1960s, Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed in 1969 that there be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment. In Nelson’s words, “The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters.” Thus was born the event now known as Earth Day.
On April 22, 1970, the first celebration of Earth Day took place on a glorious spring day, and the event was a tremendous success. Millions of Americans coast to coast took part in parades, concerts, speeches and fairs devoted to preserving the natural heritage of the United States and the entire world.
In a speech that day, Nelson stated, “Our goal is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human creatures and for all living creatures.” Earth Day is now celebrated worldwide and has become an environmental touchstone for two generations of eco-activists.
The Environmental Movement Solidifies
In the months and years following the first Earth Day and the creation of the EPA, the green movement, and environmental consciousness were solidified into private and public institutions around the world. Landmark environmental legislation, like the Clean Water Act, the Federal Pesticides Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Scenic Trails Acts, were signed into law. These federal acts joined many other state and local programs to protect the environment.
But all institutions have their detractors, and the environmental movement is no exception. As environmental legislation began to be implemented nationwide, many in the business community found that environmental legislation was having a negative impact on the profitability of mining, forestry, fisheries, manufacturing and other extractive and polluting industries.
In 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency, the dismantling of environmental safeguards began. By appointing anti-environmental crusaders like Interior Secretary James Watt and EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch to office, Reagan and the entire Republican Party signaled their naked contempt for the green movement.
Their success was limited, however, and both Watt and Gorsuch were so universally disliked — even by members of their own party — that they were removed from office after serving a matter of months. But the battle lines had been drawn, and the business community and the Republican Party remain vehemently opposed to the environmental protections that define much of the green movement.
The Green Movement Today: Science vs Spiritualism
Like many social and political movements, the green movement has been strengthened and annealed by the forces that oppose it. After James Watt was appointed to lead the Department of the Interior, for instance, membership in the Sierra Club grew from 183,000 to 245,000 in just 12 months.
Today, the green movement is again defined and galvanized by its command of issues like global warming and climate change, wetlands preservation, the Keystone pipeline, nuclear proliferation, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” fisheries depletion, species extinction and other important environmental concerns.
What distinguishes the green movement today from the earlier conservation movement is its emphasis on science and research. Speaking in spiritual tones and using religious metaphors, early environmentalists like Muir and Thoreau celebrated nature for its profound impact on man’s emotions and our souls. When Hetch Hetchy Valley in California was threatened by a dam, Muir exclaimed, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
Now, however, we are far more likely to call upon scientific data and empirical research to buttress arguments in favor of wilderness preservation, or against polluting industries. Politicians cite the work of polar researchers and use computerized climate models to battle global warming, and medical researchers rely on public health statistics to argue against mercury pollution. Whether these arguments succeed or fail, however, still depends on the vision, the passion and the commitment of the people who make up the green movement.