- A Market Ecology
How fundamental is the environmental critique of modern society, and how broadly does it resonate? In 1970 the New York Times described environmentalism as the issue of the moment on university campuses and in political races. One year later the newspaper reported: “The American consumer is concerned about pollution—but apparently not when it comes into sharp conflict with price, convenience and quality.”1 By 1979 the Times was noting the “end to a golden era” of environmentalism.2 The story of environmentalism in the late twentieth century is in some ways the story of growing popularity coupled with dwindling seriousness of purpose. Like an oil spill, the more widely environmental values spread, the thinner they become.
Thomas Jundt believes environmental values are fundamental, even if Americans don’t always recognize it. He places environmentalism at the very center of mid- and late twentieth century U.S. history, so that much else seems to orbit around it. As the United States shaped a postwar order defined in part by the threat of nuclear war and an insatiable drive to transform natural resources into consumer products, environmentalism emerged as “a moral and intellectual broadside against the growing power of corporate capitalism” (p. 2). Fighting against pollution and for beautification was important, but the real meaning of environmentalism came from standing against a corporate influence that infiltrated public institutions and, through them, Americans’ daily lives.
Greening the Red, White, and Blue reimagines the history of environmentalism by placing its origins in the 1940s instead of the 1960s and shifting its focus from legislation to consumption. The story begins with the atomic bomb and nuclear fallout, then shifts to industrial chemicals in the nation’s food supply and, in response, what Jundt calls “green consumerism.” The first story is the [End Page 175] more familiar one: above-ground nuclear tests by the United States in the South Pacific and Nevada led to growing concern about airborne radiation after Pacific Islanders, Japanese fishermen, and Nevada livestock fell sick. Those concerns sharpened in 1956 with the discovery of the radioactive isotope strontium-90 in milk. Six years later, Rachel Carson’s bestselling Silent Spring used the story of strontium-90’s journey through the food chain and into human bodies to illustrate how the pesticide DDT might follow a similar path. Strontium-90 and Silent Spring demonstrated the interconnectedness of biological systems and the unpredictability of technology, two axioms of environmentalism.
Jundt’s second story is less familiar. It begins with organic agriculture, a subject surprisingly absent from environmental history and richly contextualized here. Jundt focuses on J. I. Rodale, one of the great advocates of growing food without pesticides and an early critic of industrial agriculture. Rodale’s descriptions of modern food systems as harmful to people and to diverse agricultural economies and ecologies reflected a broader view of the modern world; where many would draw a straight line from Rodale to Whole Foods and farmers’ markets, Jundt draws lines branching off in many directions. “The organic movement” he writes, “was the beginning of a radical response to postwar American culture that urged an alternative model for living—one that emphasized the total health of the planet” (p. 56). Pesticide-free vegetables and polycultural fields were the immediate point of organic agriculture, but for Jundt the larger achievement was a challenge to industries that cared little for human or environmental well-being. Federal regulators failed to rein in such industries’ misbehavior, and organic produce was one example of how environmentalists could “establish a separate alternative space within the larger system, a green economy where they might take shelter from the storm of corporate capitalism” (p. 62).
By the early 1960s, “nuclear fallout, chemicals in food, and environmental pollution...