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Author posits different beginning of environmentalism

Thomas Jundt discusses latest book, titled “Greening the Red, White and Blue”

Visiting Assistant Professor of History Thomas Jundt published a book earlier this month that contests popular beliefs about the origins of environmentalism. Jundt argues that, contrary to common belief, the movement began decades before Rachel Carson’s iconic 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which discussed the dangers of pesticides and, according to many people, eventually led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. Jundt spoke with The Herald about his new book, entitled “Greening the Red, White and Blue: The Bomb, Big Business and Consumer Resistance in Postwar America,” which explores evidence that the influence of both the Cold War and capitalism inspired the environmental movement.


Herald: Why is the beginning of environmentalism always linked to the ’60s and ’70s, and what made you decide that it shouldn’t be? 

It’s funny that we are talking about it on Earth Day because I actually set out writing a book about Earth Day. I wanted to write about why Earth Day came about. Some people point to that as being the beginning of popular environmentalism. There is always this figure that stands out that 20 million people took to the streets in the 1970s to celebrate or show their concern for the Earth.

So one of the things I had to wrestle with was: What explains 20 million people? The common answers for that so far had been Rachel Carson’s book in 1962 or just the ’60s era ­— that’s what people did, took to the street. But 20 million was an enormous number. It was the biggest number since the end of World War II when people took to the streets in celebration.

Neither of those seems terribly satisfactory.

So like historians do, I started going backwards and started to think about what might explain this. I started to think of things in my own life that maybe gave clues. One was walking into church with my dad when I was 5 years old and asking him what the sign on the side of the building meant and he explained — it was a fallout sign and if the Russians attacked this is where we could go, and there would be food and water and we could take shelter there. I was terrified for years, imagining what it would be like when the bombs dropped. I wondered how far back that went — this kind of fear that it could all end in an instant. I started looking at things from the late ’40s and found that people were talking about it. Indeed, in both (William) Vogt and (Fairfield) Osborn’s books, they both already talked about the dangers of DDT and its threat to the planet and mammals and life and humans.

There were also critics talking about (the fact) that business was attacking labor, they were attacking this new idea of conservation. They hoped to eliminate it because they saw it as a threat. There were others (who) gave similar critiques throughout the ’50s that tried to oppose business (for their lack of support of environmentalism), particularly in the era of the Cold War where to make these kind of critiques, if you weren’t very careful, you would be labeled a communist and marginalized at best.

So I think a lot of (the start of environmentalism) was the context of the Cold War, that critiquing capitalism was really dangerous, and I think a lot of it too was that business really relayed itself against these folks.


Why didn’t environmentalism start before the ’40s?

I think the metaphoric power of atomic bombs was a big part of it. It’s not that there weren’t environmental concerns before the ’40s. There was already great concern about conserving spaces that were particularly aesthetically pleasing. There was already concern about efficient use of natural resources for production. But they were local. With atomic bombs there was all of a sudden a realization that humans could destroy the Earth. It really opened people up to thinking about other ways humans might destroy the earth too.


Why do you think that environmentalism is a reaction to corporate capitalism?

I think it’s long been seen that corporate capitalism poses one of the major threats to the environment. It not only poses a threat in terms of its processes, but the very structure of it focuses on profits, which means the environment takes a backseat and is seen as a factor of production instead of something to be preserved. In the United States, where business seems to have an undue amount of power compared to citizens and the government, (environmentalism has) been a way that citizens have tried to negotiate that imbalance in some ways politically. For other citizens who maybe have lost hope for that, it’s a refuge within the system where they at least can live true to their ideals and at least try to take care of themselves and their family as best they can, whether or not the policy will ever catch up in the way they hope it will.


What impact do you hope this book has on how people view environmentalism?

I think my major hope is that it opens up further discussion about the situation of democracy in the U.S. and how (the country is not) responding to the concerns of citizens as well as it might because of the increasing power of big business. I think that the environment and environmentalism is a good vehicle to get at that.


What do you think has been the biggest shift in environmentalism from the ’40s to today? 

The way that (environmentalism) continued to build and play up in consumer culture was just very small, oftentimes called a cult in the 1940s. Today it’s hard to imagine a product that doesn’t have a greener alternative that we can buy. The key part of my argument in the book is that this is the way environmentalism plays out in the daily lives of most of us. Critics of that will say that’s a great example of environmentalism being co-opted by big business and sold back to them as organic soy lattes. But what I’m trying to argue is that it’s not so much that, as it’s that in the current system — where both parties are beholden to the same corporations that are devastating the planet — that citizens really don’t have much of a place to go, and so as we’re watching the seas rise, the only game in town sometimes feels like buying a Prius.


What role has the government historically played in environmentalism, and what role do you see it playing today and in the future? 

It has played a regulating role. But for most environmentalists it’s an inefficient regulating role. It’s funny we’re talking on Earth Day because the strongest legislation came in with Earth Day. There was kind of this great hope that came with (these bills), but it wasn’t long until they were shown to be ineffective. (Politicians realized that) those laws were only as good as the enforcement mechanism and if you staff those agencies with people who are acceptable to big business concerns, then that’s what really matters. I think as long as politics are funded the way they are now then it’s hard to imagine it really changing much. The laws will respond somewhat to public pressure, but they will never quite be enough and they will never quite be enforced as vigorously as they should be. In 2007, there was a Washington Post poll that found seven out of 10 people polled wanted the government to do more about global warming, and half of those wanted the government to do much more. But here we sit — it hasn’t happened because those citizen voices are being drowned out by more powerful voices that are benefitting from the status quo.


What misinformation is out there on this topic? 

I think the biggest misinformation is that this all started in the ’60s and  that eco-consumers are misguided and self-indulgent. They are sometimes criticized that instead of doing the hard work of participatory politics, which means stuffing envelopes and organizing and knocking on doors, they retreated into this personal politics of consumption because they’re lazy, essentially. That’s one of the things I pointedly wanted to spell out because I used to feel that way myself. I opened up that book talking about being at Whole Foods across from Central Park in Manhattan and looking at shoppers and having, at best, mixed feelings about what was going on there. As I got into the research, one of the things that really crystallized for me is that it’s easy to criticize in that way. But when you look at the structures of power in our current political system, I’m not sure if citizens really have a viable alternative.


What advice do you have for people who want to conduct historical research like this?

I think to not accept traditional explanation for why movements have started and how they have become popular.


What are your next steps? 

My next project, which is called “Cash Cows: When Animals Went Corporate,” is looking at when animals went from being in pastoral settings and into corporate confinement, and why that happened. (I hope to look) at this intersection of business and government and how that brought that about.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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