The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History

By Carolyn Merchant | Go to book overview

10
The Era of Environmentalism,
1940–2000

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the resource conservation movement based on efficient use of natural resources changed to an environmental movement concerned with quality of life, species preservation, population growth, and the effects of humanity on the natural world. A multitude of government projects, policies, and laws, together with citizens' movements, increasingly regulated economic development and sought to preserve remaining wilderness areas. The rise of environmentalism is a core theme in environmental history, because it often influences the way contemporary historians look at the past and the topics they choose to investigate. This chapter examines the conservation movement of the mid-twentieth century and explores the emergence of the environmental movement of the late twentieth century, its regulatory framework, and its philosophy of nature.


From Conservation to Environmentalism

According to environmental historian Samuel P. Hays, the period between the conservation movement of the mid-twentieth century and the emergence of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s displayed a shift in emphasis from resource efficiency to that of quality of life based on “beauty, health, and permanence.” Hays notes: “We can observe a marked transition from the pre-World War II conservation themes of efficient management of physical resources, to the post-World War II environmental themes of environmental amenities, environmental protection, and human scale technology. Something new was happening in American society, arising out of the social changes and transformation in human values in the post-War years.” 1

Conservation policies in the first two decades of the century had focused on forests, rangelands, and water. During the 1930s and 1940s, resources

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