Environmental Concerns in the U.S. in the 1970s

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  • 0:01 Silent Spring
  • 1:07 Rise of Environmentalism
  • 2:04 Nuclear Apprehension
  • 3:23 Clean Air Act
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

While still a source of controversy for some today, the environmental movement really took off in the U.S. during the 1970s. This lesson explains the impact of 'Silent Spring', the birth of the EPA and the role of nuclear power during the period.

Silent Spring

Environmentalism became one of the most dominant social concerns of the 1970s, with serious debate about how to best control pollution and the effect that pollution was having on the environment as a whole, whether it was nuclear, chemical, or altogether something else. However, one of the most dominant catalysts for discussion of environmentalism during the 1970s was actually written in the 1960s.

In 1962, a biologist named Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, a book that was destined to change perceptions on the environment for quite some time. In the book, Carson stated that the widespread use of pesticides, especially DDT, had the potential of eradicating more than just garden pests. In fact, the title of the book is an allusion to the fact that spring could come with no birds because they would have all been killed by pesticides. Carson even points out the growth of tumors as a result of DDT and shows how they could affect humans. Needless to say, Silent Spring was a paradigm-shifting book and received a great deal of attention.

Rise of Environmentalism

One of the groups whose attention Silent Spring had received was the Federal Government. Within a decade, DDT was illegal in the United States. Also, by 1971, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, a government entity tasked with safeguarding the environment. The environmental movement was gaining real ground, not only within intellectual circles but also with the masses. For example, the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970.

However, this new environmental movement ran into powerful enemies. Producing pesticides, like DDT and the others mentioned in Silent Spring, was big business, worth billions of dollars a year. The environmental movement threatened to hurt those profits. Ultimately, backed by heavy donations from DuPont Chemical and others, a pro-business White House under Ronald Reagan reversed or limited many of the changes that had taken place during the 1970s.

Nuclear Apprehension

Scientists on both sides of a chemical issue could argue about the pros and cons of pesticides, but one technology that was increasingly difficult to ignore was atomic energy. Atomic weapons had long been controversial, and a movement to stop their development and use had been popular during the 1960s. However, by the 1970s the question turned more to the use of nuclear energy. On the surface of it, nuclear power plants produced much smaller amounts of pollution than coal or oil plants, and unlike other clean energies, like solar and wind, nuclear energy was actually viable from an economic perspective. However, the ever-present threat of nuclear meltdown, when the radioactive particles would escape the core of the reactor and cause death and destruction in the vicinity of the plant, was a real fear.

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