We have “nature deficit disorder,” said historian Douglas Brinkley in an interview in Boston. “In the short term, people will judge things politically, on ‘my wallet’ issues. And if [the focus is] the economy is never a great time for the environment.
Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University, came out with a new weight book, Silent Spring Revolutionwhich argues that a group of leaders – John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon – moved Americans to care about the environment in the 1960s and early 1970s.
But the backlash of this awakening marked the revenge of capitalism, thwarting the environmental movement of the past 50 years.
In many ways, Carson is the star of Brinkley’s story: a poetic marine biologist with a flair for the dramatic, who watched in horror as Americans began to embrace pesticides in the 1940s. During World War II and in the years that followed, DDT was sprayed on soldiers, sprinkled on crops and spread on emerald green lawns.
But Carson had access to government data suggesting that pesticides could have problematic health consequences, including potentially contributing to cancer – a message she worked tirelessly to spread, even as she herself was in dying of cancer.
I recently spoke with Brinkley at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a memorial dedicated to the first president to be warned — six decades ago — that fossil fuels could alter the climate.
Kennedy’s love of the ocean had turned him into a fan of Carson’s immersive books. And he would take his environmental baton, just like Presidents Johnson and, oddly enough, Nixon, who – between two paranoid phone calls – created the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the Clean Air Act and presided over the first Earth Day.
But even as Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, regulations were on the rise and businesses felt increasingly left out.
The turning point, says Brinkley — though it goes far beyond the scope of his book — came in 1971, when future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a confidential memo to a friend at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, alleging that the environmentalism was equal to socialism.
Powell believed that environmentalism came “from the campus pulpit, the media, the intellectuals, and the literary journals.” He argued that “no thoughtful person can question the fact that the American economic system is under massive attack.”
Which, frankly, sounds more like a Sean Hannity hot take than a 70s memo.
The capitalists even seemed to have lost Nixon. Presidential adviser John Ehrlichman – who would end up in prison for his role in Watergate – had long embraced environmental causes and encouraged the president to sympathize with the movement.
Powell was desperate. If the 1960s had seen an environmental revolution, he thought it was high time for a counter-revolution.
But defeating liberals like Ralph Nader – whom Powell found particularly boring – would not be easy. Pro-capitalist forces would need their own lobbying firms, their own media, their own think tanks.
And you know how this story ends.
“Overnight, all of the extractive industries opened welcome offices in Washington,” Brinkley said. “They didn’t exist there before. They were caught off guard by this environmental fervor.
Over time, new media have also emerged and new think tanks.
“It took time, and Powell knew it: overnight, we don’t create Fox News. We are not creating alternative media… But we have to do it on a 20 or 30 year plan. And it is a great success. »
Crucially, Powell’s memo helped found the Federalist Society in the 1980s, an organization that identified and incubated conservative legal minds.
That means we live with a Powell-shaped Supreme Court, Brinkley said. And while we can typically focus on issues like abortion, voting rights, and civil rights, the Court has enormous power to affect both the environment and the economy.
Fifty years after the Powell memo — even in the face of hurricanes, wildfires and rising sea levels — Brinkley thinks environmentalism has never fully regained its mojo.
He remembers visiting President Obama at the White House and seeing how frustrated he was with his inability to rally the country around climate change.
“He ended up going to Alaska, holding fish and photographing in front of a melting glacier,” shrugged, with some resignation. “Because the economic imperative of pumping gas prices is so much more everyday than talking about America 30 years from now.”
Plus, let’s be honest: Living big is fun, if you can afford it. People love their SUVs, their disposable coffee mugs, their plastic toys, their quick getaways to Florida. Americans make up just under 5% of the world’s population, but we use almost 17% of the world’s energy.
Given the partisan divide that now exists over the environment, Brinkley worries that the left has become too quick to point fingers. “So if you’re a senator [Ed] You and Markey are flying a private plane and you’re giving a speech, and you’re talking about the environment, people are like, ‘Oh, you just burned all that stuff flying private’…Shame is a bad idea.”
According to Brinkley, it may take a special leader to truly resuscitate the environmental movement. Maybe someone whose life has been etched by climate catastrophe.
He points to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has seen fires rage through his state, kill dozens of voters and blanket communities in particle-filled haze. Newsom signed a law banning the sale of new gas-powered cars from 2035.
“You can see why people are now looking for a Rachel Carson moment,” Brinkley says. A moment when the danger seems, once again, clear and present. A moment when there is no discernible right/left divide. And a time when the American dream just seems impossible without environmental stewardship.
Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @karaemiller.
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