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
The Books in the Exhibit
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