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Greens in America

The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work, with Selections from Her Writings

by Paul Brooks
Houghton Mifflin, 350 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Silent Spring

by Rachel Carson
Houghton Mifflin, 368 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement

by Robert Gottlieb
Island Press, 413 pp., $27.50

The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism

by Charles T. Rubin
Free Press, 312 pp., $22.95

The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement, 1962-1992

by Kirkpatrick Sale
Hill and Wang, 124 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement

by Susan Zakin
Viking, 483 pp., $23.50


Rachel Carson died thirty years ago this past April, two years after the publication of Silent Spring, her path-breaking account of the myriad ways that pesticides, particularly DDT, were damaging the natural environment and threatening human health. Much of the book, now reissued in an anniversary edition, is devoted to explaining technical subjects such as the intricate interaction of chemical compounds like dieldrin with physiological and ecological phenomena; yet it is written with passion and a poetic sensibility, and it shows eloquent concern for the human stakes in a chemically uncorrupted nature. Serialized in The New Yorker, Silent Spring captured enormous public attention, was a best seller for months, and was quickly translated into twelve foreign languages.

By the early 1970s, a variety of issues related to the environment and the management of resources had been raised in other popular books, including Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb and Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle, which together warned against the growing threats to the future of a ceaselessly exploited and overpopulated planet. Still, Carson’s book probably did more than any other single publication or event to set off the new environmental movement that emerged in the Sixties.

In his introduction to Silent Spring, Vice-President Al Gore writes that the book, which he read at his mother’s insistence and discussed at the family dinner table, had a “profound impact” on him. (Today, he tells us, Carson’s picture hangs on his office wall, along with photos of his other heroes.) During the first Earth Day, in 1970, an estimated 20 million environmental advocates demonstrated and paraded on streets and campuses all over the country and attended huge rallies in New York, Washington, DC, and San Francisco.

While the new environmentalism has been attentive to issues of land and wilderness, its central concern has been the pollution and poisoning of metropolitan industrial society. As such, it usually has been seen as different from the environmental movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century, with the closing of the landed frontier. According to most histories, the early environmentalists concerned themselves almost entirely with preserving nature outside the cities; they expressed an attachment traditional in American culture to unspoiled nature as a retreat from urban clangor and from “the busy haunts of sordid, money-making business,” as an article in the Atlantic Monthly put it as early as 1833.1 At the turn of the century, the leading exponent of the tradition was John Muir, who in 1892 led the founding of the Sierra Club by a group of San Franciscans concerned for the future of the mountain ranges, and who extolled the mountains as retreats for “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.”

The turn-of-the-century impulse to preserve the wild was tempered by the recognition that the natural resources of the United States were not inexhaustible. Obviously not all of undeveloped nature could be protected from development, not if the country was to continue to meet the needs of its growing population, and meet them in some reasonably equitable fashion. A growing number of analysts put forward the view that natural resources could be, and had to be, simultaneously used and sustained—that is, exploited with explicit concern for the environmental consequences. This idea had been advanced in the 1880s by John Wesley Powell, the distinguished geologist and explorer, whose studies had convinced him that limited rainfall made the region beyond the hundredth meridian too arid to sustain conventional 160-acre homesteads. Powell advocated scientific classification and distribution of the land in parcels whose size would vary with their suitability for mining, grazing, forestry, and farming; settlement would be organized around irrigation districts that would be parceled out in eighty-acre lots whose inhabitants would be encouraged to form democratically managed irrigation cooperatives. Powell wanted to use scientific knowledge to accommodate democratic social progress and material development to the realities and limitations of the land.

Although Powell’s specific ideas were not accepted, the idea of sustainable development became central to the “conservationist”—as distinct from the “preservationist”—wing of the first environmental movement. The government scientists who worked with and admired Powell incorporated his approach in such measures as the Reclamation Act of 1902, which was intended to build hydroelectric facilities and irrigation districts, while preserving land from industrial use. The Pennsylvania reformer Gifford Pinchot found his ideas of harvesting and replanting trees endorsed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. “The fundamental idea of forestry,” Roosevelt said,

is the perpetuation of forests by use. Forest protection is not an end in itself; it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend upon them.

The history of the first environmental movement is outlined in Philip Shabecoff’s Fierce Green Fire, which is mainly concerned with the post-1968 movement and describes its recent history, including its current concerns with global warming. Shabecoff’s book, while a useful survey, takes the environmental movement then and recently at its own self-justifying face value. By contrast, in Forcing the Spring, Robert Gottlieb contends that the first environmental movement involved more than preservation and conservation of the land, and was in fact closely linked to the forces behind urban industrialism.

The advocates of the environmental cause were predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and well-to-do. They were based to a large extent in Northeastern cities, whose factories increasingly produced chemical goods and byproducts and which were more and more affected by foul odors and foul wastes, polluted water supplies, and inadequate sewage disposal systems, and also by the presence of groups of immigrants strange to native WASPs in their habits, customs, and dress. Gottlieb’s book attempts to recast the history of environmentalism by taking into account this urban industrial milieu as well as the romanticized natural environment, and thereby, he says, to shift “environmental analysis from an argument about protection or management of the natural environment to a discussion of social movements in response to the urban and industrial forces of the past hundred years.”

Gottlieb’s provocative and original account revises the conventional story of environmentalists trying to preserve the land. He points out that in John Muir’s day raw nature itself was changing; it seemed plausible to use mountains and forested lands as a respite from industrial congestion, since the wilderness was becoming tamer and, thanks to the railroad, a place for vacations. In fact, the railroad and tourist industries were among the most important early supporters of environmentalism; the advocates of wildlife preserves and national parks included hunters for sport as well as their supporters in the gun industry. Gottlieb suggests—and one wishes he had pursued this line of analysis much further—that the preservation of raw nature came to symbolize escape from the disease and dirtiness of the cities, and from the tensions and fears of the polycultural and polyglot metropolis. Some of the era’s most virulent racists—for example, Madison Grant, whose writings warned that the immigrants flooding the country from Eastern and Southeastern Europe threatened racial pollution and degeneration—were also environmentalists.

Gottlieb’s principal subjects are the urban environmentalists who campaigned against the pollution and poisoning of the workplace and neighborhoods. Many of them were upper-middle-class women who had been introduced to such issues by their work in the settlement houses, which brought them into direct contact with the hazards of working in the factories and living in the slums. At Hull House, in Chicago, Jane Addams and her colleagues tried to improve ways of dealing with garbage, sewage, water, industrial effluents, and horse manure (a principal source of pollution of the day), as well as the situation of workers threatened by dangerous machinery, toxic chemicals, dizzying fumes, and sweatshop crowding.

Working at Hull House turned Alice Hamilton, a physician, into what Gottlieb considers “this country’s first great urban/industrial environmentalist.”2 While at Hull House, Hamilton investigated public health issues such as outbreaks of typhoid, but she was increasingly drawn to identifying the sources of industrial diseases, including carbon monoxide poisoning and “phossy jaw,” which was connected to the use of white phosphorous in match factories and to illnesses caused by lead poisoning. She conducted investigations into factory diseases for state and federal agencies, obtaining data from interviews with pharmacists and undertakers as well as nurses, physicians, and family members. She later remarked, “It seemed natural and right that a woman should put the care of the producing workman ahead of the value of the thing he was producing. In a man it would have been [seen as] sentimentality or radicalism.” In 1919, Hamilton was appointed assistant professor of industrial medicine at Harvard University, becoming the first woman professor in any field at that institution. Dean David Edsall, of the Medical School, emphasized to the president of the university “that she is greatly superior to any man that we can learn of for such a position.”3 In 1925, she published Industrial Poisons in the United States, a classic and pioneering text that highlighted the occupational and environmental hazards of, for example, certain organic chemicals and lead.

In the mid-1920s, Hamilton campaigned against the introduction into gasoline of even small amounts of tetraethyl lead, holding, as she wrote in an article in 1925, that “where there is lead, some case of lead poisoning sooner or later develops.” In 1928, she organized a conference to call attention to the sufferings of women who painted radium on watch dials to make them luminous. She lost out on the issue of tetraethyl lead to the oil and automobile industries, just as she and her fellow reformers eventually lost on other issues to powerful economic interest groups such as the chemical industry. Their cause was also undermined by the splintering of women’s and labor movements after World War I.

The problems of urban pollution that Hamilton and other environmental reformers addressed were largely confined to lower-income, immigrant neighborhoods of the cities; urban pollution didn’t much affect middle- and upper-middle-class districts, where the streets were clean, the garbage regularly removed, and industrial waste was detectable only in an occasional whiff from a distant dump on a hot, breezy day. Hamilton remembered that during one of her investigations, a pharmacist in Salt Lake City told her that he knew of no case of lead poisoning in residential neighborhoods near smelters. When she expressed incredulity, the apothecary replied, “Oh, maybe you are thinking of the Wops and Hunkies. I guess there’s plenty of them. I thought you meant white men.”

Ironically, the push for urban environmental reform was also increasingly undercut by the success of the public health movement, which was controlled by physicians and bacteriologists. Acceptance of the infectious theory of disease shifted attention toward people who might become infected and away from the social and physical conditions that fostered the growth and transmission of infectious organisms. As Gottlieb explains, “The application of bacteriology was therefore seen as lessening the need for environmental reform, since diseases could be treated on a case-by-case basis rather than by ‘cleaning up’ the industrial city.” Tap water was cleaned up by filtration and chlorine disinfection, but the success in treating drinking water through bacteriological controls diminished concerns for threats to public health arising from industrial contamination generally, including pollution of lakes, streams, and rivers.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Roderick F. Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, 1967), pp. 60-61.

  2. 2

    On Hamilton, see Barbara Sicherman, Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters (Harvard University Press, 1984) and Barbara Sicherman, “Working It Out: Gender, Profession, and Reform in the Career of Alice Hamilton,” in Noralee Frankel and Nancy S. Dye, editors, Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era (University Press of Kentucky, 1991), pp. 127-147.

  3. 3

    Sicherman, “Working It Out,” p. 135.

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