Americans today are moving toward a more well-developed awareness of the environment, and what it takes to protect and preserve Earth’s natural resources. City dwellers and suburbanites alike typically recycle paper, plastic, and glass, and now more than ever, look to conserve energy whenever possible. Some even garden and compost.
The environmental movement didn’t start with this enlightened generation, or even a generation or two prior. In one form or another, various groups and organizations have been advocating for preservation and conservation since the 19th century.
When Green was Green
The American environmental movement first began to take shape in the early 1830s, when Henry David Thoreau authored his novel, Maine Woods. He called for conservation of and respect for nature, along with federal preservation of virgin forest. By the 1860s, the United States government had already begun to create parks and to set aside wild lands for public good. Yosemite became the first national park in 1872, the same year the Audubon Society was founded. The Sierra Club was formed in 1892, and the Forest Reserve Act was ratified before the century was out. President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yosemite in 1903 and popularized conservation as a responsibility of government. By 1916, the National Park Service was established and Americans were embracing environmental causes.
The Rise of the Green Movement
The national parks movement lost some steam as the 20th century wore on. With two world wars and the Great Depression to contend with, environmentalism did not remain a concern for most Americans or the federal government during the first half of the 1900s. Manufacturing catapulted the American economy onto the global stage, and with it came scores of new chemical treatments and processes. At the time, the public was unaware of any ill health effects, and a growing nation with millions of new jobs took precedence over thoughtful sustainability measures. It would take a freak event in Pennsylvania in 1948 to prompt a national outcry and fuel new concerns for more personal issues like clean air.
In October of 1948, a lethal 'fog' formed over the town of Donora, Pennsylvania when weather conditions trapped a haze of dangerous chemicals from American Steel & Wire and Donora Zinc Works over the town. By the time rain dispersed the fog, 20 people were dead and 7,000 were ill or otherwise affected; the ghastly event raised public awareness nationwide, and once again Americans were focused on environmentalism.