the american earth

  1. Top of page
  2. the american earth
  3. war and anti-modernism
  4. uncle sam as natural resource planner: strategic minerals
  5. uncle sam as environmental manager: environmental degradation, political instability, and war
  6. empire and ecology
  7. feed 'em or fight 'em”: india and the united states in the 1960s
  8. think globally, act locally: empire and environmental politics
  9. conclusions

Flip through This Is the American Earth, a collection of writings by Nancy Newhall and photographs by Ansel Adams published by the Sierra Club in 1960 in order to raise awareness about threats to American wilderness, and you will find the images of unpopulated landscapes that you would expect: rugged mountain ranges bathed in light, storm clouds hovering over conifer-covered valleys, flowing streams blanketed in snow. Among the many pictures of American nature, however, you will also find a surprising image—one that depicts neither wilderness nor, indeed, any part of the American landscape. Instead, in double-page grandiosity, it shows a large crowd of Hindus bathing along the banks of the Ganges River in India.1

Why did a book aiming to call attention to American wilderness devote so much precious space to a scene from across the planet? What role did perceptions of India and places like it play in the environmentalist narratives just coming into being in the early 1960s? At the time, because of Cold War politics, Americans were growing increasingly aware of impoverished “Third World” places such as India. A second picture of India in This Is the American Earth specifically evokes this poverty: labeled “famine,” it depicts a sickly, anguished Indian woman holding an undernourished baby. “In India, rich, wasted land,” the text explains, “the specter of famine walked as it still walks, vast and terrible.” Taken together, the two images of India suggest a narrative: that overpopulation creates environmental degradation and poverty. Two other unusual photographs in the book imply that a similar fate could befall the United States: one depicts a turn-of-the-century American slum and the other a postwar subdivision with endless rows of cookie-cutter houses. In the cultural construction of wilderness as a site of solitude, peace, abundance, and quality of life, it appears that crowded and poor India was the perfect foil, the ideal anti-wilderness. The “American” Earth, it seems, could not be understood without understanding the “non-American” Earth.2

Although it is not hard to find international references by environmental actors during the 1960s and 1970s—this is the movement, after all, that gave us the slogan “think globally”—it is surprisingly easy to find histories of the American environmental movement that, except for nuclear technology, mostly skim over America's expanding international role and the Cold War. In a recent article, Adam Rome identifies the three most common explanations of the origins of environmentalism: postwar affluence, technologies such as nuclear weapons and DDT, and ecological science. Noting that none of these explanations really explains why the environmental movement exploded exactly when it did in the late 1960s, Rome points to environmental activism among three previously ignored groups: postmaterialism liberals such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Lyndon Johnson, middle-class women, and countercultural groups. Although Rome's reevaluation is convincing, the emphasis is still within the boundaries of the traditional nation-state. (Although, to be fair, Rome does point out that environmentalists borrowed organizing tools from antiwar protesters.) Most of the overarching explanations of environmentalism still overlook its global context. This is surprising: American society during the twentieth century, especially during the years when environmentalism exploded, became far more intertwined, both materially and mentally, with more parts of the world than perhaps ever before. Indeed, interconnection was the theme not only of the age of ecology but also of the age of Vietnam. On the surface, then, the time seems ripe to do for postwar environmentalism what Mary Dudziak, Carol Anderson, and Thomas Borstelmann have done for the American civil rights movement—show how the global context both constrained and enabled a new political movement.3

In the last fifteen years, two European historians have produced provocative models for thinking about how contacts between the West and the rest of the world advanced environmental reform. Although both models recognize and deplore the environmental devastation wrought by empires, they both also identify how, in certain instances, the special imperatives of maintaining economic and political dominance on a global scale required a degree of planning that helped promote conservationism. In Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (1995), Richard Grove argues that, rather than being a homegrown phenomenon that was later exported, European conservation actually emerged from the management requirements of colonial empires, at first in island territories and eventually in South Asia. Grove points to three forms of evidence: the worldwide network of environmental experts that developed to help empires understand the unusual floras, faunas, and geologies they encountered; the new sense of urgency about protecting nature that these experts, who often had romantic notions about the lands they managed, developed when they saw limits being reached—a sense of urgency that often put them at odds with more commercially minded administrators; and the fact that calls for reform by these experts, framed as crucial to long-term imperial security, could not be easily ignored.4

In Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895–1945 (2002), Peder Anker shows the symbiotic relationship that grew between the British Empire and ecology, the science of interconnection that informed much of the twentieth century's environmental activism. In the first half of the century, Anker notes, the British used the ecological skills of scientists such as Jan Smuts and Arthur Tansley to help manage resources and people on “the colonial estate” and to justify why they and not local peoples should manage colonial forests and other resources.5 In return, ecologists received both patronage and intellectual insights. Indeed, Anker points out, the work that first articulated the concept of ecosystem—Arthur Tansley's “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms” (1935)—drew from the systems models developed at the imperial forestry institute.6

Grove and Anker change the way we understand environmental awareness in two ways. First, taking issue with the notion that knowledge always originates in the imperial center, they contend that, at least to some extent, environmental conservation and ecology came from the global periphery. Their point is not that environmental awareness came from colonial peoples, but that the desire to rule colonial peoples led some colonial administrators to new forms of environmental awareness. Second, they see environmental thought as deeply intertwined with relations of power. Disputing those who claim that protecting nature is a universally shared value transcending social differences, they show that concerns about nature often emerge from and reinforce hierarchies of power. Concern for nature could and often did provide a counter-vision to the imperial enterprise, but it sometimes served as a handmaiden to empire, providing imperial officials with another way to regulate and control far-off lands and peoples.

Could a similar dynamic have linked America's unprecedented global role after World War II with the contemporaneous explosion of the environmental concern? Was it just a coincidence that a new environmental worldview took root in the decades when American influence grew to span the globe? Inspired by Grove and Anker, Dudziak, Anderson, and Borstelmann, this article reexamines the postwar explosion of American environmentalism in the context of the United States’ unprecedented global presence after the war. I argue that, even as the spreading American empire during the Cold War in many ways damaged landscapes, it also spurred the environmental movement in important ways. In particular, it created new imperatives to manage resources, new sciences with which to do so, new forms of environmental crisis, new anti-modern doubts, and ultimately new policy frameworks. Understanding American environmentalism in this context, I believe, helps us understand several important aspects of the movement: how and why it differed from earlier “conservation,” why it exploded in the 1960s, and why at times it took a darkly pessimistic and xenophobic tone.

war and anti-modernism

  1. Top of page
  2. the american earth
  3. war and anti-modernism
  4. uncle sam as natural resource planner: strategic minerals
  5. uncle sam as environmental manager: environmental degradation, political instability, and war
  6. empire and ecology
  7. feed 'em or fight 'em”: india and the united states in the 1960s
  8. think globally, act locally: empire and environmental politics
  9. conclusions

Historians have long recognized the role that anti-modernism has played in the postwar environmental movement. But although historians have rightfully emphasized the emergence of nuclear weapons in fueling the unprecedented anti-modernism of the postwar decades—“The age of ecology opened,” historian Donald Worster has written, “on the New Mexican Desert, near the town of Alamogordo, on July 16, 1945, with a dazzling fireball of light and a swelling mushroom cloud of radioactive gases”—they have generally overlooked the important role that other aspects of America's global role have played in fueling discontent with modern life.7 We can begin to get a more complicated understanding of the international history of anti-modernism by looking at the lives of three important people who are not remembered as American environmental activists—Fairfield Osborn, the director of the New York Zoological Society; Walt Disney, the creator of Bambi; and Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator. As educators, public entertainers, and celebrities, Osborn, Disney, and Lindbergh arguably influenced more of the expanding middle classes of postwar America than most scientists.

During World War II, but before the nuclear explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Osborn, the son of the famous paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn and a veteran of World War I, began to advance a new view of humans, technology, and nature. Before the war, most natural history museums, zoos, and films had stressed the violence of nature and the benevolence of humankind. Osborn reversed this view: he began to contrast the brutality of humans with the orderliness and peacefulness of nature.8“Nature knows nothing comparable to war's destruction,” he wrote in 1942. “Her ways are more balanced. They provide no injustices so sudden or so bitter. Combat among other living things is, with rare exceptions, neither so general nor so ruthless as that in which man engages.”9 Later in the war, Osborn even attacked political cartoons depicting Japanese soldiers as gorillas—not for dehumanizing the Japanese, but for humanizing the gorillas. Gorillas, he felt, were being unfairly tarred with the violence of humans.10 Nature, moreover, offered humans a model of peaceful coexistence. “We should have no patience,” he wrote, “with those unthinking persons who rant that Man, in his present cruelties, is reverting to primitive nature—to the so-called law of the jungle. No greater falsehood could be spoken. Nature knows no such horrors.”11 Beginning in the early 1940s, Osborn started speaking of man's “war” on nature.

The idea of man as destroyer, of course, did not originate with Osborn—John Muir and other late nineteenth-century wilderness lovers also conceptualized humans as inherently destructive. But whereas Muir found support mostly among elites, Osborn found ways to reach a much broader audience.12 One way was the Bronx Zoo. A visit to the peaceful nature of the zoo, Osborn believed, could help Americans deal with and understand the warfare that plagued the planet. During “an hour of recreation, snatched from these troubled days,” Osborn noted, visitors to the zoo will be “refreshed” for a while from “the spectacle of Man's cruel and needless destruction of himself.”13 Osborn also spread the message of peaceful nature and brutal humanity through a bestselling 1948 book. In Our Plundered Planet, Osborn spoke repeatedly of man's “warfare against nature” and the “violent and blind treatment man is inflicting upon” the Earth. This was not just rhetoric; World War II had shown Osborn that destructiveness actually defined human nature. Indeed, he devoted an entire chapter of Our Plundered Planet to tracing man's evolution as a violent predator. “The uncomfortable truth,” he concluded, “is that man during innumerable past ages has been a predator—a hunter, a meat eater and a killer.”14

World War II had a similar effect on Walt Disney, another veteran of the Great War who had a special knack for telling stories about nature which resonated with Americans. Disney developed Bambi (1942), one of the most influential films of the postwar decades, from 1937 to 1942 as war was breaking out in Europe.15 As Matt Cartmill has shown, the descent of civilization into warfare profoundly shaped Disney's depiction of nature and technology. As the war approached, Disney eliminated all predators from the film except one: man. In the final version of the film, whenever “man” stepped into the forest, he and his tools—guns, dogs, and fire—did little except wreak environmental terror.16 Like Osborn, Disney showed that, although the American nuclear attack on Japan clearly altered American ideas about modern technology, many had begun to display strong anti-modernist feelings well before August 1945.17

This shift mattered. It signaled the ascendance of a central characteristic of postwar environmentalism, the idea of man as a destroyer. Few articulated this idea better than David Brower, a World War II veteran and the man most responsible for widening the base of the Sierra Club. “Man can undo himself with no other force than his own brutality,” Brower wrote in 1968, another moment when Americans were troubled by a brutal overseas war. “It is a new brutality, coming swiftly at a time when, as Loren Eiseley says, ‘the need is for a gentler race. But the hand that hefted the axe against the ice, the tiger, and the bear now fondles the machine gun as lovingly.’ ”18 With these words, Brower built on Osborn's thinking. “Conservation,” Osborn summarized near the end of World War II, “may be thought of as a symbol—a symbol of kindliness which, denied for the moment as between man and man, can be extended to other living things, mute and without anger” (italics added).19

As with the first European conservationists, changing views of technology and modern civilization after World War II often led to a romanticization of “untouched” peoples and places. Although romantic anti-modernism had deep roots in American history and owed to other postwar events, the expansion of American influence around the world also played an important role. As with the colonial officials Richard Grove describes, many Americans often began to call for reform when they saw supposed Edenic paradises “threatened” by American-led modern civilization. One of the best examples is Charles Lindbergh, the famous symbol of global interconnection. Although remembered for his aviation adventures and isolationism, Lindbergh became a prominent environmentalist during the early 1960s, spanning the globe sometimes six times a year to call attention to threats to wildlife and indigenous peoples. From East Africa to the Philippines to northern Minnesota, Lindbergh lent his name to one cause after another, becoming in the words of one biographer “the conservation movement's most effective roving ambassador.”20

Understanding postwar American anti-modernism in the context of World War II and the spread of modernity after the war allows us to understand why the Vietnam War was so important to the environmental movement. A vicious war against a mostly pre-industrial people, the Vietnam War displayed the worst that modernity had to offer. Although historians have noted how anti-war political organizing and concerns about Agent Orange and other technologies contributed to environmental organizing, the overall impact of the war on American ideas about themselves, their society, and their relations with nature has yet to be examined in detail.

uncle sam as natural resource planner: strategic minerals

  1. Top of page
  2. the american earth
  3. war and anti-modernism
  4. uncle sam as natural resource planner: strategic minerals
  5. uncle sam as environmental manager: environmental degradation, political instability, and war
  6. empire and ecology
  7. feed 'em or fight 'em”: india and the united states in the 1960s
  8. think globally, act locally: empire and environmental politics
  9. conclusions

World War II also marked a turning point in a related but less well known strand of environmental thinking. During the second half of the twentieth century, hoping to guarantee access to the massive quantities of the often scarce resources its modern, globe-spanning military needed, the U.S. government began researching and planning natural resources on a new global scale and with new urgency. This planning often led to resource exploitation and environmental degradation, but it also created experts and expertise useful for environmental protection.

Although Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and especially Franklin Roosevelt made important breakthroughs with resource planning, World War II elevated environmental planning to a top priority.21 The material demands of fighting a “total war” transformed comprehensive natural resource management into a matter of national security. To supply its fighting force of over ten million, the U.S. military needed not only mountains of raw materials but—to feed innovations in electronics, air power, and atomic weaponry—also a steady supply of new and often rare materials, such as aluminum, the key ingredient in modern aircraft.22 Many of these strategic materials came from overseas. Oil is only the best-known example. When the Japanese took control of Malaysia in 1942, a serious shortage of rubber developed. “Unless corrective measures are taken immediately,” a 1942 commission warned, the United States would face “both a military and a civilian collapse.”23 Eventually, planners compiled a list of sixty strategic resources the United States needed, of which thirty came entirely from overseas, and took measures to guarantee their supply. Even after the war had ended, the United States continued to stockpile these sixty resources. If the depression had pushed the U.S. government to experiment with regional approaches to resource planning such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), World War II pushed it to institutionalize such planning and to do so on a global scale.24

The strategic urgency of resource planning during World War II yielded a significant political shift. Before then, comprehensive resource planning had appalled laissez-faire conservatives, who viewed it as meddling in a realm best left to market forces. Even despite the desperation of the depression, many conservative critics had lambasted the TVA a dangerous sign of “creeping socialism.” But World War II changed the political landscape: governmental planning during an economic downturn was one thing, during a war quite another. Indeed, during the war the TVA, a crucial part of the Manhattan Project, came to symbolize governmental resource planning for national security purposes. Although the imperatives of geopolitics should not be overstated, they allowed for a degree of governmental intervention in economic matters that previously had been unthinkable, just as with British economic planning in colonial India.

After the war, two new foreign commitments kept Americans aware of the need for strong governmental resource planning. The first was the reconstruction of Europe, which required monitoring resources in both Europe and the United States. Rebuilding Europe, President Harry Truman noted in 1946, would require a “large depletion” of America's natural resources.25 A 1947 Interior Department report warned that increased foreign aid—especially the Marshall Plan—would strain the nation's supply of steel, coal, fertilizer, and food staples.26“Trying to feed the world,” the Hempstead Newsday summarized in 1948, “has intensified America's interest in conservation of natural resources.”27 The Korean War also redoubled governmental planning efforts. As with World War II, resource shortages revealed how much the nation's military depended on foreign sources. In January 1951, for instance, a shortage of tungsten, a key ingredient in both televisions and jet engines, prompted the National Production Authority to announce a curb on all nonessential uses.28 That same month, Truman established the most comprehensive and influential attempt to date to address the nation's resource problems, the President's Materials Policy Commission (1951–1952).

Nothing showed better that national security had given resource management new importance than this commission, which became known as the Paley Commission for its chairman, CBS executive William S. Paley. Truman charged the commission with rationalizing the delivery of materials—oil from Venezuela, industrial diamonds and uranium from the Belgian Congo, manganese from India—to the companies that supplied the U.S. military.29 The commission's well-written and fact-filled final report, Resources for Freedom, immediately gained the national spotlight. Most newspapers and news magazines reported on it, and in January 1954, Edward R. Murrow devoted an episode of his CBS show Public Affairs to the study.30 According to the report, the United States had never before faced the situation it now found itself in. The United States had always been a resource-rich nation; now, it faced shortages of scores of materials, many of them essential to national defense. Resources for Freedom recommended the United States pursue three paths to materials security. First, it should use the materials available within American borders more efficiently; second, it should get more resources from overseas; and third, it should sponsor research and the development of new technologies related to the problem. For many years, Resources for Freedom served as an encyclopedia of information on natural resource management.

Although President Dwight Eisenhower remained true to his Republican roots by rejecting some of the more activist recommendations of the Paley Commission, as a former general he understood the resource problem, and his administration took important action. “For all our own material might,” he warned during his first inaugural address, “we need for . . . [our] farms and factories vital materials and products of distant lands.” During the 1950s, the military expanded its stockpile of strategic materials, the U.S. Geological Survey and other scientific bureaus supervised extensive exploration of foreign lands, and the Air Force even began designing jet engines with possible scarcities in mind. During these years, the military academies also used Resources for Freedom as a textbook.31

The concerns of the Paley Commission also found an institutional base outside of the government. The most important new organization was the Ford Foundation-funded Resources for the Future (RFF), founded in 1952. Incorporating many of the Paley Commission's staff, RFF served as a “richly endowed clearinghouse,” as one historian put it, for environmental fact finding, training, and network building over the next several decades. Continuing the use of economic tools to analyze resource scarcity, it helped spawn the field of environmental economics. RFF organized the Mid-Century Conference on Resources for the Future and produced a host of path-breaking studies, including former Paley Commission staff members Sam Schurr and Bruce Netschert's Energy in the American Economy and Harold Barnett and Chandler Morse's Scarcity and Growth. The prewar period had no equivalent to this kind of organization.32

It would be a mistake to make too much of the Paley Commission and Resources for Freedom—after all, the commission and the U.S. government still placed a great deal of faith in technological solutions and neither actually articulated environmentalist concerns. All the same, the commission did result in important developments, all of which helped lay a foundation for the environmental movement. The commission created a new awareness of resource shortages and the need for planning. “There never was a nation,” Edward Murrow reported in response to Resources for Freedom, “that consumed so much . . . and at the same time gave so little thought to where it comes from.”33 It mattered when people like Murrow, as well as military officials and presidents, tied the nation's security to managing resource scarcities. This awareness, which would not have been as important if not tied to American geopolitical needs, helped create a new global view of resource scarcity. The commission also resulted in a tremendous amount of research about the world's resources, as well as a new group of resource experts. As with the European empires and their colonies, these experts and their knowledge would be drawn upon in moments of crisis.

uncle sam as environmental manager: environmental degradation, political instability, and war

  1. Top of page
  2. the american earth
  3. war and anti-modernism
  4. uncle sam as natural resource planner: strategic minerals
  5. uncle sam as environmental manager: environmental degradation, political instability, and war
  6. empire and ecology
  7. feed 'em or fight 'em”: india and the united states in the 1960s
  8. think globally, act locally: empire and environmental politics
  9. conclusions

A related global geopolitical concern drove the U.S. government to grow even more concerned about environmental issues in the postwar years: strategic arguments about environmentally caused political instability and war. From the 1950s through the 1970s, especially as the Third World became a site of Cold War competition, increasing numbers of American strategists, including many top American officials, came to believe that the imbalance of people and resources around the world threatened American national security. According to this view, environmental mismanagement in even far-flung nations could spark political conflicts that would draw in the United States or spill over onto its doorstep. Peaking during the 1960s—in the crucial years between Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the first Earth Day—these concerns fueled new calls for environmental planning at a pivotal moment in the history of the environmental movement.

This Malthusian worldview first emerged immediately after World War II. “The ghost of a gloomy British clergyman, Thomas Robert Malthus, was on the rampage last week,”Time magazine announced in November 1948. “Cresting a wave of postwar pessimism, it flashed through the air on the radio, [and] rode through the mails” in magazines.34 The most prominent Malthusians at the time—Fairfield Osborn, the director of the New York Zoological Society and author of Our Plundered Planet (1948), and William Vogt, an ornithologist with the Pan American Union and author of Road to Survival (1948)—warned that the architects of the new world order then coming into being were ignoring the lessons of World War II. Both blamed the war on overpopulation and resource overexploitation. “Many explanations have been offered for Japanese aggression,” Vogt explained, “but I have never seen Louis Pasteur mentioned, nor American foundations, nor our own schools of public health, which have contributed so much to building up the Japanese population. Can anyone deny that population pressures set off the explosion?”35 The “spawn [of ecological imbalances],” Osborn warned, “are armed conflicts such as World Wars I and II.”36 Vogt explained: “Great Britain, Japan, and Germany were three of the most heavily industrialized nations in the world.  . . . None of them was able to maintain a high living standard through industrialization without access to adequate areas of productive land.” Vogt likened the situation in Europe to the overpopulation of deer on the plateau above the Grand Canyon during the 1920s: “Had the deer of the Kaibab plateau been provided with guns and munitions, and a cerebral cortex to free them from the restraint of instinctive behavior and allow them to develop a master-race psychology, they might well have started a campaign of world conquest.”37 This outburst of Malthusianism was unusual for Americans. Unlike the British and other Europeans, Americans had historically expressed little concern about population growth.38

Osborn and Vogt saw more wars in America's future if environmental problems went unremedied, especially if the United States continued to decrease death rates around the world with the spread of DDT and Western medicine and to promote economic growth models. The environmental ingredients for war, they warned, existed everywhere: in Italy and Greece, Mexico and the rest of Latin America, in China, and in newly independent India. Postwar planners, they both implored, had to confront environmental problems. “If we continue to ignore these [ecological] relationships,” Vogt wrote, “there is little probability that mankind can long escape the searing downpour of war's death from the skies.”39 Osborn pleaded, “When will it be openly recognized that one of the principal causes of the aggressive attitudes of individual nations and of much of the present discord among groups of nations is traceable to diminishing productive lands and to increasing population pressures?”40

By tying American national security to environmental problems, Our Plundered Planet and Road to Survival created a stir. “Glowingly reviewed and selling like hot cakes,”Time remarked, Vogt and Osborn's influence “has already reached around the world.”41 Osborn's Our Plundered Planet, according to one newspaper reviewer, offered “the most important word of warning delivered to the human race in the present century.” Of Vogt's Road to Survival, another reviewer wrote that any reader “who has any sense whatever of historic perspective, who gives one hoot down a rain barrel as to what will happen to his posterity—or what is direly happening to his contemporaries—dare not ignore it.”42 In 1948, The Economist noted, American Malthusianism had taken on the “virulence and high excitement of a fever.”43

Osborn's and Vogt's arguments struck a strong chord in the conservation and scientific communities, but they also influenced philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller III.44 Their concerns also gained an institutional standing during the 1950s. To address many of the new environmental problems he identified, Osborn helped found the Conservation Foundation. Vogt became director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which became a powerful avenue for spreading Malthusian ideas. The early 1950s also saw two organizations emerge that tied world peace to maintaining ecological balance: the Population Council and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Other prominent organizations, such as the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, took up the issue later in the 1950s.

Over the next two decades, as American interests spread around the world and Cold War rivalries grew, especially in the Third World, American strategic concerns about Malthusian imbalances would only intensify.45

empire and ecology

  1. Top of page
  2. the american earth
  3. war and anti-modernism
  4. uncle sam as natural resource planner: strategic minerals
  5. uncle sam as environmental manager: environmental degradation, political instability, and war
  6. empire and ecology
  7. feed 'em or fight 'em”: india and the united states in the 1960s
  8. think globally, act locally: empire and environmental politics
  9. conclusions

Vogt's and Osborn's environmental spin on national security helped draw attention to ecology, perhaps the central idea of the postwar environmental movement.46 Because of Vogt and Osborn, one editor noted in 1948, “newspaper columnists and radio commentators have been dipping into the subject of soil conservation, and citizens everywhere have been consulting dictionaries to learn the meaning of such words as ecology.”47 Strikingly, this spotlight on ecology came over a decade before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), the book historians usually credit with igniting the age of ecology. Osborn's and Vogt's books suggest that, as with the British Empire in earlier decades, the emergence of ecological thinking in both scientific and popular incarnations during the 1940s accompanied the rise of America's global power. This is not to say that ecologists served as the accomplices of imperialism—indeed, ecologists were often critics of empire—but to say that in some often unintended ways, empire promoted ecological thinking. This took two forms: the ecological science that the United States directly sponsored or otherwise promoted, and the ecological worldview that the spread of American power in a globalizing world indirectly gave rise to.

The best example of U.S. support of ecological research is Eugene Odum, an ecologist who some call the father of modern ecosystem ecology. In 1951, the U.S. government commissioned Odum to conduct baseline environmental studies at a site in South Carolina where it planned to build an atomic weapons facility. This grant enabled Odum to launch a program of long-term ecological research on 300 square miles that would eventually become the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. In 1954 the Atomic Energy Commission commissioned Odum and his ecologist brother H. T. Odum to examine the effects of nuclear fallout in the Eniwetok Atoll of the South Pacific, where the U.S. government had been testing atomic weapons.48 In this work, the Odums used systems thinking that owed to earlier ecological work but also to the systems analysis and cybernetic theory that grew out of World War II military strategy.49

In 1953, the Odum brothers published The Fundamentals of Ecology, the most important American textbook on ecology for at least a decade. The book earned a reputation for two signal contributions. Whereas earlier books had focused on the ecologies of small systems such as ponds or marshes, the Odums emphasized natural systems on a much larger scale. They demonstrated how scientists could study animal populations, watersheds, and whole weather systems much as they would the interlinked components of a pond. The Odums also emphasized the study of human beings within these ecosystems: humans, they stressed, needed to be seen as part of nature.50 Although many other factors influenced the Odums, the development of nuclear technologies and Cold War patronage also played a central role.51

American empire also shaped ecology indirectly: during the middle decades of the twentieth century, thinking about the postwar political economy and thinking about nature mirrored each other in a fascinating way. Although they had crucial differences, both stressed interconnected systems. The systems approach to political economy grew from the path-breaking work of British economist John Maynard Keynes. In response to the depression, Keynes developed an economic approach that, borrowing surprisingly from Malthus, embraced an aggregate “macro” view. Keynes emphasized the need to understand not just the behavior of individual producers and consumers, as previous models had stressed, but also the flow of money through the system. Doing so led him to emphasize aggregate production and consumption and establish the field of macroeconomics.52 At roughly the same time, tracing the flows of materials and energy, biologists and conservationists began to understand the actions of individual plants and animals in relation to the aggregate. Conceptualizing interconnected systems, they began to see “communities” of producers and consumers, but also, on a far grander scale, the links between human animals and their natural surroundings. “When one strand in the interwoven web of our national fabric is touched,” a federal committee wrote about the Mississippi River in the 1930s, “every other strand vibrates. Land, water, and people go together.”53 With such statements, despite other differences, biologists and conservationists were adopting a model structurally akin to the systems thinking of the Keynesians.54

The mirroring of ecology and political economy continued after World War II, only on a global scale. Here again the guiding principle was the interconnected system. Believing that economic nationalism had caused World War II, the Keynesian architects of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Marshall Plan, Point IV, and the other foundations of the postwar order hoped to interlink economies to such an extent that war would be impossible. In the global economy they created, a type of hierarchical food chain existed in which each nation played a distinct role—some were mostly raw material producers, others mostly manufacturers, and others mostly consumers—yet, crucially, all were dependent upon each other. The Paley Commission had grasped this new reality. In its study of global resources, the commission understood the world as an interconnected and interdependent circuit—what President Eisenhower, in speaking of the commission's work in his first inaugural, described as the “basic law of interdependence.” The commission even borrowed analogies from biology. “Just as every living being from plankton to man seems to have an essential function in the biological scheme of things,” one internal report explained, “so civilization has created an artificial mosaic of materials, each with appointed uses.” Much like streams and rivers—a metaphor commonly used by the commission staff—materials and energy flowed through the economic “scheme of things.”55

Although of course with different conclusions, postwar conservationists such as Fairfield Osborn and William Vogt also deployed systems thinking similar to the Keynesians. Like the Keynesians, Osborn and Vogt emphasized the systems-wide analysis of consumption in what they saw as an interconnected world. Because “the boundaries or barriers between localities, nations, even continental populations, are dissolving,” Osborn said, “no longer is an American unaffected by the trends of living conditions of other peoples.”56 Vogt emphasized that humans were connected to nature and Americans to the rest of the world. “Few of our leaders,” Vogt stressed, “have begun to understand that we live in one world in an ecological—an environmental—sense.” In a complex modern world “where no part lives unto itself,” environmental degradation anywhere on the planet could affect Americans. “Dust storms in Australia,” Vogt warned, “have an inescapable effect on the American people.”57

After World War II, both foreign-policy specialists and biologists moved away from ideas of isolation to ideas of interconnection. In the interconnected systems both groups posited, all parts were seen as linked and mutually dependent and no single entity could isolate itself from its surroundings without jeopardizing its own survival. Among foreign-policy specialists, this translated to “internationalism”—the idea that no nation, including the United States, could isolate itself from the community of nations. Among biological experts, this translated to “ecology”—the idea that no species, including Homo sapiens, could live in isolation from its surroundings. Just as the United States was dependent on and inseparable from the rest of the world's political economy, so too were humans dependent upon and inseparable from the rest of the biological world. In this worldview, the United States was to the world as humans were to the rest of nature.

The idea of interconnection probably reached its fullest form in both international affairs and biological thinking during the 1960s. At this time, American Cold War strategists emphasized the “domino theory,” a theory of interconnection invoked to explain why Americans should care about small, remote places such as Laos and Vietnam. At best only a loose collection of ideas, the domino “theory” held that because countries stood linked together, the “fall” of even small, remote countries could ripple across a whole region of the world and even topple major liberal capitalist states such as Japan.58 Reinvigorated by Silent Spring, ecology began to sweep the nation at roughly the same time. An early 1970 Time magazine article on ecology provides a good example of how the domino theory and biological thinking overlapped conceptually. In a section of the article entitled “The Domino Theory Applied,”Time pointed out that the ecological process by which chemicals like DDT worked their way through—and up—the food chain mirrored the international system, in which an outbreak of communism in one niche of the world could also quickly spread through and up the global food chain. “The ‘domino theory,’ ”Time reported, “is clearly applicable to the environment.”59

Of course, despite similar premises, ultimately the Malthusians rejected the high-consumption growth policies that the Keynesians designed. Increased aggregate demand might bring economic stability and high employment, they warned, but only at the cost of resource competition and environmental degradation. Indeed, increased consumption was a recipe not for peace and prosperity, as Keynesians thought, but poverty and war. In making such arguments, conservationists such as Osborn and Vogt were, in effect, flipping Keynesian thought on its head and resuscitating its Malthusian premises. During the 1960s, as Keynesian solutions seemed increasingly unable to cope with problems in increasingly high-profile places like India, more and more Americans began to do the same.

feed 'em or fight 'em”: india and the united states in the 1960s

  1. Top of page
  2. the american earth
  3. war and anti-modernism
  4. uncle sam as natural resource planner: strategic minerals
  5. uncle sam as environmental manager: environmental degradation, political instability, and war
  6. empire and ecology
  7. feed 'em or fight 'em”: india and the united states in the 1960s
  8. think globally, act locally: empire and environmental politics
  9. conclusions

In Green Imperialism, Richard Grove traces the origins of the British forest service in India—a founding moment in which centuries of experience coalesced into institutional changes—to a perceived enviro-political crisis during the 1840s and 1850s in Britain's most important colony. Although historians normally point to the utilitarian logic of the forest service in India, Grove argues that concerns about firewood supply, soil and water conservation, and famine—and, crucially, the economic and social breakdown that might result—led British authorities to expand governmental forest control.60

Something similar happened with the United States and India in the 1960s. By the early 1960s, Third World places such as India had emerged as key sites of Cold War struggle. “Today's struggle does not lie here,” President John F. Kennedy announced in Belgium in early 1963, “but rather in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.”61 A leader of the newly independent nations, a source of strategic minerals such as manganese, and a country strategically located near China, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East, India became a top prize in this “new” Cold War. To win allies in places like India, American strategists knew they had to defeat poverty, and to do this they turned to optimistic “modernization” programs stressing technology. “Man,” Kennedy had announced in his inaugural address, “holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.” India, which Kennedy also mentioned in his inaugural, became a showcase for the Kennedy administration's modernization programs and, more broadly, for Kennedy's famously inspirational vision of change.62 Kennedy administration officials made India the top recipient of foreign aid and openly predicted that their modernization programs would help India attain self-sustaining growth within ten years.63 Tragically, however, the India of the mid- and late 1960s was about as far as could be imagined from the hopeful New Frontier predictions of the early 1960s. When monsoon rains in India failed in 1965 and 1966, an already chronically bad food situation threatened a human disaster of massive proportions. As many as ninety million Indians faced shortages of food and many faced outright starvation.64

India's troubles sent shock waves of concern about ecological problems around the globe. In 1965, in the same State of the Union address in which he outlined many of his Great Society environmental programs, President Johnson warned of the “growing scarcity in world resources.” In this case, Johnson referred not to the military need for oil and uranium, but the global food supply. “Next to the pursuit of peace,” Johnson warned in 1967, “the really great challenge of the human family is the race between food supply and population.”65 In response to a situation that extended well beyond India, Johnson declared an “International War on Hunger” in early 1966. For India, Johnson organized a relief plan—involving one of the largest flotillas of American ships since D-Day—to deliver grain to India. At the height of the effort, two American ships arrived in India daily. For two years, American grain sustained over sixty million Indians. Roughly one quarter of America's wheat crop went to India. Pointing to this grain in places like Omaha, Nebraska, Johnson spoke of feeding India as “America's job.”66 The world, he stressed, was an interdependent place.

It was not just government officials who worried about India and places like it. Ordinary Americans also followed the U.S. relief effort. Americans, of course, worried about the human tragedy. But they also fretted about what India's problems might mean for them. For over a decade, politicians had been warning about America's domino-like connections to the far-flung corners of the world—about how poverty and political instability in one part of the world could spread around the globe. Now India, “a vast bulwark of liberty in threatened Asia” according to one newspaper, faced “widespread famine and increasing political unrest.” News accounts warned of dire consequences. “Aside from the humanitarian aspects,” wrote James Reston in the New York Times, “the social and political considerations of [the food crisis] at home and abroad are likely to be considerable.” In India, Reston concluded, the United States either had to “feed 'em” or “fight 'em.” At a time when Americans were sending their husbands, sons, and brothers to combat in South Vietnam, this was no idle worry. President Johnson reiterated this concern. Next to communism in Southeast Asia, he announced in 1966, the Indian crisis was the largest threat to peace in the world: “No peace and no power is strong enough to stand for long against the restless discontent of millions of human beings who are without any hope.”67

Institutional changes resulted. In addition to increasing funding for “green revolution” programs, the Johnson administration oversaw a revolution in U.S. population policy, which culminated with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1967. The troubles of India in the 1960s became, according to an activist who wrote a history of population politics, “the triggering event that moved Washington” toward population planning.68 From then on, birth control formed a core part of the “basic needs” approach that drove American development policy for the next decade.69

The Indian tragedy also left a profound mark on a group coming to be known as “environmentalists.” A surprising number of these activists had personal connections to India, including Lester Brown, future founder of Worldwatch; Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb; Garrett Hardin, author of “The Tragedy of the Commons”; and future Sierra Club Director Carl Pope, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in India in the late 1960s. Brown, for instance, launched his career during the early 1960s as an India expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.70 To these environmentalists, India showed that environmental catastrophe was imminent; it hammered home the “do or die” need to see human society through an ecological lens. They called for much more aggressive programs.

No better illustration of India's effect on environmentalism exists than Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb. One of the most influential polemics of the early environmental movement, The Population Bomb reads as a primer on U.S.-Third World relations. In it, Ehrlich uses India to outline the world's food problem and to show how population growth around the developing world threatened political unrest and even war. In a section of the book called “Ends of the Earth,” Ehrlich describes a scenario in which food riots in India set off a geopolitical chain reaction that ends with thermonuclear explosions in the United States. To Ehrlich, India showed how a high quantity of life endangered the high quality of life most Americans enjoyed. It also showed why the United States needed to organize its foreign policy less around technology and more around biology. Crucially, Ehrlich rejected both the Johnson administration's birth control and green revolution programs. Birth control programs, he said, were too little, too late. And the green revolution was nothing more than a short-term technological fix that would actually undermine food security in the long term because of its destructive reliance on fertilizers and pesticides. Ehrlich called for some measures that most Americans agreed with—expanded birth control and sex education, as well as the legalization of abortion—but also measures that seemed drastic, such as “triage” in food aid. Selling over two million copies, The Population Bomb showed that many early environmental activists cared not just about pollution and wilderness but also about environmental problems around the world and how they might threaten American national security and living standards. The increase in population was not called a “bomb” for nothing.

The pessimistic biological models that emerged to explain the failures in India and other parts of the Third World can help answer Adam Rome's call to explain why the environmental movement exploded when it did.71 The Indian crisis, which Kennedy's “development decade” and Johnson's “International War on Poverty” had drawn attention to, started just a few years after Silent Spring in 1962 and before the first Earth Day in 1970. In September 1969, the very month he made his famous call for an environmental teach-in, Senator Gaylord Nelson placed an entire article by Paul Ehrlich called “Eco-Catastrophe!” in the Congressional Record.72 Environmentalists used India's crisis to drive home why Americans needed to think about human society more ecologically. The goal of many environmentalists, one scholar wrote in 1972, was “No More Indias.”73 Moreover, concern for “no more Indias” can also help to explain why the movement embraced the “doom and gloom” tone it has become identified with and why it experienced many political problems in the decades since the first Earth Day. Watching India, Mathusians predicted widespread catastrophe that never came to be. Failing to foresee the substantial, if precarious, successes of the green revolution, and instead recommending extreme remedies, Malthusians created a lasting negative image of environmentalists as alarmists too quick to call for inhumane and authoritarian measures.74

think globally, act locally: empire and environmental politics

  1. Top of page
  2. the american earth
  3. war and anti-modernism
  4. uncle sam as natural resource planner: strategic minerals
  5. uncle sam as environmental manager: environmental degradation, political instability, and war
  6. empire and ecology
  7. feed 'em or fight 'em”: india and the united states in the 1960s
  8. think globally, act locally: empire and environmental politics
  9. conclusions

America's global role also shaped environmental politics. It not only provided an important impetus for new environmental thinking but also—as with the British in India—a pliant colonial space in which previously unimaginable governmental regulations could be cultivated.

One of the best places to see how America's global presence influenced environmental politics is the career of Lynton Caldwell. A political scientist, Caldwell is best known as an architect of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970; he was also founder of the field of environmental policy, which blossomed in the years leading up to NEPA. Surprisingly, Caldwell was not trained in conservation: his concern with environmental management grew from international development work in the Third World. In 1954, after teaching American politics for almost a decade at Syracuse University, Caldwell took an assignment coordinating the United Nations Technical Assistance Program for Turkey and the Middle East. Caldwell's research on international development over the next decade led him to think more seriously about environmental issues. “My involvement in international technical assistance work during the 1950s and early 1960s was a major factor in my turn to environmental policy,” he later wrote. “On-the-ground experience in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia left me deeply skeptical of the prevailing theories and practices of U.S. and U.N. development economists and planners.”75

One day in 1962, while in Hong Kong, Caldwell experienced an epiphany. While peering around the crowded city from the top of Victoria Peak, Caldwell realized that many of the places he had studied in the last decade, places like Hong Kong, suffered from severe problems—environmental problems—that governments felt fell outside of their concerns. Caldwell decided to dedicate himself to charting ways that governments could address environmental concerns. In a 1963 paper in Public Policy Review, “Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy?,” he argued that a new policy focus was required to “obtain integrated planning and action, and to get coordination among the agencies and policies affecting [the] environment.”76 The award-winning paper gave birth to the field of environmental policy.

In the late 1960s, Caldwell became, as prominent biologist and conservationist F. Fraser Darling observed in 1967, “the leading thinker in biopolitics.”77 In 1968, as a consultant to the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Caldwell authored “A Draft Resolution on a National Policy for the Environment,” the document which outlined the rationale and constitutional basis for a national environmental policy. This statement became the blueprint for NEPA, which was passed in late 1969. Assessing Caldwell's contribution, two political scientists have noted that Caldwell “was alone in focusing on the distinctive, integrative character of the concept ‘environment’ and its implications for politics, public policy, and public administration.”78

More broadly, the political climate that grew out of America's global role from World War II through the early 1960s—what is known as the postwar political “consensus”—also appears to have set the parameters for NEPA and the environmental movement. Generally prioritizing national security over economic ideology, the Cold War undermined more far-reaching economic agendas—whether on the right or the left—during the 1950s and 1960s. Thus, these years saw a greater degree of governmental regulation than might otherwise be the case, but also little support for major structural change. Growing out of this moment of relative moderation, many environmentalists developed political blind spots that opened them to criticism in the 1970s when the consensus unraveled and a “new left” and “new right” gained more power. Environmentalists who had thought of their agenda as transcending politics quickly found themselves occupying political no-man's-land. New left politicians often criticized environmentalism for ignoring class differences, whereas new right Republicans lambasted it for overregulation.

Such was the case with NEPA—which came under attack by both the Right and the Left in the 1970s—but also with population-planning issues, a top concern of many environmentalists at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970. Although both the Right and the Left traditionally had objections to population planning, by the mid-1960s the Cold War fight against poverty in India and other Third World places had combined with concern about poverty at home and more liberal sexual mores to make population planning more politically acceptable. But environmentalists who thought of population and environment planning as getting to the root cause often found themselves targets in the 1970s to both left-liberals like Frances Moore Lappé and to market fundamentalists like Julian Simon.79

It would be wrong to exaggerate the importance of the Cold War consensus and other international factors in environmental politics, but it would be wrong to overlook them as well.


  1. Top of page
  2. the american earth
  3. war and anti-modernism
  4. uncle sam as natural resource planner: strategic minerals
  5. uncle sam as environmental manager: environmental degradation, political instability, and war
  6. empire and ecology
  7. feed 'em or fight 'em”: india and the united states in the 1960s
  8. think globally, act locally: empire and environmental politics
  9. conclusions

American thinking about nature transformed over the course of the twentieth century. At the turn of the century, when Americans first became concerned about protecting nature, they aimed to reduce waste and bring order to the productive industries of mostly rural areas. Although too much can be made of the difference between early twentieth-century conservation and postwar environmentalism—surely there was a little environmentalism in conservation and a lot of conservation in environmentalism—they were far from identical. The most obvious difference was that environmentalists worried about issues that conservationists never faced, such as new synthetic chemicals and nuclear weapons. But that's not all. Although sometimes overlooked, environmentalists also showed deep concern about traditional concerns of conservationists—resource use—but did so in a new way: they tended to see limits that the conservationists never did. Environmentalists, moreover, looked at both the problems of pollution and resource overexploitation using the insights of modern ecological science.

Although not even something as massive and multifaceted as America's international role since the early 1940s can explain something as massive and multifaceted as America's postwar environmental movement, the “outside-in” models articulated by Richard Grove and Peder Anker—which stress how the global periphery shaped environmental thinking as much as environmentalism shaped the global periphery—can add a new dimension to our understanding. Whereas most historians have pointed to domestic causes of American postwar environmentalism, examination of postwar governmental planning capacity, ecological science, anti-modernism, and the Indian food crisis suggests that American global activities and responsibilities played a much larger role than generally recognized. To fully understand how and why Americans came to look at wilderness and other aspects of the American Earth in new and more comprehensive ways, we must look more comprehensively at how they began to see the whole planet—the Earth itself—as in some ways American.

  • 1

    Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall, This Is the American Earth (San Francisco, 1960).

  • 2

    Another book that David Brower edited later in the decade included a similar juxtaposition. Although primarily about the United States, it contained an essay called “The Wail of Kashmir” by Lee Merriman Talbot about the destruction of the wildlands of north India since independence. Lee Merriman Talbot, “The Wail of Kashmir,” in Wildlands in Our Civilization, ed. David Brower (Berkeley, CA, 1964).

  • 3

    Edmund Russell shows the potential of mixing international and environmental history in War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (New York, 2001). Adam Rome, “ ‘Give Earth a Chance’: The Environmental Movement and the Sixties,” Journal of American History 90, no. 2 (September 2003); Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ, 2000); Carol Anderson, Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955 (New York, 2003); Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge, MA, 2001).

  • 4

    Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (New York, 1995).

  • 5

    Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895–1945 (Cambridge, MA, 2002), 37.

  • 6

    Arthur Tansley, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” Ecology 16, no. 3 (July 1935): 284307.

  • 7

    Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (New York, 1994), 342.

  • 8

    Gregg Mitman also makes this point, in reference to Osborn, in Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 86. For a historical analysis of scientific interest in peaceful nature in response to World War II, see Gregg Mitman, The State of Nature: Ecology, Community, and American Social Thought (Chicago, 1992), 146–201.

  • 9

    Fairfield Osborn, “The Lesson Not Yet Learned,” Animal Kingdom: Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society 45, no. 5 (SeptemberOctober 1942): 137.

  • 10

    Fairfield Osborn, “The Cartoonists’ Gorilla,” Animal Kingdom: Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society 46, no. 3 (MayJune 1943): 49.

  • 11

    The New York Zoological Park,” Science 93 (May 1941): 467.

  • 12

    Interestingly, Muir, like Osborn and Disney, began to understand nature in a completely new way because of an epiphany about nature in a moment of war—in this case the Civil War. See Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement (Boston, 1981).

  • 13

    Fairfield Osborn, “The New York Zoological Park,” Science 93 (May 1941): 467.

  • 14

    Fairfield Osborn, Our Plundered Planet (Boston, 1948), 19, 77, 146.

  • 15

    Disney was not a soldier, but volunteered as an ambulance driver. See Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (Boston, 1997).

  • 16

    Matt Cartmill, A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History (Cambridge, MA, 1993), 161–88.

  • 17

    Also see Ralph Lutts, “The Trouble with Bambi: Walt Disney's Bambi and the American Vision of Nature,” Forest and Conservation History 36 (October 1992): 16072, and Thomas Robertson, “The Wonderful World of Walt Disney: Nature and Nation in Bambi and the ‘True Life’ Adventures” (master's thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1999).

  • 18

    David Brower, “Foreword,” in Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York, 1968).

  • 19

    Fairfield Osborn, “Conservation and War,” Animal Kingdom: Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society 47, no. 3 (MayJune 1944): 49.

  • 20

    See Charles Lindbergh, “Is Civilization Progress?” Reader's Digest, July, 1964; A. Scott Berg, Lindbergh (New York, 1998), 520–21, 525–32, 538–40; quotation from p. 526.

  • 21

    The classic study of pre-World War I conservation is Samuel Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, 1890–1920 (Cambridge, MA, 1959); for FDR, see Henry L. Henderson and David B. Wooler, eds., FDR and the Environment (New York, 2005).

  • 22

    Eric Shatzberg, Wings of Wood, Wings of Metal: Culture and Technical Choice in American Airplane Materials, 1914–1945 (Princeton, NJ, 1999), 192–95.

  • 23

    Baruch Committee Report to the President (Washington, DC, 1942), 5.

  • 24

    Many thanks to Scott Burkhardt for advancing my thinking on strategic minerals. Scott Burkhardt, Environmental Optimism in an Apocalyptic Age: The Paley Commission and Resource Scarcities at Mid-Century (master's thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2005). Also see John Davis Morgan, Jr., The Domestic Mining Industry of the United States in World War II (Washington, DC, 1949), and Alfred E. Eckes, The United States and the Global Struggle for Minerals (Austin, TX, 1979), 121–46. For uranium, see Jonathan E. Helmreich, Gathering Rare Ores: The Diplomacy of Uranium Acquisition, 1943–1954 (Princeton, NJ, 1986); for oil, see Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (New York, 1991).

  • 25

    Harry S. Truman to John G. Winant, the American Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, 4 September 1946. President's Files, Folder 85-DD, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri, as quoted in Burkhardt, Environmental Optimism in an Apocalyptic Age.

  • 26

    National Resources and Foreign Aid, Report of J. A. Krug, Secretary of the Interior (Washington, DC, 1947); Craufurd D. Goodwin, “The Truman Administration: Toward a National Energy Policy,” in Energy Policy in Perspective: Today's Problems, Yesterday's Solutions (Washington, DC, 1980), 1–62.

  • 27

    “Before Breakdown,” Newsday (Hempstead, NY), October 19, 1948, Osborn Scrapbook, Container 10, Osborn Papers, Library of Congress (hereafter LOC).

  • 28

    For mobilization problems during the Korean War, see Paul G. Pierpaoli, Jr., Truman and Korea: The Political Culture of the Early Cold War (Columbia, SC, 1999). Also see Richard M. Bissell, Jr., “The Impact of Rearmament on the Free World Economy,” Foreign Affairs 29 (April 1951): 385405; The National Security Resources Board 1947–1953: A Case Study in Peacetime Mobilization Planning (Washington, DC, 1953); and Robert Cuff, “Ferdinand Eberstadt, the National Security Board, and the Search for Integrated Mobilization Planning, 1947–1948,”Public Historian 7, no. 4 (Fall 1985).

  • 29

    Burkhardt, Environmental Optimism in an Apocalyptic Age.

  • 30

    Fortune, for instance, ran a long, mostly positive article. “U.S. Ends an Economic Era,” Fortune, July, 1952, 17–18. Also see Business Week, June 28, 1952, 160–62; U. S. News and World Report, August 15, 1952; New York Herald Tribune, October 26, 1952; Time, June 30, 1952, 78–80. For a negative reaction, see “The Planners Again,” Wall Street Journal, June 25, 1952.

  • 31

    Burkhardt, Environmental Optimism in an Apocalyptic Age.

  • 32

    The quotation is from Stephen Fox, The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy (Madison, WI, 1981), 309–10. Sam Schurr and Bruce Netschert, Energy in the American Economy 1850–1975: An Economic Study of Its History and Prospects (Baltimore, 1960); Harold Barnett and Chandler Morse, Scarcity and Growth: The Economics of Natural Resource Availability (Baltimore, 1963). For more on RFF, see Resources for the Future: The First 25 Years (Washington, DC, 1977), and David Pearce, “An Intellectual History of Environmental Economics,” Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 27 (2002): 5781.

  • 33

    CBS's Public Affairs, “Program Resources for Freedom,” broadcast Sunday, January 10, 1954, Transcript, p. 1, Edward R. Murrow Papers (microfilm), Reel 481, 919–30. Thanks to Scott Burkhardt for this citation.

  • 34

    Time, November 8, 1948, 27.

  • 35

    William Vogt, “Hunger at the Peace Table,” Saturday Evening Post, May 12, 1945.

  • 36

    Osborn, Our Plundered Planet, ix.

  • 37

    William Vogt, Road to Survival (New York, 1948), 72–73, 193.

  • 38

    The top American students of population during the nineteenth century rejected Malthusianism. See, for example, George Tucker, Essays on Various Subjects of Taste, Morals, and National Policy, by a Citizen of Virginia (Georgetown, DC, 1822), 1–24, 305–36, and Henry C. Carey, Principles of Political Economy, vol. 3 (Philadelphia, 1840), 47–52. Eugenicists such as Madison Grant and Charles Davenport generally worried more about population composition than aggregate size. For a brief secondary discussion of population thinking at the turn of the century, see Dennis Hodgson, “Ideological Origins of the Population Association of America,” Population and Development Review 17, no. 1 (March 1991): 45. It should be noted that, although rare, there were Malthusians in the United States prior to World War II, including most prominently Margaret Sanger.

  • 39

    Vogt, Road to Survival, 17.

  • 40

    Osborn, Our Plundered Planet, 162.

  • 41

    Time, November 8, 1948, 27.

  • 42

    San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 1948. 1948 Scrapbook, Container 9, Osborn Papers, LOC. John M. McCullough, “Warns of Global Wasteland,” Philadelphia Inquirer Book Review, August 8, 1948, Box 5, FF28, William Vogt Papers, CONS76, Conservation Collection, Denver Public Library.

  • 43

    “Malthus Goes West,” Economist, December 18, 1948, Container 10, Osborn Papers, LOC.

  • 44

    For Rockefeller's ideas, see Donald Critchlow, Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion, and the Federal Government in Modern America (New York, 1999).

  • 45

    For more on early postwar Malthusianism, see John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (New York, 1997); John Sharpless, “Population Science, Private Foundations, and Development Aid: The Transformation of Demographic Knowledge in the United States, 1945–1965,” in International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge, ed. Randall Packard and Frederick Cooper (Berkeley, CA, 1997); and Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Boston, 2008).

  • 46

    Although not all ecologists were environmentalists, most environmentalists invoked the lessons of ecology. Worster, Nature's Economy.

  • 47

    Unidentified editorial, September 25, 1948. 1948 Scrapbook, Osborn Papers, LOC.

  • 48

    Stephen Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology (New Haven, CT, 1997), 89–115. Also see Peter Taylor, “Technocratic Optimism, H. T. Odum, and the Partial Transformation of Ecological Metaphors after World War II,” Journal of the History of Biology 21 (1988): 21344.

  • 49

    Paul Milazzo, Unlikely Environmentalists: Congress and Clean Water, 1945–1972 (Lawrence, KS, 2006), 100–102.

  • 50

    Of course, it would be too easy to ascribe Odum's shift from the microcosm to the macrocosm solely to his research for the U.S. government. As Odum often pointed out, his approach drew heavily from his sociologist father's holistic approach to human society. For more on the Odums, see Betty Jean Craige, Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist (Athens, GA, 2001); Frank Benjamin Golley, A History of the Ecosystem Concept in Ecology: More Than the Sum of the Parts (New Haven, CT, 1993); and Joel B. Hagen, An Entangled Bank: The Origins of Ecosystem Ecology (New Brunswick, NJ, 1992).

  • 51

    The Odums are only the best-known examples of Cold War ecology. The Office of Naval Research also conducted a great deal of ecological research. See Peder Anker, “The Ecological Colonization of Space,” Environmental History 10, no. 2 (April 2005).

  • 52

    Donald Markwell, John Maynard Keynes and International Relations: Economic Paths to War and Peace (New York, 2006), 25–27, 165–69. Also see the discussion in John Toye, Keynes on Population (Oxford, 2000), 191–93.

  • 53

    Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, Mississippi Valley Committee, Report (Washington, DC, 1934), 34, cited in Finis Dunaway, Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform (Chicago, 2005), 64.

  • 54

    Donald Worster also makes the link between ecology and political economy. Worster, Nature's Economy.

  • 55

    Dwight D. Eisenhower, Inaugural Address, 20 January 1953, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953 (Washington, DC, 1960), 4. “Policy Problems for President's Materials Policy Commission in the Field of Technology,” Box 11, President's Materials Policy Commission Records, Truman Library, 3, as quoted in Scott Burkhardt, Environmental Optimism in an Apocalyptic Age.

  • 56

    Osborn, Our Plundered Planet, 34–35.

  • 57

    Vogt, Road to Survival, 15, 207.

  • 58

    Frank Ninkovich, Modernity and Power: A History of the Domino Theory in the Twentieth Century (Chicago, 1994); Edwin E. Moise, “The Domino Theory,” in Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, 2d ed., vol. 2, ed. Alexander DeConde, Richard Burns, and Fredrik Logevall (New York, 2002), 551–59.

  • 59

    “Fighting to Save the Earth from Man,” Time, February 2, 1970, 56–63.

  • 60

    The appointment of Alexander Gibson as conservator of India's forests in 1847 showed that British officials cared not just about land revenue but also held, in Grove's words, “much longer-term priorities relating to sustainability in patterns of resource use and to social stability.” Gibson oversaw a pivotal 1852 report, “Report of a Committee Appointed by the British Association to Consider the Probabiliy Effects in an Economic and Physical Point of View of the Destruction of Tropical Forests.” Grove, Green Imperialism, quotation from p. 467; Gibson discussion, pp. 436–39.

  • 61

    Richard J. Barnet, Intervention and Revolution: The United States in the Third World (New York, 1968), 27, as quoted in Dennis Merrill, Bread and the Ballot: The United States and India's Economic Development, 1947–1963 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1990), 169.

  • 62

    For more on American policy toward India during the 1950s and early 1960s, see Robert J. McMahon, The Cold War on the Periphery: The United States, India, and Pakistan (New York, 1994); Merrill, Bread and the Ballot; and Andrew J. Rotter, Comrades at Odds: The United States and India, 1947–1964 (Ithaca, NY, 2000). For modernization, see Michael E. Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill, NC, 2000); and Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente (Cambridge, MA, 2003).

  • 63

    John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, Public Papers of the Presidents, John F. Kennedy, 1961, vol. 1 (Washington, DC, 1962), 1–3. For a secondary discussion, see Merrill, Bread and the Ballot.

  • 64

    The best sources on the crisis include the New York Times and B. M. Bhatia, Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India, 1860–1990, 3d rev. ed. (Delhi, 1991).

  • 65

    Public Papers of the Presidents, Lyndon Baines Johnson, vol. 1 (Washington, DC).

  • 66

    “America's job” quotation from “Text of President's Omaha Address on Vietnam and World Food Shortages,” New York Times, July 1, 1966, 11. For more on the Indian famine and the U.S. relief effort, see Lester R. Brown, Seeds of Change: The Green Revolution and Development in the 1970s (New York, 1970), 7.

  • 67

    “Mrs. Gandhi Tries Again,” New York Times, March 13, 1967, 36, and “Fighting Famine in India,” New York Times, December 10, 1965, 46. James Reston, “Washington: Fight ‘Em or Feed ‘Em,” New York Times, February 11, 1966, 32. The other major threat Johnson saw was Communist aggression in Vietnam. See “Text of President's Omaha Address on Vietnam and World Food Shortages,” New York Times, July 1, 1966, 11.

  • 68

    Phyllis Piotrow, World Population Crisis: The United States Response (New York, 1973). Quotation from p. 112.

  • 69

    For an excellent overview of these changes, see Critchlow, Intended Consequences, ch. 2; Connelly, Fatal Misconception; and Piotrow, World Population Crisis, ch. 10. Johnson was not the only politician supporting population planning. Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska also pushed population planning. See Piotrow, ch. 11.

  • 70

    Lester Brown and Hal Kane, Full House: Reassessing the Earth's Carrying Capacity (New York, 1994), 13–18. Hardin visited South Asia in November and December 1970. Garrett Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 124348; ); Carl Pope, Sahib: An American Misadventure in India (New York, 1972).

  • 71

    Rome, “Give Earth a Chance.”

  • 72

    Congressional Record, September 12, 1969. “Eco-Catastrophe!” was originally published in Ramparts, September 1969, 24–28.

  • 73

    The “no more Indias” quote is from Donald Fleming, “Roots of the New Conservation Movement,” Perspectives in American History 6 (1972): 52.

  • 74

    Malthusianism has received nothing like the attention given (deservedly) to the other major issues of the 1960s movement, such as DDT and pollution. The best treatment is by Bjorn-Ola Linner, The Return of Malthus: Environmentalism and Post-war Population-Resource Crises (Isle of Harris, UK, 2003). Samuel Hays devotes a half-chapter to population in Beauty, Health, and Permanence (New York, 1987), ch. 7. Hays is more descriptive than analytical. Robert Gottlieb devotes a short but important section of his book to population issues, arguing that population and later immigration concerns showed an insensitivity to race and class concerns within the environmental movement. Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington, DC, 1993), 254.

  • 75

    Lynton Caldwell, ed., Environment as a Focus of Public Policy (College Station, TX, 1995), 329–30.

  • 76

    Lynton Caldwell, “Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy?” Public Administration Review 23, no. 3 (September 1963): 132.

  • 77

    F. Fraser Darling, “A Wider Environment of Ecology and Conservation,” in The Crisis of Survival (Glenview, IL, 1970), 34.

  • 78

    Robert Bartlett and James Gladden, “Lynton K. Caldwell and Environmental Policy: What Have We Learned?” in Environment as a Focus of Public Policy, ed. Lynton Caldwell (College Station, TX, 1995), 4.

  • 79

    Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins, Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity (Boston, 1977); Julian Simon, The Economics of Population Growth (Princeton, NJ, 1977); Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource (Princeton, NJ, 1981).

  • *

    I would like to thank Scott Burkhardt, Paul Erickson, Toshi Higuchi, Corinna Unger, Richard Tucker, Peter Hansen, Jake Hamblin, David Zierler, and the participants of the “Planetary Perspectives” seminar organized by Michael Adas and Allen Howard at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, 2005–2006 for their help with this article.