Historian Douglas Brinkley appeared at the Atlanta History Center Monday night to promote his new book on America's environmental accomplishments, speaking before an audience mainly composed of those who remembered the first Earth Day in 1970.
Sadly, that national event was the high point of the environmental progress detailed in Brinkley's comprehensive "Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Great Environmental Awakening."
A furious counterattack by American business, which saw environmental regulation as a socialistic threat to the free enterprise system, crushed the green movement.
Brinkley in his talk cited former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell's memo to the American Chamber of Commerce calling for right-wing capitalists to take action against a perceived liberal takeover of the media, academia, the judiciary and Congress.
That led to the rise of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Society and the Cato Institute and soaring campaign funding by the Koch Brothers and other wealthy business leaders.
Brinkley cited Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt for leading the first environmental wave, establishing national parks and preserving wilderness areas.
The movement gained momentum under the leadership of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the major environmental mentor to the Kennedy family. Douglas influenced John F. Kennedy to author national seashore legislation when Kennedy was a U.S. senator.
Kennedy as president continued his environmental activism. After Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson stepped up the preservation of wilderness areas. Brinkley credited first lady Lady Bird Johnson for her environmental leadership during Johnson's administration, tragically ruined by his support of the Vietnam War.
President Richard Nixon, a reluctant environmentalist, compiled an impressive environmental record. After the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill pf 1969 in the early days of his presidency, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which required environmental impact statements for construction projects, and established the Environmental Protection Agency, which banned the use of DDT.
Rachel Carson, whose monumental book "Silent Spring" in 1962 drew attention to the threat of DDT and other pesticides to animals and humans, was the main hero of Brinkley's talk.
Suffering from from the breast cancer that killed her in 1964, Carson was severely attacked by chemical companies until government scientists under President Kennedy confirmed the truth of her findings.
Before "Silent Spring," Carson wrote a pioneering trilogy of books on sea life. The books, recently republished in one volume by the Library of America, predicted the current threats to the ocean from plastic pollution and rising acidification.
Most of those in the audience appeared in their 60s and 70s, members of a generation that witnessed the excitement of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and its distressing demise after the massive corporate attacks, which are accelerating in today's Republican Party.
Brinkley, a professor at Rice University, expressed hope that a rising younger generation will launch a new environmental wave. He mentioned that his Generation Z students display an intense interest in combating climate change.
"Silent Spring Revolution" will inform them about our generation accomplished, and let slip away. Its historical scope and optimism for the future will inspire them to not let it happen again.