In their zeal to fix the nation’s problems during the 1960s, reformers found a new topic of concern: the environment. Today, caring about our carbon footprint is normal and separating our rubbish and recycling into multiple trashcans is normal, but this was not always the case. Certainly earlier conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir had talked about preserving America’s wildlands, but those steps were tiny compared to the massive efforts underway today.

Observing Earth Day and talking about saving the whales are things students today grew up with, but where did they come from? When did Americans start to care about saving the Earth? And, what did they think they were saving the Earth from? Why did they care at that time?

Spurred on by their newfound love for nature, the young people of the counterculture took up environmentalism. They found allies in the White House and Congress as part of Johnson’s Great Society, and Saving the Earth became part of the national conversation. The environmental movement grew up, just like the hippies that helped launch it, which brings us to an interesting, and more present question: can we save the Earth? Hopefully, by understanding how the environmental movement started and changed over time, we can understand something about our ecological future.


Americans have not always been concerned about the environment the way we are today. The modern environmental movement began in the 1960s, but its roots go much farther back.

Conservation first became a national issue during the Progressive Era when outdoorsmen, fishermen, and the great conservationist John Muir began advocating for the protection of America’s most beautiful, and unique stretches of wilderness. This conservation movement urged politicians to establish state and national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and national monuments. It was a time period when settlement had extended fully from sea to sea and the great industrial factories and cities of the East were on the rise. For many, the idea of preserving natural resources made sense. Even within the growing cities, efforts were underway in the form of the City Beautiful Movement to preserve green spaces for humans to enjoy.

It was at this time that President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter and outdoorsman himself, put the issue high on the national agenda. He encouraged the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 to promote federal construction of dams to irrigate small farms and placed 360,000 square miles of wilderness under federal protection. Roosevelt set aside more federal land for national parks and nature preserves than all of his predecessors combined and is justifiably considered the nation’s first conservation president.

Even at the dawn of the 1900s, however, there were differing views of how to best preserve and use America’s wildlands. For Roosevelt, nature was a resource to be used. Rivers could be damned and used for the production of electricity or for irrigation. Forests were to be preserved from being cut down to be turned into farmland, but not to be left unused. Instead, the government’s role, in Roosevelt’s eyes, was to protect the forest so that it could be periodically logged for lumber. However, in 1903 Roosevelt toured the Yosemite Valley with John Muir, who had a very different view of conservation, and tried to minimize commercial use of water resources and forests. Working through the Sierra Club he founded, Muir succeeded in 1905 in having Congress transfer the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley to the National Park Service. In short, Muir wanted nature preserved for the sake of pure beauty, and although he succeeded in preserving Yosemite, the debate about how to best use or preserve America’s natural resources continues.

During the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt used numerous programs to end wasteful land-use. He fought to mitigate the effects of the Dust Bowl, and efficiently develop natural resources in the West. One of the most popular of all New Deal programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which sent two million poor young men to work in rural and wilderness areas, primarily on conservation projects.

After World War II, increasing encroachment on wilderness land in the form of urban sprawl, encouraged by the nation’s expanding roadways, evoked the continued resistance of conservationists. They succeeded in blocking a number of projects in the 1950s and 1960s, including the proposed Bridge Canyon Dam that would have backed up the waters of the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon National Park.

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The Cuyahoga River on fire in Cleveland, Ohio. Images of the burning river published in Time Magazine helped Americans understand the extent of industrial pollution and the importance of regulations such as the Clean Water Act.

By the 1950s, pollution from decades of production in industrial cities had become a matter of serious concern. Famously pointing out the effects of industrial pollution, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio was so contaminated with oil that it caught on fire – more than once! At least 13 fires have been reported on the Cuyahoga River, the first occurring in 1868. The largest river fire in 1952 caused over $1 million in damage to boats, a bridge, and a riverfront office building. On June 22, 1969, a river fire captured the attention of Time magazine, which described the Cuyahoga as the river that “oozes rather than flows” and in which a person “does not drown but decays”.

However, it was not a river on fire that ignited the modern environmental movement. It was a book.


Rachel Carson
sent a wake-up call to America with her 1962 book Silent Spring. Carson wrote of the horrors of DDT, a popular pesticide used on many American farms. DDT wrought havoc on the nation’s bird population. The pesticide, when ingested by birds, proved poisonous as it resulted in thin eggshells that could not adequately support the birds before they hatched. Carson wrote compellingly about a spring when birds did not return from their fall migrations, and how the domino effect on the ecosystems resulted in a spring when the frogs did not croak, crickets did not sing, and all of nature had fallen silent.

Carson’s work had a powerful impact. Silent Spring became a rallying point for the new social movement in the 1960s. Many students involved in the counterculture, anti-war movement and various civil rights movements of the time embraced the call for environmental awareness. According to environmental engineer and Carson scholar H. Patricia Hynes, “Silent Spring altered the balance of power in the world. No one since would be able to sell pollution as the necessary underside of progress so easily or uncritically.”

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Rachel Caron’s book Silent Spring is seen as the catalyst for the modern environmental movement.

Carson’s most direct legacy in the environmental movement was the campaign to ban the use of DDT in the United States, and related efforts to ban or limit its use throughout the world. The 1967 formation of the Environmental Defense Fund was the first major milestone in the campaign against DDT. The organization brought lawsuits against the government to “establish a citizen’s right to a clean environment”, and their arguments against DDT largely mirrored Carson’s. The urgency of banning DDT was reinforced by a dangerous fall in the population of Bald Eagles, the national bird. For many, it seemed a matter of national pride not to let the eagle go extinct. By 1972, the Environmental Defense Fund and other activist groups had succeeded in securing a phase-out of DDT use in the United States, except in emergency cases.

The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the Nixon Administration in 1970 addressed another concern that Carson had written about. Until then, the Department of Agriculture was responsible both for regulating pesticides and promoting the concerns of the agriculture industry. Carson saw this as a conflict of interest, since the agency was primarily concerned with the success of the nation’s farms, not the effects those farms were having on wildlife. Fifteen years after its creation, one journalist described the EPA as “the extended shadow of Silent Spring.”


While Rachel Carson came from the world of science, America’s other great environmentalist of the 1960s came from the world of government. Many historians consider Lyndon Johnson the greatest environmental president the nation has ever had. In fact, protection of the environment was an important part of Johnson’s overall Great Society program. One of the most vocal supporters of environmental protection during the 1960s was President Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson. Remembered for declaring that “where flowers bloom, so does hope,” she was instrumental in the passage of the Highway Beautification Act and was a tireless campaigner for her husband’s environmental programs.

In describing his vision for environmental protection to Congress, Johnson said, “The air we breathe, our water, our soil and wildlife, are being blighted by poisons and chemicals which are the by-products of technology and industry. The society that receives the rewards of technology, must, as a cooperating whole, take responsibility for [their] control… We must not only protect the countryside and save it from destruction, we must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities. Our conservation must be not just the classic conservation of protection [against] development, but a creative conservation of restoration and innovation.” In keeping with the Johnson tradition, numerous bills were passed by Congress during his tenure including the Clean Air Act which set standards for factory and power plant emissions. He also signed the Clean Water Act, Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Preservation Act, National Trails System Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, Solid Waste Disposal Act, Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, and Aircraft Noise Abatement Act, among others.


A major milestone in the Environmental Movement was the establishment of Earth Day, which was first observed in San Francisco and other cities on March 21, 1970, the first day of spring. It was created to give awareness to environmental issues. On March 21, 1971, United Nations Secretary-General U Thant spoke of a spaceship Earth on Earth Day, hereby referring to the ecosystem services the earth supplies to us, and hence our obligation to protect it.

Concern for the environment proved to be international as well. The United Nations held its first major conference on international environmental issues, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, in 1972. It marked a turning point in the development of international environmental politics. The formation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1975 is further evidence that people in many nations were concerned about conservation. It is worthwhile to note that this global cooperation coincided with a détente with the Soviet Union and President Nixon’s visit to China. Luckily for the world, a thawing in Cold War tensions came at the right time for environmental cooperation.

Meanwhile, back home, young Americans were beginning to learn about conservation in school as science classes adapted to pressing social issues. Elementary curriculum began including a nationwide awareness campaign attempted to raise consciousness and a cute character created by the Forrest Service named Woodsy Owl advised youngsters to “Give a hoot—don’t pollute!” Thousands felt their heartstrings tugged as they viewed television advertisements depicting mountains of trash culminating with a pensive Native American shedding a single, mournful tear.

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Woodsy Owl provided young Americans in the 1970s with a gentle reminder not to pollute. Programs like this brought environmental conscientiousness into the mainstream.


While the government has been involved in passing environmental protection legislation since the 1960s and government funding for scientific research in this area is significant, it is largely the work of non-profit organizations that has maintained public interest in environmental concerns.

Greenpeace focuses its campaigning on worldwide issues, such as global warming, deforestation, overfishing, commercial whaling, and anti-nuclear issues. Using direct action, lobbying, and research to achieve its goals, Greenpeace has been described as the most visible environmental organization in the world. Greenpeace has also been a source of controversy. For example, Greenpeace activists have at times interfered with Japanese whale hunts by sailing their boats in between whaling ships and the whales themselves, putting themselves in harm’s way.

Although flashy, Greenpeace is not the largest environmental organization in the world. That distinction belongs to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). WWF is involved in many projects. Recognizing the importance of economic incentives, the WWF raises money to pay governments in developing countries to protect their natural resources. For example, a small nation in Africa might receive debt forgiveness if they create a new national park.

Other major groups include the Nature Conservancy, which raises money to purchase land to protect it from development, John Muir’s Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Fund.


With major legislation in place to deal with pressing concerns such as burning rivers, pesticides, and protecting endangered species, the focus of the environmental movement shifted around the world to a potentially more destructive, albeit long term problem: greenhouse gas emissions. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, humans had been adding large amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, especially carbon, in the form of burning coal, oil, gasoline, and natural gas. The effect has been a slow, but increasing quick warming of the overall atmosphere. To be sure, the numbers seem small. However, just a degree or two increase in the world’s average temperature could have massive affects in the coming decades. As ice near the poles melts, sea levels will rise, threatening low elevation islands and cities. Some of America’s major ports such as New York and New Orleans are at risk. Some island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans may disappear altogether.

Recognizing the seriousness of the problem, and the magnitude of the solutions that would have to be put into place to slow, stop, or reverse the warming trend, global leaders met in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro and signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC was not a treaty in and of itself, but rather an agreement about how future agreements would be negotiated and structured. The first major agreement about limiting greenhouse gas emissions came five years later in Kyoto, Japan.

The Kyoto Protocol sets emissions targets for developed countries which are binding under international law. The Kyoto Protocol has had two commitment periods, the first of which lasted from 2008-2012. The second one runs from 2013-2020. While the Kyoto Protocol has been ratified by all the other major industrial nations of the world, the United States and Canada have not yet signed on. All the major participants in the negotiations participated in the first Kyoto commitment period by passing laws that reduced emissions in their nations in order to meet their goals. 37 countries and the European Union have agreed to second-round emissions reduction targets. These countries include Australia, all members of the European Union, Belarus, Croatia, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Norway, Switzerland, and Ukraine. Japan, New Zealand, and Russia have participated in Kyoto’s first-round but have not taken on new targets in the second commitment period.

A follow-up treaty to set emissions targets for the periods beginning in 2020 was signed in Paris, France, and is creatively known as the Paris Agreement. Both the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement face the same problems and criticism.

Some argue the treaties do not go far enough to curb greenhouse emissions. Niue, the Cook Islands, and Nauru added notes to this effect when signing the Kyoto Protocol. They are among the island nations most threatened by climate change. Some economists see the economic impacts of meeting of the emissions targets as outweighing the environmental benefits. In contrast, others believing the standards are inequitable will do little to curb greenhouse gas emissions. One such critic said the Kyoto Protocol was doing “too little, too fast,” in that it asks for excessively costly short-term reductions in emissions, without determining what should be done over longer timeframes.

Some have heavily criticized the agreements for only setting emission reductions for rich countries, while not setting such commitments for the fast-growing emerging economies. Many critics in the United States fall into this group. They see the agreements as inherently unfair since the United States would have to put into place costly measures to reduce emissions whereas China and India do not. The growing economies, on the other hand, point out that the United States and the Europeans polluted for well over 100 years as they became rich, and for them it seems unfair that just when they are emerging as world powers the United States would want to put on the breaks by implementing environmental regulations. In the end, participation in international environmental treaties has become a political issue in the United States


When it appeared the George W. Bush Administration was trying to suppress scientific reporting on climate change in 2006, the progressive-leaning Union of Concerned Scientists surveyed 1,600 climate scientists, asking them about the state of federal climate research. Of those who responded, nearly three in four believed that their research had been subjected to new administrative requirements, and editing to change their conclusions, or pressure not to use terms such as “global warming.” Republican politicians, citing the altered reports, argued that there was no unified opinion among members of the scientific community that humans were damaging the climate. This is simply false. Around the world there is a general consensus that global warming is real, caused by human activity, and likely to increase in the coming century and have significant impacts on our way of life.

A closer look at the growth of the resistance to climate science by historians found that the campaign to undermine public trust in climate science is supported by industrial interests opposed to the regulation of carbon emissions. Climate change denial has been associated with the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks who support business interests. More than 90% of papers skeptical of climate change originate from right-wing think tanks. The total annual income of these climate change counter-movement-organizations is roughly $900 million, a treasure capable of paying for enough bogus science to perpetuate climate skepticism for many years to come.

Climate change denial groups have been successful in the United States in that they have convinced the Republican Party to champion their cause. Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, who had previously called climate change “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated against the American people,” claimed to have debunked the alleged hoax in February 2015 when he brought a snowball to the Senate chamber and tossed it across the floor claiming that climate change could not be real if it was still snowing. He was succeeded in 2017 by John Barrasso, who similarly said, “The climate is constantly changing. The role human activity plays is not known.” The rest of the world is shocked and terrified that conservatives in the United States have been fooled into promoting the interests of industry over the facts of science.

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Senator Jim Inhofe holds a snowball during his climate change denial statements in the Senate chamber in 2015.

Countering this rejection of science were the activities of many environmentalists, including Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president and Bush’s opponent in the disputed 2000 election. In 2006, a documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, represented his attempts to educate people about the realities and dangers of global warming, and won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Though some of what Gore said was in error, the film’s main thrust is in keeping with the weight of scientific evidence. In 2007, as a result of these efforts to “disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change,” Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


The Trump Administration championed industry over climate regulation. In December 2017, a New York Times analysis of EPA enforcement data found that the Trump Administration had adopted a far more lenient approach to enforcing federal pollution laws than the previous Obama and Bush administrations.

The Trump Administration brought fewer cases against polluters, sought a lower total of civil penalties and made fewer requests of companies to retrofit facilities to curb pollution. In 2018, the Trump Administration referred the lowest number of pollution cases for criminal prosecution in 30 years.

Moments after Trump’s inauguration, the White House removed all references to climate change on its website, with the sole exception of mentioning Trump’s intention to eliminate the Obama administration’s climate change policies. By April, the EPA had removed climate change material on its website, including detailed climate data and scientific information, putting them firmly in the climate change denial camp. Anticipating political interference that could result in loss of government data on climate, scientists had already sourced links and copied the data into independent servers.

As part of their pro-business position, Trump’s administration invalidated the Stream Protection Rule, a regulation intended to prevent coal mining debris from being dumped into nearby streams, and rolled back regulations which limited dumping by power plants of toxic wastewater containing metals like arsenic and mercury into public waterways. In March 2017, Trump issued an executive order reversing multiple Obama Administration policies meant to tackle climate change. Trump said he was “putting an end to the war on coal”, removing “job-killing regulations” and “restrictions on American energy.”

Under Trump, the EPA rejected a ban on the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, which the EPA’s own agency staff had recommended banning due to extensive research showing adverse health effects on children. In August 2018, a federal court ordered the EPA to ban the pesticide, because EPA heads had ignored conclusions of its own scientists.

In June 2017, Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, a 2015 climate change accord reached by 200 nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions, defying broad global backing for the plan.

The administration suspended a number of large government-funded research programs, such as a study on the public health effects of mountaintop removal coal-mining, and one intended to make offshore drilling safer, as well as funding for a program that distributed grants to research the effects of chemical exposure on children.

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Although innovative in his use of Twitter to communicate directly with the nation, President Trump has demonstrated a willingness to promote climate skepticism (among other conspiracy theories) and has actively supported business interests over environmental stewardship.

Trump sharply reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah, making it the largest reduction of public land protections in American history. Shortly afterwards, Interior Secretary Zinke advocated for downsizing four additional national monuments.

Despite all of his efforts to pretend nothing is wrong, Trump has not been able to make climate change go away. The day after Thanksgiving 2018, the administration released the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), a long-awaited study conducted by numerous federal agencies that found “the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising.” Two days earlier, Trump had repeated his many previous assertions that a current cold weather spell calls global warming science into question, a notion that has been repeatedly debunked by climate scientists. Despite the report of the scientists in the government, one Trump official still stated, “We don’t care. In our view, this is made-up hysteria anyway.” He noted that the Administration did not alter the report’s findings but rather chose to release it the day after Thanksgiving “on a day when nobody cares, and hope it gets swept away by the next day’s news.”

In 2021 when President Biden took office, his administration began undoing many of the changes President Trump had implemented. Biden announced that the United States would rejoin the Paris Agreement and has indicated that dealing with climate change would be one of his top four priorities. Even business, which President Trump had claimed his policies were meant to help, seem to view climate change as a problem to be addressed rather than ignored. For example, in January 2021, General Motors CEO Mary Barra announced that her company would build only electric cars and light trucks by the year 2035.


Some might look at the present Trump Administration and think of it as an abnormality in a decades-long effort to implement regulations that will protect the environment for our future. Others might see it as a more ominous sign that the forces who stand to lose from that regulation are winning a campaign to influence public opinion. Mother Nature does not have a bank account and cannot pay for phony research, but coal mining companies do, after all.

Despite what some may say, we understand the impact humans have had and are having on the environment, and we have seen that government regulation can make a difference. The saving of the Bald Eagle by banning DDT and passing the Endangered Species Act are obvious proof of this. However, can we tackle the much larger problem of dealing with human-induced climate change?

As the Americans who are going to deal with the problems of climate change in the coming decades, it is perhaps much more important for you to ponder this question than it is for the leaders from previous generations.

What do you think? Can we save the Earth?



BIG IDEA: The environmental movement as we know it today started in the 1960s. Over time the focus has shifted from preserving natural wonders to preventing pollution to mitigating the effects of climate change. In recent decades, significant opposition to the environmental movement has emerged.

Americans have been concerned with preserving the environment since the Progressive Era when President Theodore Roosevelt launched the National Park Service and John Muir founded the Sierra Club.

During the Great Depression FDR implemented the CCC and dealt with the Dust Bowl and during the 1950s people worked to stop construction of a dam that would have partially filled in the Grand Canyon.

The modern environmental movement started when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring and helped Americans become aware of the dangers of the pesticide DDT. Her work led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

President Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson both cared about the environment and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were part of Johnson’s Great Society.

During the 1960s and 1970s the environmental movement grew. Earth Day was started and new non-governmental organizations were founded to fight for conservation.

In modern times, climate change is the most pressing concern. International agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement have implemented goals for carbon emission reduction. Different presidents have chosen to join or withdraw from these agreements.

Some people reject the overwhelming science that supports human-induced climate change. These climate skeptics were originally funded by business groups who will lose money if carbon emissions are reduced. Republican politicians, including President Trump, promote the ideas of climate skeptics and work to block environmental regulation. Most Democrats, like former Vice President Al Gore, advocate for regulations to limit climate change.



Rachel Carson: Scientist who wrote Silent Spring about the dangers of pesticides and launched the modern environmental movement.

Lady Bird Johnson: First lady and white of President Lyndon Johnson. She promoted education and environmental legislation. She is famous for declaring “where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

Woodsy Owl: Cartoon character created in the 1970s to encourage children not to litter.

Greenpeace: Environmental organization that is famous for direct action campaigns such as interfering with whaling ships.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF): Largest non-profit environmental protection organization in the world.

Al Gore: Former Vice President who has dedicated himself to fighting to protect the environment. He wrote An Inconvenient Truth.


DDT: Pesticide that can case fatal problems in animals, especially birds, after it has been washed into rivers and lakes. It was the subject of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and was banned shortly after the book’s publication.

Greenhouse Gas: Chemical that prevents solar energy from leaving the atmosphere and consequently leads to a gradual warming of the overall temperature of the planet. Carbon dioxide is the most famous.

Global Warming: The slow processes of increasing the Earth’s average temperature. It is due to human activity and could lead to major changes in weather, sea level, and other natural processes.

Climate Skepticism: The belief that global warming is not happening or that it will not result in significant changes. It is an idea first promoted by businesses that will suffer if limits are place on greenhouse gas emissions.


Silent Spring: Book written by Rachel Carson about the dangers of pesticides. The book helped launch the modern environmental movement.

An Inconvenient Truth: Book by former Vice President Al Gore about climate change.


Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Government agency responsible for enforcing laws designed to protect the environment.


Cuyahoga River Fires: Fires that took place when oil and other flammable pollutants in the major river in Cleveland ignited. They occurred multiple times, the largest in 1952. In 1969, it was featured on the cover of Time Magazine and helped focus national attention on the problem of pollution.

Earth Day: March 21. First observed in 1971, it is a day to focus on the environment.


Clean Air Act: Law passed in the 1960s that regulates air pollution.

Clean Water Act: Law passed in the 1960s that regulates water population.

Kyoto Protocol: International agreement signed in 1997 that established as framework for future greenhouse gas emissions reduction treaties.

Paris Agreement: Follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol that sets greenhouse gas emissions targets beginning in 2020.

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