Earth Day 2006 Library Exhibit

by Megan Shaw Prelinger

The Idea Behind the Exhibit   The Books in the Exhibit   back to the main Library page

The Idea Behind the Exhibit

The box is arranged to foreground two contrasting characteristics of the mainstream environmental movement: its breadth and its brevity. For a few years in the early 1970s, environmental awareness was poised to enter North American culture as a new trope that would change the way personal, commercial, and political transactions were structured...forever. The central cluster of twelve books in the exhibit represent the breadth of penetration into the mainstream culture that environmentalism was able to mobilize. Their editorship, their publishers, and the social position of some contributors all contrast starkly with the manner of discourse that currently dominates environmental awareness in the U.S. All were published between 1970 and 1973.

Environmental awareness failed to take permanent root in the value system of the dominant culture: it was outweighed in the late 1970s and 1980s by powerful external forces, including consumer convenience and corporate interests. Internally, environmental advocacy suffered fragmentation of its own identity, which led to intense specialization of its respective parts. By the late 1970s the mass-market paperbacks that comprise the central cluster of this exhibit were no longer being published. Instead, the anti-nuclear movement dominated the news in its fight of both corporate interests and public perceptions of the importance of "nukes" to national security. The anti-nuclear fight overshadowed the other components of the environmental movement, and its PR failure drove many of those pieces far underground.

Today the most interesting books that promote multi-level thinking about humans' relationship to their environment are written by either so-called "radical" activists or by academics. Neither group can lay claim to a strong relationship with the mainstream culture. The sense of effervescence about the opening of the north American mind to a new and urgent adjustment to its value system has faded away. Now we're all worried about global warming (a subject that has actually been in the news since the 1970s), but the public messages about it communicate mixed messages of hope and no hope. They also emphasize -- appropriately -- that even where hope exists it resides more with the possible futures of governmental and corporate behavior than with individual citizen behavior. There is little room in the interpretation of these messages for a proactive public response.

Framing the central display on the left side are two books that were part of the lead up to that large but brief mainstreaming of environmental awareness. Rachel Carson's classic cannot be omitted; less well-known is the Fairfield Osborn book from 1948. The book from 1998, A Pocket Guide to Environmental Bad Guys that frames the right side of the box was chosen as a visual symbol of the current state of the environmental movement. It is not presented of an example of contemporary environmental writing. Instead, its style of design and presentation symbolizes the fragmentation of the movement and the increasingly fatalistic public messages about the future health of the planet.

The Earth Day holiday is a peculiar creature: it is a remnant of a time when environmental consciousness was in ascendance in the public sphere. Activities scheduled for Earth Day events tend to focus on education of the young, and on activities that people of all ages can do at a community level to promote the health and well-being of the earth. We can hope that the education efforts will reverse the trend of the past thirty years; but it becomes increasingly more difficult to purchase public focus on betterment projects that the news tells us again and again are only too little, too late.

The Books in the Exhibit


  • 1. Our Plundered Planet by Fairfield Osborn. Little, Brown: 1948. In the aftermath of World War II, zoologist Fairfield Osborn had the temerity to point out that the impending environmental catastrophe would outsize any man-made war. Anticipating such modern classics of environmental scholarship as Something New Under the Sun by J.R. McNeill, Osborn categorizes the human race as a new ecological force of its own. Along the way he grapples with the politics of overpopulation and with the problem of colonialism.

  • 2. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Fawcett Crest: 1962. The classic that inspired the mainstream environmental movement of the 1970s -- and the radicals as well.

  • 3. Earth Day: The Beginning Edited by the staff of the National Environmental Action Committee. Bantam Books: 1970.

  • 4. The User's Guide to the Protection of the Environment By Paul Swatek. Co-published by Friends of the Earth and Ballantine Books: 1970. Focused on the consumer perspective: a handbook to making environmentally informed purchase decisions.

  • 5. Project Survival Edited and published by Playboy Magazine: 1971. An essay collection featuring an all-star, all-male list of authors, and naturally featuring a blonde chick on the cover.

  • 6. A Golden Guide to Environmental Organizations. Golden Press/Western Publishing Co.: 1972. From the company that continues to produce the wonderful little Golden pocket guides to flowers, insects, weeds, and all other small life forms.

  • 7. Ecotage! Edited by Sam Love and David Obst. Pocket Books: 1972. The cover art anticipates the antics of the Biotic Baking Brigade; the contents consists of the results, in letter form, of a national contest to describe eco-sabotage strategies.

  • 8. How to Be a Survivor By Dr. Paul Erlich and Richard L. Harriman. Co-published by Friends of the Earth and Ballantine Books: 1971. Extends Buckminster Fuller's metaphor of the earth as spaceship to book length. Title oddly implies a self-interest, self-help perspective that is a bit different from the tone of the text.

  • 9. Defending the Environment: A Handbook for Citizen Action By Joseph L. Sax. Vintage Books: 1970. Proposes that individual citizens be allowed to use the court system to challenge environmental injustices promulgate by corporate and government interest.

  • 10. The Environment: A National Mission for the Seventies. By the Editors of Fortune Magazine. Harper & Row: 1970. Do you think this book could be published today?

  • 11. New World or No World Edited by Frank Herbert. Ace: 1970. The leading science fiction author (Dune, etc.) edits transcripts from NBC-TV's week-long set of Earth Week specials that were featured on the Today Show in April, 1970.

  • 12. EP: The New Conservation By Charles Griffith, Edward Landin, and Karen Jostad. Izaak Walton League: 1971. Community-wide programming strategies for integrating environmental practice into everyday life. Also obviously an exercise in normalizing the culture of fly fishing within the context of the new environmentalism.

  • 13. Ecotactics: Sierra Club Handbook for Environmental Activists Edited by John Mitchell with Constance Stallings. Pocket Books: 1970. Naturalizes the idea of "tactical ecology" by framing environmental action within the western literary tradition and other cultural mainstreams.

  • 14. Nixon and the Environment Edited by James Rathlesberger. Village Voice Books: 1972. Critique of the Nixon administration's record of environmental stewardship. Explicitly aims to affect the November 1972 presidential election.

  • 15. A Pocket Guide to Environmental Bad Guys Edited by James Ridgeway and Jeffrey St. Clair. Thunder's Mouth Press: 1998. Directory of corporate and organizational interests with histories of environmental abuses.

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