The Early Strides to Save the Earth and the Mankind


By Patrick N. AllittEmory University

Theodore Roosevelt, as president, had established a national policy towards forests, parks, and national land use in the early 20th century. The early movement in the 1960s developed in response to citizens’ anxieties about pollution and population. Let us take a look at some of these early movements.

A glass globe in grass.
Americans in the 1960s became vigilant about protecting the environment. (Image: Pakhnyushchy/Shutterstock)

Pollution had long been a common problem problem, particularly in the air and in rivers. In cities like Pittsburgh, the fact that the sky was full of industrial smoke and was often yellowish-brown in hue was a source of pride. It demonstrated the fact that people were hard at work and great industrial work was being done. However by the middle and late 20th century, advances in medicine had clearly shown doctors that smoke was linked to numerous and severe health problems. More affluent citizens, in particular, felt that the existence of a lot of ambient air pollution led to a deterioration in their quality of life.

Modern environmentalism began with Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962, a surprise bestseller that criticized the indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides. What was the public’s reaction to this book?

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

DDT: The Boon for the Humans

One of the chemicals about which the book was particularly sharp in its condemnation was DDT, and the history of DDT is itself a fascinating thing. When first developed in the early 1940s, it had seemed like a miraculous compound, because it was an incredibly good killer of lice and mosquitoes—the vectors of malaria, typhus, and other diseases.

It was first widely used during the Second World War. For example, in Naples, which the Allies liberated in the middle of the Italian campaign, there was a terrible infestation of lice, but the U.S. Army, by dusting down its soldiers—and also the civilian population of Naples—with DDT, was able to almost eliminate it.

Carson’s Worry about the Use of DDT

What Carson was particularly anxious about was the fact that it didn’t decompose very quickly. So it would get into the food chain, and it would be ingested first by simple organisms, and then when larger creatures ate those, they’d concentrate the poison in their bodies. Eventually, it would move up the food chain and affect people themselves.

Two American soldiers demonstrating the spraying of DDT.
DDT was widely used during WWII. Carson’s book sharply condemned its use. (Image: CDC/Public domain)

She has passages where she describes the way in which a mother breast-feeding her baby could inadvertently be passing along the poison. It was a very good rhetorical way of getting ordinary citizens alarmed.

Until then, the American chemical industry had had an extremely good reputation for being benefactors of mankind. The book made people realize that the industry was a self-interested group who was trying to sell stuff even when it was poisoning the American people.

In the 1950s, the use of pesticides sometimes was indiscriminate. It was noticed when drain-off from farmland concentrated toxins killed the fish in rivers. Sometimes bird populations were killed. Sometimes even the aerial spraying of cities would lead to the deaths of domestic pets.

Consumer Advocacy and the General Motors

Another interesting development in the 1960s was the development of consumer advocacy. Ralph Nader, whose book Unsafe at Any Speed was published in 1965, followed the development and production of General Motors’ Chevrolet Corvair and called it a “hazardous car”.

General Motors responded by hiring detectives to see whether they could find some dirt on Nader himself. The plan backfired on General Motors. Nader discovered what was going on and sued General Motors for harassment. He won $280,000 in a settlement and used it to set up the first consumer advocacy group, “Nader’s Raiders”. The group then looked into the practices of other businesses to see how scrupulously they were living up to the letter of the law.

The Campaigns to Save America’s Rivers

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups campaigned in the early 1960s to put an end to the damming of America’s wild and scenic rivers. There was a plan in the early 1960s to build a big dam in the Grand Canyon in Arizona, because it would back up a reservoir and make an ideal environment for the generation of hydroelectric power, just as was being done downstream at the Hoover Dam.

The Bureau of Reclamation, the government agency that would have built this dam, liked the idea to build a dam in the area as it would allow people to enjoy boating in the lake and they would be “able to see some of the geological formations of the canyon close up, which at the moment are hard to get to.”

David Brower, the leader of the Sierra Club was against this plan. He said: “By the same logic, we might as well flood the Sistine Chapel so that people can get closer to Michelangelo’s murals on the ceiling.” He made the case that the Grand Canyon should almost be thought of as a religious place, which ought not to be manipulated in this way. Much to his pleasure, the plan for the dam was abandoned.

The Anxiety about Overpopulation

Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford biologist, published a book The Population Bomb in 1968. He said in the book, “The world’s population is growing at a catastrophic rate, is far outstripping the Earth’s capacity to feed people…”. It was full of wild exaggerations, virtually all of which have been completely disproven by now.

Although the population has been growing, it tends to level off in industrial societies whose birth rates decline, and the world’s production of food has more than outpaced the rising population. It’s certainly a serious issue, but not the catastrophe that Ehrlich made it sound.

These early movements to protect Earth and mankind gained momentum in the decades to come.

Common Questions about the Early Strides to Save Earth and the Mankind

Q: Why was Rachel Carson more anxious about DDT?

She was anxious about DDT as it didn’t decompose very quickly. She believed that it would certainly find a place in the food chain and affect humans.

Q: What was David Brower, the leader of the Sierra Club, against?

David Brower, the leader of the Sierra Club, was against the construction of a big dam in the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Q: What did the “Nader’s Raiders” group do?

The group looked into the practices of other businesses to see how scrupulously they were living up to the letter of the law.

Keep Reading
Issues with Early Cities: Pollution, Population, and Disease
What Can Cause a Mass Extinction?
How Environmental Factors and Experiences Impact Brain Development