How The Wilderness Was Won

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Historians overlook the fact that in certain regions the New Deal was at its core a program of resource conservation. Congress, acting in tandem with the President, enthusiastically financed initiatives that ranged from a new Soil Conservation Service to the acquisition of millions of acres of swamps, lakes, and submarginal farmlands, enlarging the nation’s sanctuaries for migratory birds and wildlife.

The building of dams and hydroelectric plants was also a hallmark of the era. Construction of the world’s then-highest dam on the Colorado River (a huge federal project that moved ahead on schedule through the darkest years of the Depression) reflected the belief that floods should be controlled and the energy potential of the nation’s rivers “harnessed,” as the then-ubiquitous expression went. Dam building was ultimately carried to extremes, but the electricity dams generated fed a program that produced enormous benefits for tens of millions of Americans, the Rural Electrification Administration, which began in 1935.

At the time, nine-tenths of the thirty million people who lived in rural America did not have electric power. The REA law underwrote the formation of local electric cooperatives and provided low-interest loans to extend transmission lines into the countryside. In a few years the program had raised the standard of living throughout the country and was furnishing the cheap energy for starting businesses and enabling small towns to grow.

Of necessity, the FDR administration fashioned its Crash programs piecemeal, responding to specific needs, but in so doing, it made conservation a mainstream concept and encouraged scientists allied with the movement to broaden their gaze and think holistically (the word had appeared just a decade earlier) about the earth’s resources. Those quiet conservation-minded scientists, among them the University of Wisconsin professor Aldo Leopold and a young woman named Rachel Carson, who worked in the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1936 through 1949, became important after the war, when atomic physicists and engineers rose as apostles of unlimited resources. The voices of the conservationists, and the challenging questions they asked, would gradually acquire authority when some of the miracles of Big Science turned out to threaten the ecosystems that sustained life on earth.

Today it is hard to imagine how eagerly Americans in the 1950s accepted the “atoms for peace” thesis of inexhaustible dirt-cheap atomic energy. A vision of an atom-powered era of supertechnology, sketched initially by the physicist John Von Neumann, was elaborated in a 1957 book, The Next Hundred Years, by some of his acolytes in these words: “If we are able in the decades ahead to avoid thermonuclear war … we shall approach the time when the world will be completely industrialized. And as we continue along this path we shall process ores of continually lower grade, until we finally sustain ourselves with materials obtained from the rocks of the earth’s crust, the gases of the air, and the waters of the seas. By that time the mining industry as such … will have been replaced by vast, integrated multipurpose chemical plants supplied by rock, air and seawater, from which will flow a multiplicity of products, ranging from fresh water to electric power, to liquid fuels and metals.”

 

The American people embraced these visions partly because the awe and secrecy that enveloped nuclear research meant that at first few citizens had either the knowledge or the temerity to question them. And the optimism thus generated ultimately helped persuade our leaders that the United States could simultaneously go to the moon, feed the world’s hungry, carry out a program to modernize the economies of Latin America, and win a war in Southeast Asia. As the space program got under way, NASA’s rocket master, Wernher von Braun, put a capstone on these promises when he declared that the exploration of space was “the salvation of the human race.”

But at the same time, ground-level evidence was mounting that the overall environment was deteriorating. In 1956 an atmospheric scientist measured the ingredients of the gathering pall over Los Angeles and chose the word smog to describe his baleful discovery. Meanwhile, daily flushings from industries and cities were turning the nation’s rivers into sewers. At one point in the mid-sixties, the mayor of Cleveland summed up a growing viewpoint when he predicted that the United States would soon become “the first nation to put a man on the moon while standing knee-deep in garbage.”

The first serious broad look at the impact of new technologies on the planet’s life-support system began in the United States in 1958. It was conducted by the marine biologist Rachel Carson. The ostensible subject of her four-year study was the effect on wildlife of the potent new poisons being produced by the chemical industry; in the end her research led her to compose a treatise that thrust the concept of ecology into the mainstream of human thought.