American Archive of Public Broadcasting
History of the Environmental Movement
Casey E. Davis Kaufman
AAPB Project Manager WGBH
As concern about the environment grew among scientists in the mid-1950s, they began to measure the Earth's carbon dioxide levels at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii in 1958. "Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future," said Roger Revelle of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1957.
In 1962, Rachel Carson, now regarded as the mother of the environmental movement, published Silent Spring, calling the negative impacts on the environment to the attention of the public. The book sparked discussions across the country about the relationship between human beings and the natural environment. WGBH hosted a panel discussion the same year to debate this topic, I. Milton Sachs, Dean of Students at Brandeis University, initiated the debate describing two common arguments: "There are those...who have taken the position that interfering with what is called the 'balance of nature' is wrong...and man should not behave this way. Over on the other side, there are those who subordinate all of our natural environment to what they consider to be 'needs of man.' In a sense, Rachel Carson's book fits into this continuing debate." At a recorded event in 2007 marking the centennial of Rachel Carson's birth, Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum began the celebration stating "Just as President Lincoln once described Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, as the little lady who started the Civil War, President Kennedy might have identified Rachel Carson as the woman who launched the modern environmental movement." In fact, the book led President Kennedy to establish a Science Advisory Committee to investigate environmental dangers such as DDT.
The first Earth Day, celebrated on April 22, 1970, launched what is known as the "environmental decade," and grassroots activists paved the way for the groundbreaking environmental legislation such as the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth and the fist Executive Director for the Sierra Club, spoke at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and recorded by the campus station WYSO, just three days before the first Earth Day.
As Gus Speth argued in an interview with WILL in 2004, environmental problems in the 1970s, including air and water pollution, were local, visible, and issues that personally impacted many American citizens. This has created a much more difficult challenge "in the effort to mobilize our country to give the kind of leadership on the global scale issues that we should be giving, like climate change," he stated.