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The Liberal Agenda and Domestic Policy: The 1960s, The Environmental Movement

Environmental Defense Fund, Mile Island, Rachel Carson, National Environmental Policy Act, Greenpeace

A movement to preserve the environment took root with the best-selling book Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson. The book attacked toxic pesticides like DDT. Carson described how DDT threatened both animals and human beings. Her book raised Americans’ awareness of threats to the environment and moved many to take action. Students and teachers at over 1,500 colleges and universities and at over 10,000 schools held teach-ins on the environment. Hundreds of thousands of other Americans staged protests and rallies around the nation. These activists formed a number of environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967, Friends of the Earth in 1968, Greenpeace in 1970, and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in 1971. In 1970 some 20 million Americans gathered for what organizers called Earth Day to protest abuse of the environment.

In response to growing citizen protests, Congress in 1970 passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an independent agency responsible for protecting the environment and maintaining it for future generations. Congress also enacted laws to curb pollution, preserve wilderness areas, and protect endangered species. The Supreme Court allowed conservationists to sue businesses for polluting the environment and government agencies for failure to enforce the law.

Several events in the 1970s suggested the danger of environmental threats. In 1978 residents of Love Canal in New York, who had been experiencing high disease rates, were found to be living on a former chemical waste dump; the area was evacuated. In 1979 an accident at the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania showed the potential dangers of radioactive material in nuclear reactors.

As concern for the environment spread, more Americans became involved in efforts to maintain forests, parks, and wildlife refuges; prevent air and water pollution; conserve energy; and dispose of hazardous waste safely. Environmentalists persisted in their efforts into the 1980s, although often challenged by conservatives who believed that environmental regulations restricted property rights protected by the Constitution.

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