In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. Lead — a leading cause of kidney and brain damage — was a key ingredient in gasoline and spewed out of tailpipes around the country. DDT was a widely used pesticide. And nuclear bombs were tested above ground in Nevada.
Welcome to the age of Aquarius.
If this seems unfamiliar, it is exactly why historian Douglas Brinkley's "Silent Spring Revolution" is so important. We can't let time heal the memory of old environmental wounds.
This doorstopper of a book, however, is more than just a reminder of how deeply the country was buried in an ecological dumpster. It's also an inspirational tome, one that shows how a few dedicated people can take on the status quo and create meaningful change.
"It was Rachel Carson, full stop, who in an urgent, visceral way sparked an eco revolution," Brinkley writes.
Her 1962 book "Silent Spring," about the devastating impact of DDT and other pesticides, changed the rules. Previously, presidents such as Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt concentrated on conservation; that is, putting millions of acres in federal hands, creating pristine national parks.
But after "Silent Spring," people recognized that it wasn't enough to have unspoiled woods for eagles to roost in if the DDT in their system produced eggs so fragile that they couldn't hatch.
Most of the early provocateurs were people who enjoyed the great outdoors — campers, hikers, bird watchers. These included folks like Stuart Udall, secretary of the interior under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, singer Pete Seeger and Davis Brower, head of the Sierra Club. But also — wait for it — a pre-Watergate John Ehrlichman spurred his boss, Richard Nixon, into becoming a great environmental president.
Under Johnson, Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the Endangered Species Act of 1966, among other significant laws.
Under Nixon, who was determined to out-environment LBJ, we saw the expansion of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Bill, the banning of DDT in the U.S., the Marine Mammal Protection Act and, of course, creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
"On Nixon's watch, the United States became the global leader in protecting planetary ecological awareness," Brinkley notes. But unfortunately, as the Vietnam War plagued LBJ, Watergate ultimately overshadowed Nixon's accomplishments.
Brinkley has done a monumental job of research, all of which he presents clearly and dispassionately, refusing to criticize from our current more enlightened perspective actions taken 50 or more years ago. It's hard to believe, but back then the National Wildlife Federation favored the use of pesticides.
In these perilous times, however, we do need to learn from history and find us some new provocateurs.
Curt Schleier is a book critic in New Jersey.
Silent Spring Revolution
By: Douglas Brinkley.
Publisher: Harper, 857 pages, $40.