Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson; drawing by David Levine


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.


Silent Spring, in part an impassioned defense of unspoiled nature for its own sake, was also a warning that the pervasive use of chemicals as pesticides and fertilizers threatened human health. Carson called the chemicals used for weed and insect control “elixirs of death,” writing, “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” Carson, who was fifty-five when Silent Spring was published, was diagnosed, while she worked on the book, as having the cancer that would later kill her, and awareness of her illness may have intensified her concern with the mutagenic and carcinogenic effects of chemical pollution. However, the concerns that run through Silent Spring reached far back in Carson’s life.

The principal work on Rachel Carson remains The House of Life, which appeared in 1972, by Paul Brooks, Carson’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, the original publisher of Silent Spring. Drawing on some of Carson’s correspondence, the book is part biography and part excerpts from her writings, especially her earlier works such as Under the Sea Wind. Carson’s The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, firmly established her reputation as a quietly skillful, original, and immensely successful writer about nature long before she published her exposé of pesticides. Brooks writes that Carson was “not at heart a crusader” and that he seeks “to stress her achievements as an author rather than as a prophet.” He touches on the works that she read and re-read, including Thoreau’s Journal and Henry Beston’s Outermost House, a book about Cape Cod that she admired for its “feeling for the great rhythms of nature.”

Carson was raised on a farm in western Pennsylvania, where she became an amateur naturalist and was fascinated by the theory of evolution. (When her mother, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, told her that, according to the Bible, God created the world, she replied, as Brooks puts it, “Yes…and General Motors created the Oldsmobile, but how is the question.”) She majored in zoology at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) and in the late 1920s took a masters degree in the subject at The Johns Hopkins University, a major center of biological studies at the time. In 1935, Carson went to work for the Bureau of Fisheries (later, the Fish and Wildlife Service), combining her literary talents with her biological interests in producing and overseeing the production of technical reports, broadcast scripts, and articles on the work of the agency.

For some time, with the encouragement of her bureau chief, she had been submitting her work to popular magazines and to book publishers, and in November 1941 she published Under the Sea Wind, an evocation of the life of the shore, the open sea, and the sea bottom that drew on material made familiar to her by her government work. The book was received with “superb indifference,” as she later remarked. But the response to The Sea Around Us more than made up for this neglect after it was launched as a three-part “Profile of the Sea” in The New Yorker and stayed on the best-seller list for eighty-six weeks. The success of the book encouraged Carson to leave government service and take her chances as a full-time writer.

In a speech accepting the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us, Carson observed that it should not be surprising that a book about science should be popular. “The materials of science are the materials of life,” she said,

The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.

Carson often anthropomorphized nature, attributing human feelings to fish and animals in order to explain their behavior to readers who knew little about them. “We must not depart too far from analogy with human conduct if a fish, shrimp, comb jelly, or bird is to seem real to us…,” she once wrote. “I have spoken of a fish ‘fearing’ his enemies, for example, not because Isuppose a fish experiences fear in the same way that we do, but because Ithink he behaves as though he were frightened.” Carson admired scientific writing that, as she once noted to an aspirant of the genre, was marked by “the magic combination of factual knowledge and deeply felt emotional response.” Even though, as she later remarked, she remained “the sort who wants above all to get out and enjoy the beauty and wonder of the natural world,” she paid close attention to complex analytical developments in the laboratory and the field. The Sea Around Us was not only lyrical but scientifically up-to-date, drawing on the considerable new knowledge that had been obtained from wartime oceanographic research. Methods “born of wartime necessity,” Carson wrote, had, for example, made it possible to use measurements of ocean waves to detect distant storms and photographs taken from high-altitude planes to estimate coastal depths.

Carson’s sense of rectitude was remarkable. Because she was earning so much money from The Sea Around Us, she returned a fellowship to the Guggenheim Foundation. Her sensitivity to nature was informed by a Thoreau-like transcendentalism: letters from readers, she said, “suggest that they have found refreshment and release from tension in the contemplation of millions and billions of years—in the long vistas of geologic time in which men had no part—in the realization that, despite our own utter dependence on the earth, this same earth and sea have no need of us.”4

Carson’s principal social commitment—protecting the environment—was undoubtedly deepened by the sixteen years that she spent in the Fish and Wildlife Service. She was well aware of and greatly admired the tradition of scientific conservationism that had originated during John Wesley Powell’s day and that, after being eclipsed during the 1920s, when federal scientific expertise was largely used in the service of industrial capitalism, had been revived during the New Deal in the agencies concerned with natural resources, including her own. In her comments on “Conservation in Action,” a series of twelve booklets that she produced for the agency, she deplored the accelerating destruction of nature in the Western Hemisphere, insisting that “Wildlife, water, forests, grasslands—all are parts of man’s essential environment; the conservation and effective use of one is impossible except as the others also are conserved.” Her knowledge of research on fish and other sources of food from the sea for agency publications helped prepare her to compose The Sea Around Us. Writing to a fellow naturalist when she was working on the book, she declared,

I am much impressed by man’s dependence upon the ocean, directly, and in thousands of ways unsuspected by most people. These relationships, and my belief that we will become even more dependent upon the ocean as we destroy the land, are really the theme of the book and have suggested its tentative title, “Return to the Sea.”

By the time Carson left government service, she was increasingly despairing over the future of nature. In a letter to The Washington Post, in August 1953, she openly protested the Eisenhower administration’s firing of career scientific conservationists as directors of the principal federal natural resource agencies—they were, she wrote, “men of professional stature and experience, who have understood, respected, and been guided by the findings of their scientists.” She was particularly distressed when Albert M. Day was dismissed as director of the Fish and Wildlife Service; he was a biologist “with courage to stand firm” against demands that wildlife conservation measures be relaxed. Still more troubling to Carson was the breakdown of a long held assumption—that, as she put it, “much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man…that, however the physical environment might mold Life, that Life could never assume the power to change drastically—or even destroy—the physical world.”

In Carson’s distressed view, this central assumption was disintegrating under assaults that had originated during World War II. Among them was contamination by radioactive fallout and, far more pervasive, by the increasing use of pesticides, especially DDT. In 1945, she had proposed to write an article on experiments under way at a federal research station in Patuxent, Maryland, on the effects of widespread application of DDT; she wanted to show “what it will do to insects that are beneficial or even essential; how it may affect waterfowl, or birds that depend on insect food; whether it may upset the whole delicate balance of nature if unwisely used.” Nothing came of the proposal, but in 1958, a letter from a woman in Duxbury, Massachusetts, reporting on a recent aerial spraying of DDT that aimed to control mosquitos but that killed birds too, set Carson on the path to writing Silent Spring.

Carson digested a vast number of technical publications and consulted numerous technical experts, building up, step by step, as she confided to a friend during her work on the volume, “a really damning case against the use of these chemicals as they are now inflicted upon us.” She lucidly explained the intricate interconnectedness of nature and how chemical herbicides or insecticides applied by spraying could be diffused through the local soil, carried through ground and surface water to distant areas, and accumulate in the food chain. She described the destructive impact of these chemicals on ecological niches and their wild inhabitants, particularly birds. As Carson described how pesticides can spread death:

Powerful sprayers direct a stream of poison to all parts of the tallest trees, killing directly not only the target organism, the bark beetle, but other insects, including pollinating species and predatory spiders and beetles. The poison forms a tenacious film over the leaves and bark. Rains do not wash it away. In the autumn the leaves fall to the ground, accumulate in sodden layers, and begin the slow process of becoming one with the soil. In this they are aided by the toil of earthworms, who feed in the leaf litter…. In feeding on the leaves the worms also swallow the insecticide, accumulating it and concentrating it in their bodies…. In the spring the robins return to provide another link in the cycle. As few as 11 large earthworms can transfer a lethal dose of DDT to a robin. And 11 worms form a small part of a day’s rations to a bird that eats 10 to 12 earthworms in as many minutes.

Silent Spring was greeted with ridicule and denunciation by the chemical industry and parts of the food industry, by academic scientists allied with both, and by some powerful forces in the press, including Time and Newsweek. Edwin Diamond, a senior editor at Newsweek charged Carson with raising “paranoid fears” akin to those of “such cultists as anti-fluoridation leaguers, organic-garden faddists, and other beyond-the-fringe groups.” Carson’s detractors called her case hysterical, her scientific evidence fallacious, and her motives suspect. (A federal pest control board member reportedly sneered, “I thought she was a spinster. What’s she so worried about genetics for?”5 ) However, as careful scientific reviews appeared, it became increasingly evident that, although Silent Spring contained errors, they were minor and, in the judgment of one searching review, “so infrequent, trivial and irrelevant to the main theme that it would be ungallant to dwell on them.”6 In a report published in May 1963, a special panel of President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee endorsed Carson’s main conclusions, especially her view—one widely embraced by the new environmental movement—that pesticides should be demonstrated to be safe before they were used. It was no longer acceptable to keep using them until such time as they might be proved dangerous.


Carson’s literary power may explain why her book commanded so much attention, but not why it set in motion a new environmental movement. It now seems clear that her book, and those of her successors such as Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner, had an astonishing effect because the material, cultural, and political circumstances of American society were ripe for a militant embrace of environmentalism.

The origins and development of the movement are addressed in Kirkpatrick Sale’s Green Revolution as well as in the books by Shabecoff and Gottlieb. Sale’s book provides a crisply readable summary of the movement since the publication of Silent Spring. Shabecoff’s is more detailed and informative. Neither writer has Gottlieb’s critical perspective or analytic sharpness, but the three books taken together do much to explain the new environmentalism and how it took hold.

The ground for the new movement was laid during the 1950s by the controversy over radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Official claims that testing had no adverse health effects were challenged by many scientists, notably Barry Commoner, then at Washington University in St. Louis. He organized the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information, which mounted a sustained effort to inform the public about the impact of global fallout on human beings. It was no accident that in Silent Spring Rachel Carson repeatedly equated chemical despoliation of the environment with radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere and food chain.

During the 1960s, increasingly prosperous and educated Americans grew concerned about their quality of life; and for many “quality” came to include the availability of uncorrupted preserves of nature—forests, streams, deserts, and mountains—which they could visit (and to some degree corrupt by their presence). Renewed attention to preserving the wilderness became one of the concerns of the new environmentalism. But more important for those who could not escape from metropolitan environments was the quality of the air, water, and soil on which life depended.

In contrast to the situation in Alice Hamilton’s day, virtually no one felt insulated from the poisons of petrochemical society—the plastics, pesticides, solvents, abrasives, and fuel additives whose development had accelerated since World War II. Smog did not respect neighborhood boundaries. Neither did radiation from fallout or toxic substances in the food chain or ground water. Even those who fled to the countryside would encounter there the green algae and dead fish of polluted streams, the seepage of chemicals and sewage into the soil and lakes, like Lake Erie, which in the summer of 1969 was declared a “dying sinkhole.”

City dwellers of the 1960s were more responsive than their forebears had been to the tangible threats of pollution. Expectations of good health and longer life spans were rising as conventional sanitation combined with antibiotics appeared to be wiping out infectious disease. Non-infectious diseases—notably cancer—were increasingly attributed to environmental causes, and there was a growing eagerness to wipe the causes out. Then, too, the war in Vietnam turned many scientists as well as lay people into dissidents from the high-technology culture of the cold war, and this reaction helped to strengthen the campaign against such environmental poisons as radioactive wastes, polychlorinated biphenyls, and sulfur dioxide. The military-industrial complex was criticized not only for promoting the war but also for its complicity in the environmental degradation of the planet.

During the 1960s, membership in traditional environmental organizations sharply increased: the Audubon Society doubled in size over the decade, and the Sierra Club quintupled. However, these and other traditional organizations continued to concentrate on issues of wilderness preservation. The relatively new issues of poisons and pollution drew a fresh generation of activists to the cause of environmentalism, many of them from the anti-war movement on and off the campuses, and prompted numerous new groups to be formed. While a number set themselves up as national organizations, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth, many were local ecological action groups devoted to such projects as cleaning up the air or blocking off-shore oil drilling. “Think globally, act locally,” the biologist René Dubos advised. The new environmentalists combined to promote Earth Day, which originated as a teach-in conceived by Senators Gaylord Nelson and Edmund Muskie and was organized by a young passionate activist named Denis Hayes. Bringing out millions of people, Earth Day sent a message to Congress that environmental issues had a politically powerful constituency. In seeking support for Earth Day, Hayes and his co-organizers paid no attention to outfits like the Sierra Club, partly because they had little to do with them, as Hayes later explained, but partly, as he added, because there was some tendency to distance themselves from what they called “‘the birds and squirrels people.”‘

But Gottlieb points out that in the 1970s the traditional groups also began to take an interest in issues of pollution; they formed with the newer groups a coalition that soon amounted to an environmental policy establishment whose leaders often collaborated with one another. They became more and more visible during the 1970s and 1980s as lobbyists and “watchdogs” backing legislation to control pesticides, sewage, noise, coastal degradation, toxic substances, dangerous materials, air and water quality, and, for good measure, to create more wilderness preserves. The new laws and regulations considerably enlarged the opportunity of private citizens groups to participate in the shaping of environmental policy. If the federal government did not enforce its own environmental laws, public interest groups could file suit seeking to compel them to do so, and the courts became central to environmental activism.

Gottlieb emphasizes that the new environmental establishment has tended to be white, middle to upper middle class, and, for the most part, seemingly unconcerned with the possible implications of environmentalism for poorer citizens—the threats to new jobs and new housing of limitations on growth, for example. At the time of Earth Day, 1970, Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League, said that “the war on pollution…should be waged after the war on poverty is won.” Some of the arguments for population control, at least as they have been put forward by advocates like Paul Ehrlich, have been taken to be tinged with racial prejudice, against both third world peoples in Asia and groups such as Mexicans on both sides of the American border. The threat to economic growth and jobs in the drive for environmental regulation and preservation has often pitted environmentalists against labor unions and lower-income people of color.7 For example, loggers in the northwest have been infuriated by demands to save the spotted owl, and the drive against toxics has placed hazardous waste facilities disproportionately in or near communities of low-income African Americans and Hispanics.

While the principal environmental groups have been politically sensitive to the type of pollution that, affecting everyone, inevitably threatens them, too, they have historically largely skirted the kinds of issues that concerned Alice Hamilton. The main environmental organizations such as The National Wildlife Federation, The Sierra Club, or Greenpeace long paid little if any attention to the poisons concentrated in the workplace or lower-income neighborhoods, whether toxic fumes in factories or lead paint in the inner cities. They celebrated Native Americans but ignored health conditions on the reservations. They insisted on ridding the farms of DDT but neglected the impact of substitutes for DDT on the well-being of farm laborers. They demanded that hazardous waste dumps be removed from places where they might affect their own children but they often overlooked the consequences of reconstructing them next door to black and Hispanic neighborhoods. In 1990, a group of activists from minority groups warned a meeting of environmental leaders that “the racism and the ‘whiteness’ of the environmental movement” was its “Achilles heel.”

However, what Gottlieb calls “alternative groups” have sprouted since the 1970s, some of them deriving from the counterculture or New Left of that period, most of them local in origin. Many of them insist that considerations of gender, race, and class should have a place in the policies and the actions of environmentalism. Not that they all identify themselves as “environmentalists.” Their groups are named, for example, “Concerned Neighbors in Action,” “Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes,” “The Clamshell Alliance.” For many, Gottlieb notes, the term “environmentalism” has come to refer to “upper-class, Anglo-yuppie types” who are “seen as consumers of Nature or policy technicians.” The alternative groups are “about protecting people, not birds and bees,” one of their activists has declared. They have organized against nuclear power plants, corporate pollution, and a variety of other hazards in workplaces and neighborhoods. And they have goaded some of the mainstream groups such as the Sierra Club into concerning themselves to some degree with environmental justice.

Some of the alternative groups have been established and supported by labor or minority-group activists. Their leaders have included, like the earlier settlement house workers, a disproportionately large number of women. Gottlieb describes some of the women who work in alternative groups—such as Penny Newman, who campaigned against McDonald’s use of polystyrene foam packaging and who arrived at an environmental conference wearing a pink T-shirt on one side of which was stenciled a woman flexing her muscles and captioned, “Tough Women Against Toxics.” Cora Tucker, an African American, reported to the same conference that she was tired of going to local governmental bodies to complain about pollutants in the community and being told, “OK, Sugar, we’re going to look into it.”

Gottlieb supposes that the predominance of women in the alternative groups has something to do with the ecofeminist claim that women incline toward a benign, harmonious relationship with nature (as distinct from a conquering, rapacious one alleged to be associated with maleness). Far more plausible is the idea, which Gottlieb himself suggests, that women are closer to daily community life, sensitive to risks that threaten themselves and their families, and fiercely determined to contest them. Women such as Newman and Tucker habitually challenge expert knowledge about environmental issues and take personal experience of local abuses as primary. “You don’t have to be an elected official or an industry executive to have an impact on waste policy,” Newman says.

Although most histories of environmentalism,8 including the ones by Sales, Shabecoff, and Gottlieb, for the most part ignore the scientific components of the movement, they are fundamental to Richard Rubin’s Green Crusade. A political scientist, Rubin is not concerned with environmental science as such but with how it has been refracted through popular writings such as those by Carson, Commoner, Ehrlich, and others to construct a basis for political action—the environmental maxims, for example, that “the earth is in danger, that everything is connected to everything else, that too many people live here, that smaller is better.”

Rubin’s book is a searching and provocative criticism of the popularizers, exposing their technical errors, flawed assumptions, and hidden political programs. He criticizes Carson for overreliance on the scientifically rickety concept of the balance of nature; questions Commoner’s apparent elevation of ecological values over political and economic ones; and emphasizes Ehrlich’s willingness to curtail human reproductive freedom if necessary. But none of the errors or assumptions undermines Carson’s warning that nature as we know it would be deeply damaged by the chemical assault on it. Far more convincing is Rubin’s criticism of the political or ideological implications of the environmental warnings of Commoner and Ehrlich. In Rubin’s judgment, such popularizations have an excessively evangelical tone, akin to that of the temperance movement, which urges environmentalism upon us not only to preserve the earth but also to achieve a kind of personal salvation. The virtue of the ends, he points out, has been taken to justify a zealousness of means—“global schemes of economic and political control, sweeping revisions of value structures, vast increases in the powers of government.”

Some of the proposals of the environmentalists could conceivably lead to large increases in government power—for example, the power to limit population growth by limiting family size, as in the People’s Republic of China—although their chances of being adopted are likely to be diminished the more they threaten to bring about such measures. A number of groups have tried to move in a radical direction, but Rubin does not seem aware that some of them are more drawn to anarchy than to governmental controls. Among these is Earth First!, whose adventures and history are rousingly described in Susan Zakin’s Coyotes and Town Dogs, a book that is critical of the aims of the organization but also sympathetic to some of its organizers. Earth First! originated in the West in 1981 among dissenters impatient with what they regarded as the compromising cautiousness of the new environmental establishment; they proceeded to work out an antimodernist, “biocentric” campaign to elevate the rights of nature above the welfare of human beings. But the efforts of Earth First! have come to nothing, partly because its leaders have been prosecuted for destroying property such as electrical power-line towers, but more fundamentally because its outlook is alien to most environmentalists, mainstream and alternative alike.

The history of American environmentalism suggests that it is divided between two kinds of action that sometimes converge on common, pragmatic ground: on the one hand, utilitarian campaigns by such people as women in the alternative groups who address particular causes of ecological damage and, on the other, lobbying by national organizations for various state and federal programs of, to a degree, preservation, especially of wildlife and wild lands, but, in the main, of conservation. Environmental policies since the 1960s have been largely based on the bargain resembling the one that was made over landed resources around the turn of the century: air, water, and soil are to be used for the material purposes of modern society, particularly modern corporations, if their aesthetic and life-sustaining qualities are not greatly abused. Although Carson closed her book with an admonition against the arrogance of supposing that “nature exists for the convenience of man,” she did not oppose the use of all pesticides, recognizing that it remained important to the human economy to keep pests under control.

Vice-President Gore says that Rachel Carson has, in effect, been made a member of the Clinton-Gore White House, writing in his introduction to her book, “In spirit, Rachel Carson sits in on all the important environmental meetings of this administration.” The Clinton administration signed the Convention on Biological Diversity drafted at the Rio Summit, in June 1992, which the Bush administration had declined to support. The convention commits each of the signers to devise national strategies for preserving both species and their habitats; and the wealthy countries signing the treaty agree to provide financial and technological aid to help the species-rich but less-developed countries abide by the pact.

The Clinton administration initiated a plan to lower emissions of greenhouse gases to a limit that the Rio Summit set for the year 2000. It worked out a compromise that would significantly reduce logging on federal lands while providing aid to retrain loggers and to assist communities that would suffer damage as a result of the new law. In negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement it introduced new safeguards designed to prevent Mexico, Canada, and the US from lowering environmental standards so as to gain a competitive advantage. The treaty now provides for a multinational commission to monitor each country’s enforcement of its environmental laws.The administration also issued an executive order requiring all federal agencies to take account of considerations of environmental justice in whatever they do. Virtually all of these policies have been designed to balance environmental and economic goals—to save both endangered species, for example, and jobs.

However, the Clinton-Gore brand of environmentalism has left many environmentalists dissatisfied. They point out, for example, that the measures advanced against greenhouse warming are largely voluntary; that a sizable part of old-growth Northwestern forests remain vulnerable to logging; that the NAFTA environmental safeguards are inadequate because they are vague and unlikely to prevent American standards from being reduced in order to accommodate those of Mexico; that toxic substances such as lead and benzene have not been banned from lower-income neighborhoods. Obviously tensions persist within the American environmental movement, especially tensions arising from conflicts of race or class. The movement has yet to work out a satisfactory balance between the claims of the human and of the natural environments. To find such a balance, environmentalists will have to draw on the examples of both Alice Hamilton and Rachel Carson.

This Issue

October 6, 1994