A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Our Gigantic Experiment with
Planet Earth

J. R. McNeill

In 1962, biologist Rachel Carson published the first of the articles that would become her bestselling book Silent Spring, in the New Yorker. Carson’s work redefined popular understandings of environmentalism, shifting focus from the preservation of unspoiled “wilderness” to an awareness of “the intricate web of life whose interwoven strands lead from microbes to man.” America’s environmental movement grew throughout the 1960s, drawing new members to existing groups such as the Sierra Club and lending support to a whole series of environmental protection initiatives, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970.

Increasingly in the latter part of the twentieth century, scientists and environmental activists attempted to draw Americans’ attention to the global nature of environmental change and the global impact of our actions. Environmental policies have become key issues in recent elections, with Democratic candidates much more likely to support a range of environmental protections. The Clinton-Gore administration set aside large tracts of open land from development, adopted tough new standards for emissions and for air and water quality, and approached issues of environment and climate change as a global issue. George W. Bush began his administration, in contrast, by refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocols, a worldwide treaty aimed at reversing global warming by reducing the production of greenhouse gases, and by moving to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

In this excerpt from his influential book, Something New under the Sun, historian J. R. McNeill argues that the environmental changes brought about by humankind are ultimately more significant than any other aspect of twentieth-century history. Even more than the other authors in this section, McNeill focuses on the global challenges of the twenty-first century. In a “total system of global society and environment,” what role can a single nation—

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