Caitlin Karasik ('08-'09)

Today’s perspective on environmental matters is based, I believe, on the actions of people and the government during the Cold War. Events during this time triggered Americans’ interest in environmental concerns, and set up the basis of how America sees the environment as a regulatory issue.¹ It is because of this Cold War environmental movement that Americans today, and the government, use the political system to gain attention about these problems. Similarly to the Cold War environmental movement, today, the environment is a legislative topic, full of political debate.

There is a "classic cartoon image of a man sitting on the branch of a tree and sawing it off behind him," Philip Shabecoff says.² Shabecoff argues in his book, A Fierce Green Fire, that Americans have "lost...faith in the notion of limitless opportunity...." He explains that Turner's thesis about the American frontier involves Americans' “constantly expanding…control over nature…in the artificial environment that has replaced nature.”³ It can be asserted that much of the activism of the 1970's was in response to these ideas.

Circumstances during the Cold War produced cultural frenzies for a range of political and individual rights. Those hoping to protect the rights of the environment were grassroots groups.¹ These people founded organizations and raised awareness in a number of ways, such as books.² Diet for a Small Planet discussed vegetarianism.⁴ The book theorized about proteins in the vegetarian diet.⁵ The Toilet Papers raised awareness about recycling.⁶

Firstly, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring dealt with the technology in America affecting the environment in new ways. The atomic bomb was not the only technological advancement. DDT, a chemical that would effectively annihilate insects, was being sprayed all over the country. Carson saw the environment as an issue that the government should be concerned about and because she wrote the book, DDT was later banned. Peter Matthiessen said about Silent Spring that it is "[t]he cornerstone of the new environmentalism..." By writing the acclaimed book, Carson had "touched off a national debate on the use of chemical pesticides, the responsibility of science, and the limits of technological progress," says Linda Lear, "initiat[ing] a transformation in the relationship between humans and the natural world and stirr[ing] an awakening of public environmental consciousness." At this time, the atomic bomb wasn't the only controversial new form of technology in the country; Carson was concerned with DDT. As Linda Lear puts it, America had seen a "dramatically altered...balance of power between humans and nature." Amid the turbulence of the Cold War, Carson was able to provoke activism from environmentalists pushing for “protection of the environment through state and federal regulation,” says Lear.¹

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The American public began to see the effects of a lack of regulation when catastrophes occurred, such as in 1969, when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland went up in flames due to the amount of pollution in its waters. It was during this type of crisis atmosphere that Americans became active about these serious problems. Their activism is evident today. Companies and practices started during the Cold War environmental movement are still around in modern times. Books, music, holidays, even, promoted this new wave of environmental resurgence. “Friends of the Earth” and the “Natural Resources Defense Council,” are aimed at bringing about awareness and solving environmental issues. Earth Day began in 1970 and Americans were infiltrated with media and advertising that criticized harmful practices. Iron Eyes Cody, featured on families' TV screens, would lament about pollution, and Americans would watch Johnny Carson on late night television interview Professor Paul Ehrlich. The EPA was founded in 1970 by President Nixon, who also secured the establishment of the Endangered Species, Clean Water, and Air Acts.²

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In his research, the professor concentrates on population-related topics regarding the environment.⁷


Interesting sound clips: It takes some downloading, but he discusses his interview with Johnny Carson, his experience with DDT, and his studies.



Visit this link to watch a video about NRDC: http://www.nrdc.org/about/




Without these initiatives of the 1960’s and 1970’s, today’s environmentalism would never have been made possible. Environmentalists of the time period turned the environment into an issue that would have to be faced by every individual. A precedent was set during the Cold War environmental movement that would hold politicians and the government responsible for environmental problems, not just individual activists. Modern day presidents and public servants now must face the public with a promise to do right by the environment, and I believe that this has dramatically altered our way of thinking. It is something that has truly changed the political spectrum. The source of our modern day outlook on the environment is this Cold War era of environmental reforms. Had Americans and groups during this time not provoked a national concern for the environment, the environment would not be so publicized, or important, as it is today.

Politics during the environmental movement exemplify today's political system's dealings with the environment. For one thing, the environment is a party issue. Democrat vs. Republican splits up those who want to help the environment into liberal vs. conservative. During Carter's presidency, the Democrat pushed Americans to conserve. However, during Reagan's, the Conservative Revolution also resonated in environmental matters: the government was less concerned with regulatory practices. As well, campaigns used the environment to garner votes. Bush I vowed to use the presidency to aid the environment.²

Politics was not the only way in which this environmental movement affected America's outlook on the environment. As we have learned this year in APUSH, art and celebrity play a large role in American culture. I believe that we can attribute today's use of celebrities with the environment to this movement. For example, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and others went on ABC to promote Earth Day in 1990.² Out of America's past history of environmental movements, the twentieth century movement really triggered today's environmental stance. Had it not been for pioneers such as Rachel Carson, NRDC, NOE, or even Iron Eyes Cody, environmentalism would not be such a current issue as it is today.


1. Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Contributors: Linda Lear, Edward O. Wilson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. Google Books. 21 May 2009. <http://www.google.com/books?id=HeR1l0V0r54C&printsec=frontcover.>

2. Dykstra, Peter. “History of Environmental Movement Full of Twists, Turns.” Contributor: Brandon Griggs. Planet in Peril. 15 December 2008. CNN.com. 21 May 2009. <http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/12/10/history.environmental.movement/index.html.>

3. Shabecoff, Philip. A Fierce Green Fire: the American Environmental Movement. 2003. Google Books. 21 May 2009. <http://www.google.com/books?id=XhbI2Z-XojAC&printsec=frontcover.>

4. Bluejay, Michael. “A History of Vegetarianism.” Vegetarian Guide. 1998. 21 May 2009. <http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/history.html.>

5. “Diet for a Small Planet.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 21 May 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diet_for_a_Small_Planet.>

6. “A Reading List.” graywater-aquaculture-recycling-books. Ibiblio.org. 21 May 2009. <http://www.ibiblio.org/london/orgfarm/hydrology/graywater-aquaculture-recycling-books.txt>.

7. “Paul R. Ehrlich.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 21 May 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_R._Ehrlich.>

I really recommend Silent Spring and A Fierce Green Fire. You can find them on Google Books and just by reading segments I found them very interesting...