CNN: History of environmental movement full of twists, turns

Roundup: Talking About History

It was one of the most surreal images in American history: A river, so fouled with industrial waste that it caught fire and burned. In June 1969, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River become the poster child for the birth of the modern American environmental movement.

No matter that this was at least the tenth time the Cuyahoga had ignited. The times, they were a-changing, and a burning river confirmed what many already believed: The environment was changing, too.

Rachel Carson's book,"Silent Spring," published seven years earlier, had lit the spark. The mild-mannered government scientist documented how the pesticide DDT was jeopardizing countless bird species, from tiny hummingbirds to the national symbol, the bald eagle.

Smog from traffic and factories had become a national concern. And six months before the torching of the Cuyahoga, a massive oil spill soiled the shores of Santa Barbara, California. In the midst of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women's movement, and more, a divided America also found room for an environmental movement.

"We have been acting out the classic cartoon image of a man sitting on the branch of a tree and sawing it off behind him," wrote Philip Shabecoff in his 1993 book,"A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement." Shabecoff described environmentalism as a"broad social movement" that was attempting to build a"desperately needed but difficult and obstacle-strewn road" out of humankind's increasingly polluted predicament.

The movement was sanctioned in April 1970 with a nationwide quasi-holiday, the first"Earth Day." New organizations formed to rally the masses: Friends of the Earth (1969), the Natural Resources Defense Council (1970), and Canadian-born Greenpeace (1971). Books touting recycling, vegetarianism, and all aspects of a"green" lifestyle hit the best-seller list.

An ersatz Indian who called himself Iron Eyes Cody became a national icon thanks to a 30-second TV spot, where he canoes through an industrial wasteland and sheds a tear for Mother Earth. Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich became a semi-regular"Tonight Show" guest.

Rachel Carson was one thing, but this was Johnny Carson. The environment had arrived.

Even Richard Nixon went green. A President besieged by Vietnam protests saw an opportunity to be the good guy. Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and signed a flurry of landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act -- the vanguard of a new government ethic....

Read entire article at CNN

comments powered by Disqus