The Times We Live In
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Earth Day 2023

Historian Heather Cox Richardson used her daily Substack post last evening to highlight the history of Earth Day. It is a thoughtful and informative reminder of “an earlier era, one in which Americans recognized a crisis that transcended partisanship and came together to fix it.”

I’ll share a few excerpts but will encourage you to read the entire post.

The spark for the first Earth Day was the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. A marine biologist and best-selling author, Carson showed the devastating effects of people on nature by documenting the effect of modern pesticides on the natural world. She focused on the popular pesticide DDT, which had been developed in 1939 and used to clear islands in the South Pacific of malaria-carrying mosquitoes during World War II. Deployed as an insect killer in the U.S. after the war, DDT was poisoning the natural food chain in American waters.

Carson was unable to interest any publishing company in the story of DDT. Finally, frustrated at the popular lack of interest in the reasons for the devastation of birds, she decided to write the story anyway, turning out a highly readable book with 55 pages of footnotes to make her case.

When The New Yorker began to serialize Carson’s book in June 1962, chemical company leaders were scathing. “If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson,” an executive of the American Cyanamid Company said, “we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Officers of Monsanto questioned Carson’s sanity.

But the public was interested.

Democratic president John F. Kennedy asked the President’s Science Advisory Committee to look into Carson’s argument, and the committee vindicated her. Before she died of breast cancer in 1964, Carson noted: “Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself? [We are] challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”  

The wheels toward protection moved forward, but three specific events pushed Americans to pay closer attention to human impacts on the environment.

  • “First, on December 24, 1968, William Anders took a color picture of the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon from outer space during the Apollo 8 mission, powerfully illustrating the beauty and isolation of the globe on which we all live. 
  • Then, over 10 days in January–February 1969, a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, poured between 80,000 and 100,000 barrels of oil into the Pacific, fouling 35 miles of California beaches and killing seabirds, dolphins, sea lions, and elephant seals. …
  • And then, in June 1969, the chemical contaminants that had been dumped into Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire.”

It is an amazing story, and this short newsletter is worth the read. Today, we need to know this history more than ever.

Happy Earth Day.

More to come…


Photo: Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, NASA, Public Domain.

This entry was posted in: The Times We Live In


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

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  1. Pingback: April observations | More to Come...

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