Early History of Environmentalism


Environmental politics get off to a rough start in the United States in the 1960s. It is difficult now to imagine a time when the issue of the environment was controversial. But denial of the gravity of the problems was the norm rather than the exception until fairly recently. The undesirable side-effects of progress were generally ignored. Most people assumed that the air and rivers had an infinite capacity to absorb waste. Oil was cheap in the U.S. and wasteful use of energy routine in American industry. Awareness of potential problems grew in the 1960s as smog blanketed the air above major cities such as Los Angeles, radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing spread across the Midwest, and pesticides contaminated agricultural products.

The publication of Rachael Carson’s best selling book Silent Spring in 1962 was a first turning point in the emergence of environmentalism. Carson argued that human beings and nature are interdependent. DDT use was eventually curtailed in part because of the arguments she presented in this famous book. But Carson, who died of cancer two years after its publication, was widely dismissed as a hysterical woman by interests hostile to environmental regulation.

It was not until the early 1970’s that environmentalism became a respectable political issue with widespread support. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 was a second turning point. Huge demonstrations in favor of environmental protection were echoed in Washington by positive oratory from President Nixon and other political leaders. Soon major legislation was passed and environmentalism became a fact of political life in the U.S.

All this political activity took place against a background of intense ideological debate. Two principal positions were advanced by leading scientific commentators on the environment.

On the one hand, population growth was blamed for environmental problems. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb, predicted mass starvation in the coming decades. This Malthusian trend was soon joined by advocates of limited economic growth. The Club of Rome published its famous study, The Limits to Growth, in 1972. Industrial civilization, it argued, would soon devour its own natural basis and collapse. These commentators focused on scarcities of food and resources. In its extreme versions, its advocates proposed allowing starvation to winnow world population back to sustainable levels.

Many of these early advocates of population control believed in coercive solutions. They thought that policies such as China’s one child program would have to be backed up by legal sanctions. Some imagined that the rich countries would have to force poor countries to adopt such policies by threatening to suspend food aid. They had less confidence in the demographic transition, which reduces birth rates in response to improved health care, better nourishment and education, and urbanization. In fact a combination of factors has led to a dramatic slowdown in world population growth and it seems likely that sustainable levels will be achieved without global famine. As population growth has slowed, food supplies increased, and resource limits failed to show up as expected, this view became less popular but it still has its supporters.

On the other hand, technology was identified as the culprit responsible for environmental problems. The focus was on pollution and the solution proposed was to redesign technology to make it compatible with the environment. This position has an effective advocate in Barry Commoner, a biologist who was also an avowed socialist. His 1971 best seller entitled The Closing Circle argued that capitalist economics and ecology were incompatible. One of Commoner’s famous “laws” of ecology says, “Everything must go somewhere.” The struggle for higher profits was being waged at the expense of the earth as air and water were contaminated to save money on waste disposal. Ultimately, he argued, an environmentally conscious government would have to intervene in technological affairs to orient innovation and development toward sound solutions to environmental problems.

The economic basis of Commoner’s position is the familiar disjunction between the pursuit of private profit and the preservation of public goods. Human welfare is the sum of both private and public goods, but capitalism focuses narrowly on the private kind. One way profits can be increased is to convert public goods into private resources, for example, by obtaining land or mineral rights cheaply from government or dumping waste products on public lands or in the air and water. In both cases the public subsidizes a private business and enables it to make money without compensation. The conversion of freely available natural resources into sources of private profit diminishes overall social welfare and creates a “debt to nature” that must be paid. Commoner argues that the supply of public goods available for exploitation in this way is limited and as it is drawn down fundamental conditions of social life are undermined. The ecological balance is of more than economic interest. It sustains life as a whole in all its aspects. Disrupting the ecological system will thus have catastrophic consequences.

Commoner’s position has been forgotten in recent years. Free market ideology received a huge boost from the collapse of the Soviet Union and now few will argue for more government control of the economy. Yet, it remains true that the enforcement of legal standards for such things as air quality is the principal achievement of the environmental movement. Neo-liberal measures such as the sale of pollution credits have had far less impact. Government regulation has not impoverished society as business advocates argued, but has been a spur to innovation, just as Commoner expected.

Commoner hoped that the labor movement would become active in defense of the environment. Workers suffer the effects of pollution on the job long before the exposures of the general public reach critical levels. Commoner thought that workers could become advocates for the environment to protect their own health and that of their families. He believed this would lead to a revival of the socialist movement in America. Some American unions did in fact ally with the environmental movement but many more were frightened into supporting polluting industries and practices under the threat of job losses.

Nevertheless, Commoner’s position has important points of convergence with trends that continue to this day. The labor movement appealed to Commoner as a social base for environmentalism because it had a history of active struggle and the intellectual and organizational resources to impose political solutions to the problems. What has happened instead is that groups with far less organizational coherence have brought specific abuses to the attention of the public. Typically these groups consist in people living in the neighborhood of a polluting factory or associations of sportsmen worried about the contamination of lakes and rivers or advocates for black people who must live near toxic waste dumps. They attract help from scientists in articulating their complaints. Lawsuits or government sponsored hearings give them a platform and eventually public opinion favors new regulations. After many small struggles quite far reaching legislation is passed to protect the environment. Thus environmentalism did emerge as a political movement opposing the public interest to business just as Commoner foresaw, if not in the form he expected.

Another important point of convergence has to do with technology. Commoner was an early advocate of technological change to bring industry into compliance with ecological limits. At that time, technological determinism was a widely held view and it seemed obvious to most people that the pursuit of higher productivity and efficiency conflicted with environmental values. We were told we would be forced to choose between prosperity and survival. Commoner argued that this conflict could be avoided by redesigning technology to provide prosperity in forms compatible with the environment. Today, technological determinism is no longer common sense as it was when Commoner was writing The Closing Circle. iH Hhhih

 His argument now can draw force from a great deal of industrial experience and theoretical work in technology studies. Environmental politics has emerged as a politics of technology. That is a result of this history from which other nations can learn a great deal.