The United States is usually regarded as an environmental laggard, with President George W. Bush perceived as being little better than the head of a gang of willful polluters who do everything they can to obstruct global action to protect the environment. Of course, there is some truth in this characterization of America (and quite a lot in that of Bush), but the picture is not uniformly bleak.
Indeed, the environmental movement – like most modern social movements – began in the US. The roots of America’s “environmental movement” lie in the nineteenth century, when the damage wrought by the industrial revolution and the fragmentation of the natural landscape by individual property rights and tenures first became apparent.
But it was the publication in 1962 of the book Silent Spring – a polemic against the use of pesticides in agriculture – by the biologist Rachel Carson that jump-started the modern ecological movement. Carson drew on scientific findings, but also voiced fundamental misgivings about consumer capitalism and a “postmaterialistic” belief in the primacy of the quality of life over economic growth. In Carson’s wake, the “Woodstock” generation of the 1960’s, with its Earth Days, soon began to organize a broad campaign, which saw, in April 1970, around 20 million Americans take to the street to defend the environment.
In this new movement, the libertarian tendencies of the New Left and the protectionist tendencies of the traditional right became intertwined. Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller The Population Bomb exerted an influence that lasts to this day. America’s environmental movement was soon exported to Europe and elsewhere: on one hand, the pragmatic Friends of the Earth and the media-oriented organization Greenpeace , and, on the other hand, eco-fundamentalist groups like Earth First! and the Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) or lobbying groups like the World Wildlife Fund.