I love Earth Day and it is just around the corner, April 22. I love it because we are honoring more than just one person but the Earth itself. What a wonderful tradition. In honor of Earth Day, I would like to share with you a section about the early environmental movement that is in my forthcoming book called Human Rights: A Universal Value System? The section highlights the contributions of two environmental activists to the early environmental movement and who also inspired the formation of the first Earth Day in 1970.
The early modern environmental movement got underway in the 1960s. The movement emphasized cleaning up and controlling pollution and changed from top-down control by technicians and managers to bottom-up grassroots demands from individual citizens and citizen groups, as exemplified in the work of Rachel Carson. Another strain of the modern environmental movement was a philosophical understanding of nature as an interdependent web, as exemplified in the work of Aldo Leopold.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) and her book Silent Spring, written in 1962, is widely credited with helping to advance the modern environmental movement. Carson, a marine biologist, is known as the “godmother of modern environmentalism.” In the late 1950s, Carson turned her attention to conservation and the environmental problems caused by synthetic pesticides. A gifted writer, she documented in her book the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly on birds. Carson found that that DDT caused thinner egg shells in birds, which resulted in reproductive problems and death. Most of the book details the effect of pesticides on natural ecosystems, but four chapters link pesticides to cases of human illnesses, such as cancer. She accused the chemical industry of intentionally and irresponsibly spreading untrue information about pesticides, and public officials uncritically accepting industry’s claims. Carson called into question the notion of scientific progress – an important American attitude and belief. The overriding theme of Silent Spring is the powerful and often negative effect humans have on the natural world.
Carson’s most direct legacy in the environmental movement was the campaign to ban the use of DDT in the U.S. and related efforts to ban or limit its use throughout the world. Ultimately the campaign spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy – leading to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides in the US in 1972. Also, her environmental activism inspired a grassroots movement that helped lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 under the Richard Nixon administration.
Not everyone admired Carson and her work, she certainly had critics. They argued that restrictions placed on pesticides caused needless deaths and hampered agriculture, and more generally that environmental regulation unnecessarily restricts economic freedom. Despite the critics, Rachel Carson’s work has had a powerful impact on the American public’s awareness of environmental concerns, such as pesticides and pollution. Her work was a rallying cry for the infant environmental movement in the 1960s. No one would be able to sell pollution as the necessary underside of progress so easily or uncritically anymore. She also inspired the later deep ecology movement, and contributed to the overall strength of the environmental movement since the 1960s. President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded Carson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), an American ecologist, forester, and environmentalist, helped launch a new direction in environmental thought with his book A Sand County Almanac, written in 1948 and published after his death. Leopold lived and taught in Madison, Wisconsin, and was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and championed wilderness preservation.
Ecology is a branch of biology dealing with the relationships and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms. Or simply put the study of living things, their environment, and the relation between the two. When used in a cultural sense, ecology means the study of the detrimental effects of modern civilization on the environment, with a view toward prevention or reversal through conservation.
In Sand County Almanac, Leopold spelled out the importance of ecology – that all is connected – when studying the environment. He firmly believed that land is not a commodity (has a monetary value) to be possessed; rather, humans must have mutual respect for the earth in order not to destroy it. He also puts forth the idea that humans will never be free if they have no wild spaces in which to roam. One of his memorable quotes in the book is the idea of a “Land Ethic.” He writes “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” One of his short essays, Thinking Like a Mountain, describes the relationship of wolves and deforestation.
On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day brought together over 22 million Americans to celebrate quality-of-life issues and concern for the environment. The idea of a clean and safe environment as a human right was gaining momentum. Now Earth Day is an annual event, celebrated on April 22, when worldwide events are held to demonstrate support for environmental protection. The Earth Day Network now globally coordinates the events which are celebrated in more than 192 countries each year. It is comforting to know that millions of people around the world are united in their work to save human life on our earth.
Questions to Consider:
- Do you think humanity has made progress in saving the Earth for our habitation since 1970?
- Do you think creating a livable planet for the next generation is a human right?