Scientists will be taking to streets around the world this coming Earth Day as part of the March for Science. The march has sparked vociferous public debates about the contemporary relationship of science and politics. I sat down with environmental historian Adam Rome to discuss what that relationship was like during the first Earth Day in 1970 and how it has evolved since then. This led us into a conversation about his latest book, Green Capitalism? Business and the Environment in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), and the complex role businesses have played in the environmental movement.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
Andy Davey: In your history of the first Earth Day, you’ve written that “the environmental activism of scientists was both surprising and predictable.” Why was that?
Adam Rome: It was surprising because scientists had this ideal of detachment. They prided themselves on not getting involved in politics or broader social issues of any kind. They were very different than many professionals who had an ethic of service, so it really went against their canon to speak out. On the other hand, it was really predictable because all the environmental issues of the day—whether it was pollution or sprawl or hazardous waste or pesticides or population—they all had scientific components and were things scientists might have thought about more than the average citizen. And that’s certainly how many of them ultimately came to feel it was their duty—despite the longstanding traditions against public speaking—to speak out.
AD: How did they overcome their tradition of detachment from politics?
AR: Some scientists always had ideological commitments. Barry Commoner is the best example. He was a lefty going back to the Depression years, so he always felt scientists had an obligation to make sure their science served the people and not the narrow interests of an elite. But many others had to almost be backed into a corner.
Rachel Carson was really critical. Even after Commoner drew attention to fallout, it wasn’t until Carson’s Silent Spring that ecologists began to say Oh my God. These issues are earth-shaking. We can’t just leave it to journalists. By the mid-1960s, the Ecological Society of America and other professional organization were having debates within their own membership about how much they were obliged to speak out and where the limits they might draw were. They didn’t all agree, but more and more there were folks who were beginning to think that they needed to speak out. And those who did became prophetic. They were talked about as jeremiahs, modern prophets shouting out to the people to reform.
A lot of the scientists who came to be active weren’t active because of their own research. For many it came out of their teaching—as they tried to make their introductory biology courses more relevant—or it came out of reading the journal Science, which by the late 1960s had become a kind of continuing education course in environmental problems. So most of the scientists who spoke out saw themselves as scientifically literate citizens.
I think that’s really different than the climate scientists now, people like Jim Hansen or Michael Mann, who are doing the cutting-edge science that is telling us more about climate change. They have to balance a different set of expectations than the outspoken scientists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who really weren’t worried about how people viewed their research or whether they were going to get grants. They also weren’t worried about whether they were going to get attacked. No one was going to subpoena their emails or any of the other things that have been done lately to intimidate scientists.
AD: Do you think because they were speaking as citizens, people were less likely to claim they were somehow self-serving, which we see today with climate skepticism?
Whether we want to do something about climate change isn’t ultimately a scientific question.
AR: I certainly can’t recall in my research seeing anyone get charged with the idea that they were sounding alarms to get more grants to have more graduate students and teach fewer courses. Part of that was that the business community was naïve, in a literal way. They hadn’t really been challenged in this way before and hadn’t yet figured out how to counterattack. Now they are much more sophisticated; they have all kinds of ways to try to cast doubt on the science. That wasn’t the case in the Earth Day era. People were respectful when scientists spoke. People would sometimes argue with them about the whether they were exaggerating, whether the situation was as dire as they painted it. But even that wasn’t really questioning their science
The scientists I’m thinking of, like Wes Jackson—one of the first people to write an environmental studies textbook—felt free to talk about philosophy, religion, economics, and politics. Jackson’s professional specialization was genetics, but he never drew on that in the public speaking he did. He was quite up front about the fact that these were more than scientific questions.
AD: There was some mistrust of science and technology—in part a response to the atomic bomb—in this era. How did that shape public opinion of activist scientists?
AR: The scientists who spoke out around Earth Day were totally up front about the fact that they thought a lot of science had gone astray, that we had developed new technologies that had horrible, dangerous side effects or unintended consequences. So there was something inherently humbling about the scientific claim that we needed to do more. It was saying that science did not have all of the answers. I think that helped them seem more credible. They weren’t holding science up as a God-like, omniscient thing and saying everyone else was an idiot and just needed to listen to them.
LaMont Cole, a Cornell ecologist, often asked “How dumb are we?” He was totally up front about the fact that he was constantly learning new things, coming to appreciate that there were new hazards that he hasn’t suspected. So there was a modesty among these scientists, even as they were claiming a certain amount of scientific authority. And that went well with the growing popular sense that we were creating these marvels that also had a dark side.
AD: How would you compare that to the March for Science today?
AR: I’m not completely sure. Even though I’m totally sympathetic to the science itself and am totally convinced that climate change is a very serious problem that is going to take all the wisdom we can muster to adapt to it, I also think some of the scientists today sound more arrogant. They’re most often talking about their own work, and they’re totally confident that the work that they’re doing is really good and they can’t understand why people don’t see that. Unlike the Earth Day scientists, they’re in the position of having to defend their own life work and integrity, and some of them can do that with aplomb, but some of them come across as saying, basically, you idiot.
Josh Howe has written a wonderful book about the role of science in the politics of climate change. But he didn’t really look at how environmentalists have framed the issue. Or why the issue has been framed overwhelmingly as an environmental issue. It could also be framed as a national security issue, or an economic issue, or an issue of community, and obviously a moral issue. So there’s a lot we don’t know about why environmentalists have been so quick to say it’s all about the science. Even one of the organizations that I most admire, 350.org, if you go to their website, the first thing it says is science says. But, in fact, science doesn’t really say hardly as much as people think.
I think climate change both is and isn’t a scientific issue. If we want to address the problem, of course we need good science. But whether we want to do something about climate change isn’t ultimately a scientific question. And even when it seems to be, the battle over science is often a proxy war, where the real battle is more ideological or even temperamental than it is purely about whether you “believe the science.”
AD: In a piece you wrote for the Huffington Post a few years ago, you said that to make progress on climate change, we’re going to have to do some serious soul-searching. Where do you see signs of that?
AR: I think we’ve allowed the science to dwarf a lot of the other possible conversations. And it’s not even just “the science.” It’s a particular kind of science. If you read some of the memoirs or op-eds of the scientists who write about this, they always devote way more space than I think is appropriate to how they learned what they now think they know. When I go to the doctor and he tells me that I have a tumor, I’m really not that interested in how he came to be able to diagnose the tumor. What I want to know is how is it going to affect me. Is it something that is an urgent problem or is it something I can live with? What kind of treatments are there and what do they cost? Might the treatments be worse than the problem? Those are the kinds of things that scientists don’t tend to talk about that much.
Journalists have done a better job. There’s a wonderful book by Mark Lynas called Six Degrees. It took the best scientific understanding at the time of what happens if we have warming of x degrees, one chapter at a time. Even that is something that we don’t get very often from the scientists: a detailed sense of how this going to affect our earth, our relationships, our communities, our work—everything else that we care about. I don’t think we’ve been talking enough about that, and I think we need to. And marches aren’t the place to do that kind of talking, either.
I have mixed feelings about the March for Science. Part of that comes from thinking about the first Earth Day in 1970. We have remembered it as a big demonstration. But it was much more than that. It was much more educational. I can’t even recall that many forums where I’ve seen a scientist sitting down with a religious leader, a union member, and whatever else, to have a conversation about what global warming means for them, where the scientist is just talking as a scientifically literate citizen, not as someone with special and somewhat arcane knowledge.
AD: You’ve got an edited volume, Green Capitalism?, that just came out. Could you tell me a little bit about how your research moved in that direction?
AR: The volume is trying to provide context—and not just from the United States—to this big question of whether capitalism ever can be green. The field of environmental history, in a sense, began with the assumption that the answer would be no. Don Worster in Dust Bowl, and others following him, blamed capitalism more than anything else for the environmental degradation of the last several centuries. (I don’t question that at all. I’m a Don Worster student and that was part of what attracted me to him.) But when I went to the University of Delaware, it’s right near the Hagley Museum and Library, one of the preeminent places in the world to study business and technology history. I met with the director there, and he suggested we have a conference that would bring business historians together with environmental historians. I thought that would be fantastic. I had done some research into business and the environment in the Earth Day era that I didn’t end up incorporating into the book. The story was more complicated than I expected. It wasn’t just that business opposed the environmental initiatives of the time.
So the conference that we did, which ultimately led to the volume, was partly motivated by the sense that there have been times—more frequent in recent history—when businesses have tried to conserve resources, or protect certain kinds of spaces, or worried about how much waste they were producing. Until recently, those businesses were dwarfed by those who weren’t thinking about the environment at all or taking it for granted. But I believed history could tell us something about how far a business can go if it wants to try to do better. What can it do right, and where is it inherently unable to address problems that the market itself has created?
Recognizing the forces that shape the decisions that businesses make is crucial. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the DuPont company, and there are some valuable lessons that I’ve learned about what kinds of pressures were important in DuPont deciding to do certain things differently. We’ve overestimated how important citizen activism and government action are. Those are crucial, but they are not the only levers of change. Businesses have to worry about employee morale, and in certain businesses environment is part of that. Or they might worry about what other businesses insist that they do, business-to-business pressure. Or supply chains. If Walmart decides it wants to sell only organic t-shirts, all of a sudden there’s a tremendous new demand for organic cotton. So even if the farmers don’t want to change, if they want to sell to Walmart, they have to. That was something I never thought about before. And corporations are often divided within themselves. There were parts of DuPont that wanted to do more about pollution than other parts. Understanding that tension within the company is really important. If you want to figure out how to effectively push companies to do something in the future, you need to know something about what constrained them in the past.
Featured image: A booth set up on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, by the University of Wisconsin Department of Entomology, educating passersby on alternatives to pesticides during the city’s Earth Week, April 17-24, 1970. Photo by Michael G. Sievers.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Andy Davey is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His current research examines the untold origins of environmental studies, and how it has developed as a form of moral education at both religious and secular colleges and universities. Contact. Website.
Adam Rome is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is the author of two books, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (Hill and Wang, 2013) and The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Cambridge University Press, 2001), winner of the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians. He has also edited, with Hartmut Berghoff, the new volume Green Capitalism? Business and the Environment in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). Rome is a past editor of the journal Environmental History and worked for nine years as a journalist before beginning his graduate study at the University of Kansas, where he earned his Ph.D. Contact.