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How capitalism crushed the environment, according to historian Douglas Brinkley

The Boston Globe 12/1/2022 Kara Miller
Historian Douglas Brinkley speaks at the JFK Library in Boston in November 2022. © Jill Person Historian Douglas Brinkley speaks at the JFK Library in Boston in November 2022.

If you care about the environment, 2022 has been a rough year.

Coal use will likely hit an all-time high. Plastic waste is on track to triple. SUVs and pickups continue to outpace sedans. And then there’s the recent climate summit in Egypt, where countries couldn’t agree to any emissions cuts.

Even in true-blue Massachusetts, economic reality often eclipses the environment. It’s more profitable for builders to sell big, expensive homes than small, starter homes. And it’s more alluring to snap up cheap furniture — which will soon be wedged into landfills — than to shell out thousands of dollars for sturdier stuff.

We have a “nature deficit disorder,” the historian Douglas Brinkley said in an interview in Boston. “In the short term, people are going to judge things politically, on ‘my pocketbook’ issues. And if [the focus is] the economy, that’s never a great moment on the environment.”

Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, is out with a weighty new book, Silent Spring Revolution, which argues that a group of leaders — John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon — shocked Americans into caring about the environment during the 1960s and early 70s.

But the backlash to that awakening marked capitalism’s revenge, thwarting the environmental movement for the last 50 years.

In many ways, Carson is the star of Brinkley’s story: a poetic marine biologist with a flair for the dramatic, who watched with dread as Americans began to embrace pesticides in the 1940s. During World War II, and in the years afterwards, DDT was sprayed on soldiers, doused on crops, and spread on emerald-green lawns.

But Carson had access to government data suggesting that pesticides could have problematic health consequences, including potentially contributing to cancer — a message she worked tirelessly to spread, even as she herself lay dying of cancer.

I recently spoke with Brinkley at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a memorial to the first president to be warned — six decades ago — that fossil fuels might be altering the climate.

Kennedy’s love of the ocean had turned him into a fan of Carson’s immersive books. And he would pick up her environmental baton, as would Presidents Johnson and, strangely enough, Nixon, who — in between paranoid phone calls — established the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the Clean Air Act, and presided over the first Earth Day.

But even as that Earth Day was being celebrated in 1970, regulations were mounting, and corporations felt increasingly jilted.

The turning point, Brinkley says — though it’s mostly beyond the scope of his book — came in 1971, when future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a confidential memo to a friend at the US Chamber of Commerce, alleging that environmentalism was tantamount to socialism.

Powell believed that environmentalism came from “the campus pulpit, the media, the intellectuals and literary journals.” He argued that “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.”

Which, frankly, feels more like a hot take from Sean Hannity than a 70s memo.

Capitalists even seemed to have lost Nixon. Presidential advisor John Ehrlichman —who would end up in prison for his role in Watergate — had long embraced environmental causes and encouraged the president to be sympathetic to the movement.

Powell despaired. If the 1960s had witnessed an environmental revolution, he believed it was high time for a counter revolution.

But defeating liberals like Ralph Nader — who Powell found especially annoying — wouldn’t be easy. Pro-capitalist forces would require their own lobbying firms, their own media outlets, their own think tanks.

And you know how that story ends.

“Overnight, every extraction industry opened lobby offices in Washington,” Brinkley said. “They didn’t exist there before. They were caught off-guard by this environmental fervor.”

In time, new media outlets also sprang up, and new think tanks.

“It took a while, and Powell knew: Overnight, we’re not creating Fox News. We’re not creating alternative media... But we need to do it on a 20 or 30-year plan. And it’s been wildly successful.”

Crucially, Powell’s memo contributed to the creation of The Federalist Society in the 1980s, an organization which has identified and incubated conservative legal minds.

That means we’re living with a Supreme Court that Powell shaped, Brinkley said. And though we might typically focus on issues like abortion, voting rights, and civil rights, the Court has tremendous power to affect both the environment and the economy.

Fifty years after the Powell memo — even in the face of hurricanes, wildfires, and rising sea levels — Brinkley believes that environmentalism has never fully regained its mojo.

He recalls visiting President Obama in the White House, and seeing how frustrated he was about his inability to rally the country around climate change.

“He ended up going to Alaska, holding fish, and being photographed at a melting glacier,” Brinkley shrugged, with a measure of resignation. “Because the economic imperative of gas price pumping is so much more daily than talking about America 30 years from now.”

Plus, let’s be honest: Living large is fun, if you have the means. People love their SUVs, their disposable coffee cups, their plastic toys, their quick jaunts to Florida. Americans account for just under 5 percent of the world’s population, but we use almost 17 percent of the world’s energy.

Given the partisan divide that now exists when it comes to the environment, Brinkley worries that the left has become too quick to point fingers. “So if you’re Senator [Ed] Markey and you fly a private plane and you give a speech, and you talk on the environment, people say: ‘Oh, you just burned all that by flying private’... The shaming is a bad idea.”

It may take a special sort of leader, Brinkley believes, to truly resurrect the environmental movement. Perhaps someone whose life has been etched by climate disaster.

He points to California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has watched fires ravage his state, kill scores of constituents, and blanket communities with a particulate-filled haze. Newsom has signed legislation to prohibit the sale of new gas-powered cars, starting in 2035.

“You can see why people are now looking for a Rachel Carson moment,” Brinkley says. A moment when the danger seems, once again, clear and present. A moment when there is no discernable right/left divide. And a moment when the American dream simply feels impossible without environmental stewardship.

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