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The Penguin Press



A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism

Edited by Scott Moyers

A provocative history of the rise of the environmental movement in America, showing how its rise to political and social prominence produced a culture of alarmism that has long overshadowed the facts.

Few issues today excite more passion or alarm than the specter of climate change. In A Climate of Crisis, historian Patrick Allitt shows that our present climate of crisis is far from exceptional. Indeed, the environmental debates of the last half century are defined by exaggeration and fear-mongering from all sides, often at the expense of the facts.

In a real sense, Allitt shows us, collective anxiety about widespread environmental danger began with the atomic bomb, when the apocalyptic possibilities of human technology became terrifyingly real. Then, as the urbanization and industrialization of the postwar years transformed the American landscape, more research and better tools for measurement began to reveal the environmental consequences of economic success. Scientists shared their findings; convinced that their research was significant and their findings potentially ominous, they had an incentive to cultivate relationships with journalists and politicians to mobilize public interest. A climate of anxiety became a climate of alarm.

In the early sixties works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring catalyzed a growing awareness that chemical pollution was threatening the natural world. A series of environmental disasters in these years, including the massive Union Oil spill in California and a fire in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, heightened the sense of panic and underlined the fact that industry was indeed producing high levels of pollution. These ideas resonated with and drew energy from the counterculture movement, which protested conspicuous waste and the falsehoods of consumer society. The sixties generation was largely responsible for the transformation of environmentalism from a set of special interests into a mass movement. By the end of the sixties, journalists and politicians alike were recognizing the connection between the many forms of pollution and the need for an effective response to the public’s concerns. The work of the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency and a series of clean air and water acts in the 1970s from a responsive Congress inaugurated a sustained and largely successful cleanup.

Political polarization around environmental questions after 1980 had consequences that we still feel today. Since then the general polarization of American politics has mirrored the polarization of environmental politics, as advocates of environmental concern and their critics for decades have attributed to each other the worst possible motives. Environmentalists see their critics as greedy special interest groups that show no signs of conscience as they plunder the earth, while counter-environmentalists see their adversaries as the enemies of economic growth, whose plans will stop social progress and stifle initiative under an avalanche of bureaucratic regulation.

There may be a germ of truth in both views, but more than a germ of falsehood too. It is easy to forget that the United States is much cleaner and healthier in 2013 than in 1950. America’s worst environmental problems have proven to be manageable; the regulations and cleanups of the last sixty years have worked, and science and technology continue to produce more efficient and alternative sources of energy. Our present environmental situation is serious, argues Allitt, but it is far from hopeless. Sweeping and provocative, A Climate of Crisis challenges our basic assumptions about the environment, no matter where we fall along the spectrum—reminding us that the answers to our most pressing questions are sometimes found in understanding the past.



“In recounting partisan battles, Mr. Allitt’s objectivity is refreshing…His critique of the relentless crisis mentality will lead many environmentalists to dismiss the book as anti-environmental, while anti-environmentalists will object to his conclusion that much conservation has been achieved at little cost to ordinary Americans.” The Wall Street Journal

“A book that deserves widespread readership and course adoption…The virtue of Allitt’s history is a fresh approach to familiar themes and controversies, and from a perspective only occasionally brought to bear on the subject…He gets the larger story right…Allitt’s wide-gauge historical approach is a valuable complement to the many scientific and policy critiques that have piled up over the years.”—The Weekly Standard

“In this sweeping study, Patrick Allitt covers every conceivable major character and event in the modern ‘age of environmentalism.’ The book is grounded in intellectual history, and seeks to find balance in interpreting the role of environmental advocates and naysayers, in successes and failures of governmental regulation, in objectives and outcomes. The tone is definitely optimistic about the long view of meeting environmental challenges in the United States. At the same time, in linking past to present, Allitt offers caution about what might unfold in the days to come. Above all else, he touts the value of history in assessing America’s complex environmental legacy.” —Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City and Precious Commodity

“I don’t agree with everything in A Climate of Crisis, but Patrick Allitt’s well-written and provocative book has given me more to think about than any other history of the U.S. environmental movement. A Climate of Crisis is both bracing and exciting.” —Adam Rome, author of The Genius of Earth Day

Author Q&A


The major shift in public opinion toward environmental issues was never more visible than on the first Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22, 1970. Well publicized by its organizers Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin who was already strongly identified with environmental issues, and Denis Hayes, former president of the student body at Stanford and a Harvard law student, Earth Day was modeled after the Vietnam teach-ins held on college campuses in the sixties. There were events in every large American city and among high schools, colleges, churches, citizens’ groups, businesses, trade unions, and congressmen (Congress recessed for the day). The event surpassed its organizers’ wildest hopes by mobilizing thousands of groups across the nation. Politicians and business leaders as well as environmental activists gave conservation-themed speeches. Among the issues debated, that day as throughout the era, were pollution and population. Another idea that had begun to generate interest and publicity was the alleged exhaustion of the Earth’s resources.

Earth Day generated a great deal of press attention, mostly favorable, and drew in far more participants than any antiwar, civil rights, or feminist demonstration of the 1960s. In New York, Fifth Avenue was closed for two hours, enabling people to stroll along the suddenly quiet avenue and enjoy speeches and “ecological” street theater. Mayor John Lindsay, a Republican, declared that the environmental issues of the day boiled down to a simple question: “Do we want to live or die?” Elsewhere, communities arranged trash pickups or symbolically buried gas-guzzling cars—a group of one hundred Tacoma, Washington, teenagers rode horses to school along the freeway. Nelson remarked later, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize twenty million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated.”

Some corporations were eager to support Earth Day, especially chemical and oil companies that had been criticized for their dirty and damaging conduct over the last few years. Like politicians, they were susceptible to changing popular moods and eager to embrace them, for the sake of good public relations. Before long they would launch “green” advertising campaigns, claiming that no one was more alert to the needs of the suffering Earth than they. The organizers of Earth Day itself, however, did not accept corporate contributions.

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