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The History of American Environmentalism

Kate Fraser - Teen Aspect - July 21st, 2022
Bettman/Getty Images

The long-running history of environmental degradation

While the beginnings of modern American environmentalism are hard to date, the pursuit of a sustainable future for all remains consistent throughout American history, alongside our pursuit of happiness.

While there is a rich history of environmental movements and campaigns in America, there is a greater, rather notorious history of American exceptionalism and colonialism. Ever since European colonists set foot on this very continent, a desire for land and wealth became of utmost priority for the European elites. Hints of this continue to persist in American culture, with individualism and success being leading motivations for Americans today. A small group of naturalists and scientists arose from the colonies, laying down the foundations for later conservation movements.

Transitioning from the colonial period, industrialization changed how we live forever. Machines began to replace skilled merchants and workers, pumping out American products to keep up with the growing markets. I believe a true paradox exists within the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. While it represents a time of innovation and technological advancement, it is also the reference point climate scientists use to track increasing emissions and temperatures that have begun to change our lives as we know them. “Since the Industrial Revolution” is frequently used in the very climate reports that lay before the eyes of American scientists.

This revolutionary period of technological expansion and wealth monopolization led to a new and, for a small number of Americans, exciting time for the nation. Intense corporate competition led much of the elite to chase after the most prized natural resources the American lands had to offer. The natural beauty of the continent somehow turned into a commodity with a big ol’ price tag. Take a look at some of the most famous elites in American history that profited off natural resources: Rockefeller and oil, Mellon and land expansion, Carnegie and railroads that changed land geography. One thing remains clear throughout the years: Convenience over conservation.

Nonetheless, around this time, a rather shocking force of nature entered the Oval Office and changed how Americans viewed the land around them. President Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy in conservation can still be felt within the many national parks, reserves, and monuments we are able to enjoy today. Because of his desire to explore, Roosevelt was very well traveled. While on his travels, Roosevelt came to learn of the severe exploitation of the world’s natural resources that he deemed unsustainable. [i] He brought this sentiment into the White House along with his intense desire to make America an international threat. While slowly gaining land around the world, Roosevelt set up reserves in this new “America,” adding acreage to the nation. His prioritization of conservation persisted beyond his presidential term, making him one of the most famous naturalist figures in American history.

Figure 1/ U.S. Department of Interior (2020)

Fast forward to the years following World War II, a period of suburbia, consumerism, and exponential population growth changed the United States forever. Because of the growth of highways and “white flight,” white middle-class families left cities to live in rapidly developing identical neighborhoods. This is what set the precedent for an American culture centered around suburbia, leaving behind various unwalkable cities and neighborhoods. Coupled with the growth of the car industry, the country began a never-ending reliance on personal vehicles, making America one of the worst countries in terms of public transportation, with 61% of Americans reporting that they never use public transportation. [ii] This individualistic method of transportation has greatly increased our carbon emissions, ultimately limiting the policies necessary to curb climate change. Alongside a booming population, more and more neighborhoods popped up across the country, leading to habitat destruction and even more industrialization. Consumerism also became a big part of the American identity during this time for the average suburban family. This was facilitated by the mass-production of plastic, with the cheap material being molded into various household products. [iii]

Sally Edelstein Collage (n.d.)

As America continued to become one of the most intimidating countries on the world stage, no one was really aware of the impacts the changing industries had on the environment. Yet, a rather rapid period of environmental phenomena heightened confusion and tension in the nation.

The changing tides of American perceptions of the environment

First, in 1962, Rachel Carson published a shocking book that uncovered the environmental harm that had faced ecosystems across the U.S. caused by pesticide use. Silent Spring was one of the first environmental science books that truly moved the American public, with many today calling it the start of the American environmentalist movement. People began to understand the various connections between nature and society and the importance of conservation.

Some note the beginnings of the movement are rooted in the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969. This would lead Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to introduce the concept of Earth Day to the national sphere of government. [iv]

This renaissance for environmental policy continued, with President Nixon establishing the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. [v]

Science History Institute (2017)

Lastly, there cannot be just environmental policy without environmental justice. Following a report that uncovered disproportionate environmental impacts on low-income and minority populations, these communities rallied together to seek governmental action.[vi] African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Indigenous peoples across the country recognized their state of oppression and transcended beyond the overwhelmingly White-majority environmental movement, protesting in many forms that were inspired by the Civil Rights movement.

Fast forward to today, American environmentalism continues to grow, especially in correspondence to worsening annual climate reports. These movements have and will continue to inspire much-needed change, and it’s the grassroots movements that started this all.

[i] Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). Theodore Roosevelt and the environment. Retrieved July 4, 2022, from [ii] Benfield, K. (2017). NATGEO surveys countries' transit use: Guess who comes in last. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from [iii] Plaine Products. (2021, February 18). Why we need to understand the history of plastic before we can tackle the problem. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from [iv] Gibbens, S. (2021, May 3). How the environment has changed since the first Earth Day. Science. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from [v] Environmental Protection Agency. (2022, June 24). The Origins of EPA. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from [vi] Sierra Club. (2019, November 1). History of Environmental Justice. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from

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