Apr 14 • 1HR 29M

4. Adam Rome — An Historical Perspective on Our Environmental Future

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The full-page ad for the first Earth Day, published in The New York Times on January 18, 1970.

Each year, we celebrate Earth Day; and each year, our collective actions lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, more habitat destruction, and more species extinctions. It’s hard for Earth Day not to feel like more of a superficial patting of ourselves on the back or a greenwashing opportunity for corporate sponsors than a serious call for transformative change. 

The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, was something totally different. With 12,000 events across the country and more than 35,000 speakers from every walk of life—young and old, scientists and preachers, liberals and conservatives—the transformative power of the first Earth Day, conceived as a teach-in rather than a rally or a protest, is hard for us to imagine in our contemporary era of stark political polarization, hashtag protests, and climate denial politics.

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Adam Rome is an environmental historian who digs deep into the historical record and emerges with profound insights about the first Earth Day and the origins of the environmental movement. His work reveals the vital importance of understanding our environmental history in order to forge a more promising environmental future.

Adam Rome was my advisor many years ago when I studied environmental history and cultural geography in graduate school at Penn State. And now, I’m very happy that he’s my good friend and colleague here at the University at Buffalo, where he’s Professor of Environment and Sustainability. 

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My conversation with Adam travels through history, long before and after the first Earth Day, from beaver hats in feudal Europe; to the post-WWII era of prosperity and suburban development; and up to the present, as he probes the business world’s attempts to become more sustainable. 

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Adam Rome

Adam Rome is professor of environment and sustainability at the University at Buffalo. A leading expert on the history of environmental activism, his first book, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism, won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the Lewis Mumford Prize. His book on the history of the first Earth Day, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, was featured in The New Yorker. He is co-editor of Green Capitalism? Business and the Environment in the Twentieth Century. From 2002 to 2005, he edited the journal Environmental History. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he has written essays and op-eds for a variety of publications, including Nature, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Wired, and The Huffington Post. He has produced two Audible Original audio courses: “The Genius of Earth Day” and “The Enduring Genius of Frederick Law Olmsted.”


Quotation read by Adam Rome

“The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”

— Rachel Carson, from Silent Spring

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Transcription

Intro

John Fiege 

Each year we celebrate Earth Day. And each year our collective actions lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, more habitat destruction, and more species extinctions. It's hard for Earth Day not to feel like more of a superficial patting of ourselves on the back, or a greenwashing opportunity for corporate sponsors, then a serious call for transformative change.

The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 was something totally different. With 12,000 events across the country, and more than 35,000 speakers from every walk of life, young and old scientists and preachers, liberals and conservatives, the transformative power of the first Earth Day, conceived as a teaching rather than a rally or protest is hard for us to imagine in our contemporary era of stark political polarization, hashtag protests, and climate denial politics.

Adam Rome is an environmental historian who digs deep into the historical record and emerges with profound insights about the first Earth Day in the origins of the environmental movement. His work reveals the vital importance of understanding our environmental history in order to forge a more promising environmental future.

Adam Rome 

But mobilizing isn't organizing. And mobilizing isn't empowering. It doesn't take people new places, you know, and then you think about other you know, advertising isn't about teaching you anything. It's about getting you to buy, you know, something. Political messaging isn't about educating you. It's about getting you to vote for this guy or woman rather than that person. So, it's yes or no, you know, Earth Day, the original Earth Day was so much more complicated than that. It left it up to millions of individuals to say, what does this mean to me, what am I going to do? It didn't try to marshal them all in one direction, or to enlist them into a preexisting cause.

John Fiege 

I'm John Fiege, and this is Chrysalis.

Adam Rome was my advisor many years ago when I studied environmental history and cultural geography in graduate school at Penn State. And now I'm very happy that he's my good friend and colleague here at the University of Buffalo, where he's professor of Environment and Sustainability.

My conversation with Adam travels through history long before and after the first Earth Day, from Beaver hats and feudal Europe to the post World War Two era of prosperity and suburban development, and up to the present, as he probes the business world's attempts to become more sustainable.

Here is Adam Rome. 

---

Conversation 

John Fiege 

If you could just tell, tell me a bit about where you grew up, and about your relationship to the rest of nature when you were a kid.

Adam Rome 

I grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut. The town itself is a couple 100 years old. But the particular house that I grew up in, was in a was built in the late 1950s. In what had been a golf course, for some reason, the golf course moved a mile away. And so, when I was growing up, the former golf course was being slowly developed. And in fact, I remember one day, I don't know how old I was maybe eight, seeing bulldozers come and knocking trees down on one of the nearby yards. That that was undeveloped still. And that I think was really crucial, even more than the wild are places that I used to hang out that a couple of friends and I would go in the wild parts, the still undeveloped parts of the old golf course. And back then parents weren't worried about their kids in the way they are now. So, my parents had a big cowbell on their front porch. And when it was, you know, 15 minutes to dinnertime, they would ring the cow bell, and I can hear it anywhere in the neighborhood and come home, and that's so idyllic. But it was a very typical 50s suburban neighborhood.

John Fiege 

So, you, you went to college at Yale, and then you were a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and then you landed in Kansas. Can you tell me the story of how you got to Kansas and what you did when you were there?

Adam Rome 

Kansas interestingly, I'll answer your question in a second but, but I had a much much more overwhelming emotional response to the landscape in Kansas than I ever did to any place around where I grew up, you know, that that 

John Fiege

Why do you think that was? 

Adam Rome 

I think I I loved the vastness of the sky. I love the spectacular sunsets. I love watching clouds move through the sky. I mean, you know, there's there's no tall buildings even in the cities in Kansas, compared to the northeast. So, you could see forever. And another thing that I really loved was, especially in the Western two thirds of the state. Wherever there was a river, you could tell those 15 or 20 miles away, because that would be the only place there would be trees. Right. And I love that the landscape was so powerful a presence, everybody thought about it all the time.

John Fiege 

So, you eventually landed at University of Kansas, studying environmental history under Dan Webster, who's one of the great minds and founders of the discipline. Tell me what you got what got you interested in environmental history? Had you done anything with that prior to graduate school? And how did you come with? How did you come to work with Don Wooster?

Adam Rome 

Environmental history really didn't exist as a field. That or at least it was in its most infant stage. When I was in college, which was 1976 to 1980. I actually got introduced to Don's work and to one other really renowned, now renowned, environmental historian through this humanities project that I did, about the little-known historical places. One of them was a place that during the dustbowl years of the 1930s, when the great plains were decimated by these unbelievable windstorms that that made up, you know, parts of Kansas look like Cape Cod, the dunes on Cape Cod that I had seen as a kid, devastating dust storms. And the government tried to reclaim some of those lands, it was really a pioneering effort of environmental restoration or ecological restoration. And so, there was this Cimarron grasslands in the very southwest corner of the state. It was one of the little-known historical places that I wrote about. And the background work that I did for that involved Don Westers first prize winning book, which is just called Dustbowl, and that book blew me away, I never imagined that you could write a history that combined environmental history and political history. And it's really an effort to understand the dust storms not as a purely natural phenomenon, but it's something that had been partly, maybe even predominantly caused by human activity in the decades leading up to it. And I read that book and it blew me away. And then right after that, I discovered this one other book that had just come out by William Cronin called changes in the land, which is about Native Americans and English colonists in New England, and all the ways in which they changed the landscape that the colonists did. And it gave a new way of understanding why the colonists were able to supplant the natives. But it also had some brilliant ideas about basic ways that we think about, about nature.

John Fiege  08:09

Let's turn to your first book, which is the bulldozer in the countryside. And it's a powerful environmental history of suburbia in America and how after World War Two developers brought Henry Ford's assembly line concept to the production of cheap tract housing on cheap land, on the outskirts of cities across the country. I want to read a passage from the book, but first, could you talk about how the suburbs were created and give us a sense of the scale at which this transformation of the countryside took place?

Adam Rome 

Well, first, you have to keep in mind that before World War Two, not counting farm areas, where homeownership was much more common. In cities, there never been a point where more than 40% of Americans owned their own home. And homebuilding in those decades. was was really a mom-and-pop kind of thing. I mean, it was it was a craft. It wasn't it wasn't an industry. A lot of home builders might only build one or two houses a year. So, after World War Two, most famously in Levittown, New York, and then several other Levittowns, but mimicked all across the country. People figured out a way to to turn to mass produce housing, and in order to do that, they also needed cheap land, and large tracts of cheap land. So, although some of these postwar subdivisions that were mass produced were within the boundaries of cities, most of them weren't because the land that was cheap and widely available was was outside the city limits, right and so on. and all kinds of new earth moving equipment, especially the bulldozer had come into common usage during World War Two. And it became possible to turn almost any kind of landscape, you know, a marsh, a steep hillside a forest, into a flat pad, that's like a technical term for building and then breaking down the construction process into, you know, I don't remember the exact number, but let's say 20 different components. So, you know, one crew would would just bring the wood for the roofing, you know, where another would just do the bathroom or, and they could do in the case of Levittown, you know, 17,000 houses in in, you know, a year or two, right. And, and so the new combination of the new mass production method of building houses, and then unbelievable pent-up demand for housing, because there'd been virtually no housing construction during the Great Depression in the 1930s. And then virtually no housing construction during World War Two, right, and then the baby boom after the war. So, you've got millions and millions of people desperate for places to live, they didn't necessarily want to live in the suburbs, but they wanted a place to live and an affordable place, it was often cheaper to buy a Levittown house than to rent an apartment in a city. So, these, and by the late 40s, early 50s 2 million homes a year are getting built, which is an astonishing number. I don't think it had ever been more than 400,000 in a year in American history up to that point. So, a territory the size of Rhode Island, basically, every year is getting turned into new subdivisions, mostly in suburbs. And that that was I write in my book that was in whatever else it was, it was an environmental disaster on the scale of the dust.

John Fiege 

Right, right. Just clearing all that land. Yeah, I grew up in Greenbelt, Maryland, one of Eleanor Roosevelt's plans, communities. Yeah, from the 30s. From the 30s. There's kind of pre pre post war, suburban development, but it was right on the outskirts of Washington DC. And, you know, had a little bit more of a idyllic you know, communitarian feel to it than, than the later suburbs. So, with your book, let me let me read a quote you you quote, the writer, Margo Tupper. Oh, yes. Like millions of Americans moved with her family to the suburbs after World War Two in Maryland. Oh, really? Was that Maryland? Yeah, realize that. Oh, that's interesting. Well, let me read the quote. So, she might have been your neighbor. Yeah. Wow. I had no idea. So let me it's a kind of a long quote, but I think it's worth reading because it's so it's so rich. “At that time, our house was second from the last on the dead end street. Beyond were acres of untouched woodlands, which were a refuge for children, a place to play natural surroundings. Youngsters in the neighborhood would go there build dams or catch minnows and a little creek, gather wildflowers and pick blossoms from the white dog woods. They built tree houses, picnicked under the tall tulip trees, and dog Jack in the pulpits, wild Fern and Violets to transplant to their gardens. Then one day my little girl Jan ran into the house shouting, Mother, there's a bulldozer up the street. The men say they're going to cut down the trees. They can't do that. They're my trees. Where will we play? Please, Mother, please stop them. Jan ran frantically out the door shouting. I'll get Susan Georgie Sissy and all the other children. If they're going to take our woods away. We'll have to save all we can. The children returned several hours later, pulling wagons loaded with flowers and plants. Jan brought home a small dogwood tree and planted among the wildflowers in the South Garden. Indeed, the bulldozers did come, these huge Earth eating machines raped the woods filled up the creek, buried the wildflowers and frightened away the rabbits and the birds. The power saws came too and took part in the murder of the woodlands near our home. Dynamite blasted out the huge tree roots trucks roared past our house carrying the remains sections of murdered trees and tons of earth in which were buried vines, shrubs and flowers. Then the dozers came to level the earth and power shovels to dig grade holes in less than a month, the first of 200 look like closely set small all houses rose to take the place of our beautiful forest.” So, at the heart of your book is this great irony that the experience the experiences of suburbanites like Margot Tupper and her family, who witnessed the destruction, on the frontlines of suburban development firsthand out there, front windows, helped ignite the environmental movement. In the 1950s and 60s, the majority of women had not yet entered the labor force. And it was women in particular, who spearheaded the new environmental movement. Can you talk about what Margo is writing there? And how this played out?

Adam Rome 

Yeah, so that book came out in 1965, as I recall, and at that point, there had already been, maybe I'd say, for six, seven years, mounting concern, for lots of reasons, but, but one of them was the destruction of places for kids to play. And, and yeah, there's a powerful irony that the house that she lived in, and in her daughter, and all the neighbors that her daughter played with, you know, that had been something wild too, before it was made into their house. And, you know, it might have been that, that an earlier generation would have cried about that, you know, earlier generation means, like a year or two before. And she herself was sensitive to that she doesn't, she doesn't want there to be no development at all. But she's part of a movement to try to imagine land saving ways of development, ways of having same number of people have places to live even single-family homes, but clustered together with much larger, open space that wasn't just yard but was truly Wilder. And that was, that's keeps getting rediscovered, by the way, you know, every, like, 10 years people, people realize, that's an interesting idea. It's never become the norm. But but, you know, my whole book is really about people coming to realize that what, and this is part of a broader story and world after World War Two, that, you know, we have all these amazing technological changes, and new products, new ways of doing things that, that seemed miraculous, they allow us to, to have comfort and convenience and, and wealth on a scale that we hadn't imagined before. But they turned out to also have incredibly bad, unexpected environmental costs. And so, my book is really the story of how people try to come to terms with that, how do they try to reduce the cost of suburban development? Without ending it, you know, that they weren't saying no development at all? No one was, but But trying to figure out ways of meeting the need. And, and even that's an interesting question, you know, what, what do we need and housing? What is a good house? But how do you do that at at much less environmental costs. And it turned out that, you know, I was really stunned. I didn't think anyone would have been thinking about that until the 1970s. After the first Earth Day, and after the, you know, the whole environmental movement is obviously roaring along. But in fact, I found that even in the midst of World War Two people were beginning to find fault with some aspects of this new way of building and with each decade, more and more of these horrid side effects come to light and some of them become only of concern to experts. But open space, in particular led to real grassroots activism, real grassroots protests, and a new language. You know, she writes about rape. And no one had talked like that before, not even John Muir, when he was talking about the destruction of wild spaces. He came close but but this was so much more intimate than, you know, some spectacular place in Yosemite Valley getting destroyed for a damn this, this was your backyard. This was the place your kid played. And people start putting the word progress in quotation marks, you know, that, that it's not obvious to them anymore that that that these new homes are, are just purely good. So that's something radically new.

John Fiege 

Yeah, and you bring up property rights in the book and kind of relates So what you're saying about Margo tuber being part of this movement to have more land and common open space. And the new ecological thinking that emerged in this era began to challenge and redefine property rights. Can you? Can you talk a little bit about that, and how that became a central issue and the struggle to protect ecological health?

Adam Rome 

Yeah, this was another huge surprise to me. That, you know, with pollution, it's obvious that the, the biggest polluters are businesses. And, and so challenging corporate polluters is part of a long tradition of trying to rein in corporate power. But there aren't, you know, billions of corporations or millions of corporations, there's, there's only hundreds of really big ones, with with property, millions and millions of people own property. And it had been part of American history, that owning property was easy here, which it wasn't in Europe, and ordinary people could own property. And they could do with it, whatever they wanted. That, you know, that was one of the great freedoms of America in the minds of many people that came here from Europe. And by the 1960s, people are coming to realize, not just with homebuilding with development of all kinds that the way you use your land, couldn't really be entirely private decision, because it had consequences beyond the boundaries of your property. And, and people talked about this in the 60s as a quiet revolution, the growing awareness, both in the courts and in state legislatures, and in national forums, that, that how you use your land, how you developed it, especially could have far reaching detrimental consequences to the public good. And that, therefore, the public ought to have some say in what you did, didn't necessarily mean that it would, that it would bar you from doing certain things, although people said that to you know, in the same way that you're not allowed to sell tainted meat, you know, you shouldn't be able to build in a wetland, if that's going to cause flooding somewhere else. Or you shouldn't be able to build on a hillside, if that's going to endanger people who own property lower down the hill, or, you know, any number of things of that kind, where how you use the land could have far reaching implications beyond your borders. And, you know, that idea then, eventually led to a powerful counterattack. People talked about it, as you know, the new regulations that come in the 1960s and early 70s, as a new feudalism, the opponents called it so Feudalism was, you know, pre capitalist way of thinking about rights and responsibilities that came with land ownership, and only a few people could use it. And they, you know, they had to use it in a way that serve the community, whether they wanted to or not. So that's part of the powerful cause the rise of modern conservatism part of the rise of Ronald Reagan, was this idea that, that among those who own property that that didn't accept that idea that it was really a matter of public interest. They wanted to go back to the days when they could do whatever they wanted with their land.

John Fiege  23:36

Right, right. Oh, that's so interesting. And I love the title of your book, The Bulldozer in the Countryside. It paints such a vivid visceral image. And and you mentioned somewhere that that echoes The Machine in the Garden, the book by Leo marks, can you talk about that book and how it relates to your work?

Adam Rome 

Yeah, Leo Marx. I'm not sure if he's still alive. I did meet him. He was a professor for a long time at MIT. And I did meet him when I spoke there more than a decade ago. But he wrot e this brilliant book, it's one of the most famous books that any American scholar has ever written in the humanities, called the machine in the garden. And it’s a study of the literary responses in America, although it starts with Shakespeare in The Tempest. So, imagining America to the spread of technology of development of modern civilization into seemingly pristine areas. And, and, and, and for much of early American history, people just thought that was great, you know, that was fulfilling a biblical injunction to subdue the earth to write to make to make the wild spaces into a productive garden. But by the time of Thoreau, and others in the, you know, 1830s 1840s 1850s people are starting to have at least a very elite, well-educated group of artists and writers, more mixed feelings about that they, they, they know it's part of America's destiny seemingly to transform the wilderness, but they also lament some of the consequences of that. And, and The Machine in the Garden in in Leo Marxs is the railroad, that that was the great symbol. Once the railroad came, everything was going to change. And and the railroad goes right through Concord, Thoreau could hear it. Nathaniel Hawthorne can hear it. So, I took that image. And actually, the publisher didn't like the title. I had to really...

John Fiege 

Oh really?  

Adam Rome 

yeah, 

John Fiege 

wow. 

Adam Rome

If it was, if it was a trade press, I would have lost they would have been able to title what they want, but because it was a university press, I won.

John Fiege 

Great. Well, moving on from the suburbs. Let's talk about Rachel Carson, who's one of my heroes.

Adam Rome

Mine too. 

John Fiege

You wrote an article about her legacy that began this way. “In the decades after World War Two, many Americans imagined that modern technology finally would free humanity from the constraints and burdens of nature. We would overcome disease, moderate the extremes of climate, travel great distances in a flash and enjoy abundance of all kinds. Detergents will get clothes cleaner than clean. Nuclear Fission would generate electricity too cheap to meter. Plastics, seemingly inexhaustible, and infinitely malleable, would end our dependence on scarce natural resources. Bulldozers would transform marshes and steep hillsides into buildable land. Soon we would live on a perfected Earth where everything was easy, comfortable, and safe.” And then enter Rachel Carson, and her nineteen's landmark 1962 book, Silent Spring. What did she bring to that mentality that was really dominant in the 50s, and 60s?

Adam Rome 

It's, you know, because we live in a post Rachel Carson world, it's so hard in some ways to imagine just how gung ho people were, especially Americans, but it wasn't it wasn't unique to us. After World War Two, the idea that, that we that we could conquer nature, that we could overcome any natural limit. And, you know, because nowadays, we we all think we love nature. But we're never as honest as we should be about the fact that there are a lot of elements of nature that we don't love, maybe even hate. And, and a lot of those are limits. most obvious one is death, you know. But that was another thing that people thought they could conquer, you know, that they thought modern medicine might allow a kind of immortality almost. Right. So, there's this tremendous faith that in the 50s and 60s that we're bringing nature under control, and that we are, you know, incredibly rapidly overcoming all these natural limits. And, and Rachel Carson is probably the, I mean, lots of people began to have doubts about that. But I would say she is by far the most powerful voice. And it's so amazing. It's just this lone voice, this one woman, she had no institutional by the time she wrote Silent Spring, she's just a writer. 

John Fiege 

Right

Adam Rome 

She has no institutional support. And she's taking on one of the most powerful industries in the country. And she's taking on even more powerfully, this whole way of thinking about what our relationship to nature should be, and saying, no, it can't possibly be conquest. You know, nature is bigger than us. We can't conquer nature. And when we try, we may get a lot out of it in the short run, but in the long run, where we're risking undermining the foundations of our life. And and her warning is about that they were specifically about the new chemical pesticides that came into wide use after World War Two like DDT, but but she was really attacking much more broadly a whole kind of technological hubris of thinking that we could change nature in any way and that it would just be for the good, you know, it would be better we could make a better nature than nature had made. And she said that preposterous. And ultimately, it threatens our survival. But even if it didn't threaten our survival, it also was you know, she had different adjectives for it an immature way of thinking, a brute way of thinking, an immoral way of thinking, you know, that, that she too was saying we could do better. That's not our best self, our best self would be finding a way to to thrive while everything else also thrives.

John Fiege 

Right. But you do point out that despite the huge impact of Silent Spring, and the government regulation and pesticides that followed, you write, we use more pesticides now than in 1962. 

Adam Rome

Yeah. 

John Fiege 

And which makes me think, like, has the change been in our mentality and our actions? Or has it been in our messaging and our vision of ourselves? Like, have we covered things up, but not really dealt with the underlying problems that continue in different forms?

Adam Rome 

So, so one of the reasons why pesticide use is up, it's not just up in the US. But lot of other parts of the world have developed industrialized agriculture that relies heavily on pesticides. And, and, and that's true about a lot of things, you know, our air is cleaner, our water is cleaner. But that's partly because we don't make stuff here as much as we used to, it's made in China or Vietnam or wherever. Yeah, their air is not cleaner. There, you know, we've exported, we've exported our pollution. Yeah, we've outsourced our pollution, as well as a lot of our manufacturing jobs. And, you know, I go back and forth about this, I have a split personality. On the one hand, I'm Dr. Earth Day. You know, so I, I've spent a lot of time thinking about environmental activism in the US in the last 150 years, and how much more powerful environmental activists have become than they were. And that's an inspiring story, you know, but then the other side of me is Mr. Apocalypse, you know, all the ways in which things just keep getting worse, or at least they're still incredibly threatening. 

John Fiege 

Right

Adam Rome 

And, and I'm trying to understand why, you know, without understanding why we can't possibly hope to, to avoid those outcomes.

John Fiege 

So that's a great place to jump to your next book, which is The Genius of Earth Day, with a subtitle “How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation.” Can you paint a picture for us of the state of the environment on the eve of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970?

Adam Rome 

Yeah, it's so hard to imagine now, just how much more polluted visibly polluted the country was in 1970. You know, every city was just full of smoke of all kinds. And, you know, smoke from, from burning trash from incinerators, folks, from utilities, from manufacturers, on and on cement places. The waters were just horrid. You know, you couldn't swim in most urban rivers and many, even rural ones. You couldn't eat the fish safely. You couldn't do a lot of other recreational things, you know that the waters would smell they'd be, they might be acidic, they might even burn you if you fell in. You certainly couldn't drink them. And there was no regulation of waste disposal of any kind, not just ordinary trash, but hazardous what we now call hazardous waste. That phrase hadn't been invented yet. There was no regulation of it. So people could just dump incredibly toxic stuff wherever they wanted. And even, you know, things you you can barely imagine when I was in Kansas, canoeing down the biggest river in the middle of the state, which in Kansas is called our Kansas, of course. You know, you'd see rusted hawks of cars on the riverbanks, you know, that people would take out the few valuable parts of the car that they could sell and, and then they just dump them on the riverbank, and they were sitting there decades later. So, you know, everywhere people were aware that this wasn't like news. You could see it every day. But what was missing was the will to do something about it, it had always been considered the price of progress. You know, as part of a booming economy, we had to put up with pollution, especially in cities. And finally in 1970, after, you know, growing discontent that leads to the modern environmental movement, and to the first Earth Day

John Fiege 

On January 18, 1970, Senator Nelson's environmental Teaching Committee took out a full page ad in the New York Times, announcing the upcoming event for the first time, it read in large font, April 22, Earth Day, and then it went on "A disease has infected our country, it has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food and left our cities in decay. The carrier is man”. Can you tell me the story of how earth day got its name? But how the idea of the teach-in that Senator Nelson had remained foundational to to the concept of what Earth Day was.

Adam Rome 

So, Nelson. And he never wrote down anything about the aha moment when he had the seed of the idea that became Earth Day, but apparently, he was flying back to Washington and having gone out to California to see about six months after the devastation in the wake of the first unfortunately, only the first great oil spill in Santa Barbara. And he read about is a tactic that was used by people who were opposed to the Vietnam War called the a teaching, which was essentially a kind of politicized extracurricular, curricular activity on a couple dozen college campuses in the mid 60s, where opponents of the war and proponents of the war would come together and argue, was organized by the opponents, they were convinced that that would inspire people to to action that it would mobilize them against the war. And Nelson was he he was one of the first senators to oppose the war. That was one of his most courageous moves. But he was inspired by that he thought, you know, maybe the President has failed on this Congress has failed in this, maybe young people could could really carry the ball and make the environment a national priority. So, he, he promised in Seattle in September 1969, that he would organize a nationwide environmental teaching. And, and at first, he was only envisioning it as some small number of campuses, only on college campuses. But and he didn't know anything about how to do this, you know, he's at that point was a 53-year-old establishment figure. He wasn't some young Radster. And he rejected the advice that he got from a good friend that he did, he tried to make it a hierarchical top-down kind of thing. Instead, he decided basically, anyone who wanted to have a teaching could have it and they could do anything they wanted. And he just trusted that that would work out that that that would involve a lot of people, and they would do great things. And he was right. And quickly, this overwhelmed his staff, there was a lot more interest in it than he expected. And K to 12 schools got into it. And then people in communities wanted to have events that weren't tied to educational institutions. So, he hires this, this small number of 20-somethings who had been activists mostly and other causes in the 60s, to help him organize it. And, and, and they found this hipster ad guy in New York, Julian Koenig, who was willing, pro bono to come up with better names they thought environmental teaching sounded too academic. Even Nelson's adviser thought that but that he wasn't able to come up with a better name. And and Julian Koenig comes up with the name Earth Day and then this really blows me away this is part of Gaylord Nelson genius was he really he really didn't try to micromanage so

John Fiege 

Right 

Adam Rome 

These 20 Somethings decide earth day is a much better name and they take out this ad and as far as I could tell they never asked him whether that was okay. They just did and then they changed the name of the of the you know, they weren't technically for this not for profit that Nelson set up called Environmental Teaching Inc. They couldn't legally change the name but they they changed the name on the stationery and everything else to environmental action. You know, again, they were trying to suggest that, that they were about action and protest and transforming America. But but the teach-in ideas still was very, very powerful. And most Earth Day events were places that people talked about these issues, it was an unprecedented discussion that involved, you know, potentially 20 million people. And 10s of 1000s of speakers, who had most had never spoken publicly about environmental issues. And these discussions were very intimate. Some of them were soul searching in the words of the New York Times, and the media to got into it. So, you have all this media discussion, unprecedented media coverage, and then you have these much more intimate settings where people are talking about these issues. And together, that was transformative. I think a lot of people thinking about these issues for the first time realized they cared about them a lot. And they were willing to do a lot to try to solve the problems and to keep doing it, often for decades.

John Fiege 

And, you know, I'm really struck by, you know, you already mentioned this, but his willingness to let go, and the profound significance that had, and I just wanted to kind of revisit that, because particularly from today's today's perspective, it's almost impossible to imagine a US senator, starting something like this, and then just being like, Ah, I'll let it go have a life of its own. And I'll put the kids in charge. And hopefully, it's, it's a thing, but you know, I'm not gonna micromanage it like, that doesn't happen.

Adam Rome 

No, no, I agree. And he didn't just let it go. I mean, he worked like hell, 

John Fiege 

right 

Adam Rome 

to publicize it, and to raise money for the staff and to, 

John Fiege 

right, 

Adam Rome 

you know,

John Fiege 

But his, his ego didn't seem to get in the way.

Adam Rome 

He didn't think of it as his thing. And I think, the way I've put it as he led by encouraging other people to lead, and that was brilliant. And, and you're right, especially in politics, that's so rare. You know, most people in politics want to be the center of attention. And, and he didn't. And in fact, you know, the New York Times, the day after day, the man of the man of the day was the 20, something guy that he had hired Denis Hayes, not Gaylord Nelson. But but it was actually Gaylord Nelson, that set the whole thing in motion. And so, I think that that modesty is so amazing. And that, that, that, you know, and I again, I don't know whether this was just a brilliant intuition on his part, or whether it was a little more carefully thought out, but, but I think he understood that it would be more powerful if a lot of other people could take ownership of it, if they could make it their own. And they did. And that was one of the biggest discoveries in the book for me is how many people all across the country had the idea to do this and spent months and months working on it. And, and those months and months were incredibly transformative for many of them. And they were not just an education on the issues, but people realized they had all kinds of skills they didn't think they had, or they had a passion they didn't realize they had. And and so many of those Earth Day organizers come away after Earth Day thinking, I want to keep doing something like this. And there were there were no, you know, books with hundreds and hundreds of eco jobs that you could just pick, you know, there were only a handful of things that were well established careers, and anything remotely to do with the environment. And a lot of these Earth Day organizers and many other people that just participated in Earth Day, they go out, they pioneer new career paths, they create new kinds of jobs and new kinds of organizations and new new ways of being, you know, an architect or a journalist or a professor, for that matter, to to continue to work on this and that that was only because they had already invested so much of themselves in the Earth Day.

John Fiege 

Yeah, and the scale of the first Earth Day is amazing. It generated 12,000 events across the country and more than 35,000 speakers. And, and you write, that this first Earth they brought opposites together in powerful ways. Can you talk about how this big tent of unusual combinations of people gave us Earth Day?

Adam Rome

Well, it was a big tent and that too, is a almost inconceivable now in or was celebrated everywhere, right red states, blue states purple states. A lot of the places that I ended up writing about in the book are, you know, diehard Trump country now Alabama, you know, Montana, they had incredible Earth Day of events. And so part of it was that it was much more bipartisan than you can imagine. But I think one of the places where it brought people together was it combined the power of the establishment, you know, Gaylord Nelson could open doors, he could do lots of things, with the energy and the creativity of the grassroots. That was incredible. And that was so different than some of the other huge events of the 60s that were either more establishment or more grassroots than Earth Day, which was both. It also brought together young and old. And that was, again, something I didn't think about initially, but was hugely important, because that was a time, you couldn't take that for granted. I mean, a lot of old folks looked at college kids in thought troublemaker. And a lot of kids under 30 looked at old folks and said, can't trust them. You know, right. But Earth Day brought together intergenerational collaboration, all kinds of folks and again, at the national level, but also at the grassroots. And, and again, as I mentioned, a few minutes ago, I think this, it created this unprecedented debate about what people started calling the environmental crisis. And the debate didn't take place purely in the media or purely face to face, it was both. And I think that made it more powerful than it would have been in either of those places alone. And I think there's a lesson in that for our social media age, powerful as social media is it can't do some of the mobilizing, and the educating and the life changing things that the face-to-face conversation and the face-to-face planning of Earth Day. accomplished.

John Fiege 

Right. So, I've always, to me, it's always been strange that the environment is such a political politicized issue, as if pollution and ecological destruction don't affect everybody. And I just when I read you talking about the kind of, you know, specifically democratic liberal intellectuals theorizing about this as like, is that part of the DNA of how we understand the environment, and therefore, it's so politicized in this country as a result?

Adam Rome 

It wasn't, though in 1970. And in the same way, and and even conservatives, except for the most hardcore, you know, the John Birch are far far, far far right, folks, or the, you know, the totally southern segregationist forever, conservatives. Even most conservatives understood that pollution was a real problem, you know, there weren't deniers, then. They they disagreed sometimes with liberals. And as I said, there were liberal Republicans as well as liberal Democrats, right, about what to do about it. But there were a lot of conservatives that spent a lot of time in 1970, trying to figure out what would be a conservative approach? Is there a way to address these issues without big government? And, and so for example, there were people talking about global warming wasn't an issue, yet someone was talking about carbon tax, but there were people talking about pollution taxes, you know, that part of the problem was the market didn't force businesses to pay for the pollution that, but if they did have to pay for it, then they would reconstitute their way of doing things. So, they produced less pollution that was the market. Right. You know, there were conservatives talking about that, in 1970. And I think a couple you know, you there's a whole book about how the Republicans went from supportive to totally opposed, or almost totally opposed. But But I think the biggest thing that happened was, and this is another irony, you know, that modern environmentalism comes out of the prosperity of the post war years, right, and the prosperity is causing a lot of the problems, but it's also creating the political will to do something about them. And and then in 1973, more or less, the post war economic boom comes to an end and and the whole rest of the decade is full of economic turmoil, in fact, unprecedented, you know, high unemployment and high inflation which was supposed to be impossible, that the same, right and, and no one seems to be able to do anything about it. So, in that in that context, it suddenly becomes possible to have people argue again, what, wait a minute, we can't afford to keep going in this direction. Or, you know, these regulations are an onerous burden. By 1980, you know, you have Ronald Reagan saying he's going to undo all the environmental initiatives of the 70s. He doesn't, he can't. But he tries. And he has a lot of support for that that was inconceivable even five years before 10 years before.

John Fiege 

Totally. You write: "Earth Day was an educational experience, as well as a political demonstration, that rare combination enabled Earth Day to have both long term and short-term impact". In the book, you tell this wonderful story of the San Mateo high school in California and its biology teacher, Edmund Home, who mentored students in the ecology club as they plan their Earth Day teaching. What happened there in those interactions between the teacher and his students? And what does it reveal about what the nature of the first Earth Day was?

Adam Rome 

Yeah, so that's one of my favorite stories. I'm glad it struck you too. And that's the sort of thing Gaylord Nelson himself didn't envision, you know, he didn't originally envision high schools doing anything. But, but at this high school in Santa Monica, the teacher was a nature lover. But all the kids in the ecology club, most of them weren't, they were just interested in math and science. And they thought this was a cool thing. The way to be less nerdy was also something that appealed to some of the civic minded people in the school. So they're, you know, student body president, cheerleaders. You know, they met the teacher and the students over lunch, initially, just once a week for months, to talk about, you know, what, what would in environmental teach-in at their school be. And they had the total support of the principal. And, and those discussions in themselves, some of the participants told me were empowering, you know, that they weren't the kids weren't used to having an adult, listen seriously to their ideas about what they might do about anything. Right. And, and then, you know, they had to start doing the planning and figure out who might speak and what the activities were going to be. And you know, whether any of it was going to be funny, even though these were deadly, serious subjects, they decided they wanted humor. And, you know, they had to decide whether to address politically difficult issues, like population growth, which meant talking about sex, which you weren't supposed to do without permission. And, you know, they do all this interesting stuff. And as it gets closer to April 22, then they start, you know, the key organizer start meeting with, with the teacher at home every day. And again, you know, they he didn't tell him what to do. He had some suggestions, but it was their deal. But he, he nurtured them, he gave them the sense that they could do it. And so many people told me that not just the high school kids that I talked about a lot of the college and graduate school organizers to that, that it was empowering to work on this, that they they came away with it with this can-do sense that anything was possible.

John Fiege 

It's so unusual. 

Adam Rome

Yeah. 

John Fiege 

To have an experience like that, that profound at that age. 

Adam Rome

Yeah. 

John Fiege 

So, you know, the institutional achievements in the wake of the first Earth Day are really remarkable. The formation of EPA and the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, all under a Republican administration, no less. But in 1990, just after climate change, became a widely publicized environmental concern. There was a 20th anniversary celebration of Earth Day. It was also a huge event with more professional planning, better funding, and a more focused message than in 1970. But it didn't lead to an environmental decade that confronted climate change or any other environmental issues. And as the first birthday had, as you write, can you talk a bit about Earth Day 1990. And what it reveals about how remarkable and achievement the first Earth Day was, and what lessons we might draw from those differences.

Adam Rome 

It's interesting. I often hesitate to talk about the personalities involved, but So Dennis Hayes, and he was the guy Dennis Hayes, who, who was the main force behind Earth Day 1990, the 20th anniversary. So, Dennis Hayes was was not Gaylord Nelson. And Denis Hayes, I think drew exactly the wrong lesson. And he's gone on to do incredibly interesting important things as an environmentalist. But the lesson that he drew was top down. And and so an Earth Day 1990 It had, you know, I don't remember the exact numbers, but let's say 20 or 30 times the budget of the first Earth Day, it had all these political consultants and Hollywood gurus and advertising mavens working pro bono, on their on their messaging and polling and tie in merchandise and getting celebrities involved. And, you know, so they made the mistake, I think of of hoping that they could just mobilize people. But mobilizing isn't organizing. And mobilizing isn't empowering. It doesn't take people new places, you know, and then you think about other you know, advertising isn't about teaching you anything, it's about getting you to buy, you know, something. Political messaging isn't about educating you; it's about getting you to vote for this guy or woman rather than that person. So, it's yes or no, you know, Earth Day, the original Earth Day was so much more complicated than that it left it up to millions of individuals to say, what does this mean to me, what am I going to do? It didn't try to marshal them all in one direction, or to enlist them into a preexisting cause. Earth Day 1990 Did Did those other things, it tried to get people to join groups that already existed, and they did. Environmental groups reached their new heights of membership in the wake of Earth Day 1990. And it certainly heightened the message that individuals what they consumed mattered. But I don't think, you know, when you go to a March, that's very powerful. But it's not necessarily life transforming, it's not right to change the way you think. And the same thing when you go into the voting booth. So, taking politics and marketing as your models, that was a mistake. And they got a lot of people involved way more even than the first Earth Day and they made it global. But they didn't understand that the deepest change comes from the empowerment, that's a much slower process and requires more give and take, you know, it's not just getting the message out, and then having people hear it and do something.

John Fiege 

I want to turn to your most recent work, which revolves around business and the environment. With much of your recent writing, you're asking whether it's possible to green capitalism, and if so, what does that look like? you frame the question this way:  "At one extreme critics of capitalism dismiss all corporate talk of sustainability as greenwashing as a way to distract people from the fundamental destructiveness of the system. At the other extreme, the boosters of green business take for granted that sustainability is the inevitable next stage of the evolution of the market. Neither view is historically grounded". Why not?

Adam Rome 

It's really definitional. So, if you can define capitalism, a variety ways, but some of the ways of defining capitalism make it just theoretically impossible that it could ever be green. So there, they don't they're not drawing on any historical data. It's a theoretical argument. The other argument, the booster argument, I'd say the historical record already clearly disproves. Capitalism is not just going to evolve, right, to a more sustainable thing. There are all kinds of reasons why, why the people that even that have tried the hardest to green, their businesses or their industries haven't been able to do it. So, if there's any chance of capitalism becoming green, the historical record, I would say so far, says it can only happen if there's powerful movement, a social movement, a political movement, that rewrites the rules that the change is what guides business. So that, that the default for business becomes doing the green thing rather than the exception.

John Fiege 

Right. Let's talk about a specific example. You write about DuPont. And, you know, at some point in the late 80s, early 90s, DuPont kind of decided to start to lead the way in terms of environmental sustainability. And you really asked the question of how far can the company realistically go and how much can they truly fulfill this idea of, of sustainability, can you tell a little bit about the story of what happened with DuPont and what you drew from that?

Adam Rome 

Sure. And so, it's 1989 that they have a new CEO, Edgar Willard. And he says, we need a new corporate environmentalism that's pretty much a phrase that he coined. And to think that they, they have to go in the phrase of the day beyond compliance. They can't just do what the law requires. That they they'll for all kinds of business reasons, they have to actually do better. They have to start thinking about how to green operations. And that's not just true for manufacturing firms, although it was manufacturers and particularly heavily polluting manufacturers that got the message first. So, I had already been thinking about what's the environmental impact of a company like DuPont, and how has it changed over time, and then I noticed that their CEO, Edgar Willard, becomes this national focal point, for an effort to try to create a corporate environmentalism and the next long serving CEO and board chairman of DuPont, Chad Holliday also becomes a national international leader in this movement. And for him, the key phrase was sustainable growth that he tries to envision to reorient the whole company toward some new areas that he foresaw as great needs if we were to become a more sustainable society. And both of them do real things that are, were hard. And in some cases, I would even say courageous. And they make dramatic improvements in certain ways. But in other ways, they totally fall short and the most egregious of their efforts that are non-efforts. Something that predated either of them that one of their iconic products at DuPont was Teflon —still is— and making Teflon involved a chemical usually just called C8, that they didn't make themselves three M made it and they bought it from 3M. But well before Willard comes into office. 3M begins to think C8 is not safe, or it could be hazardous in certain circumstances. They weren't DuPont. And DuPont has some serious internal debate about this. And they decide not to do anything differently than then. And and, and neither Edgar Willard nor Chad Holliday ever reconsiders that decision. In fact, they do the opposite when, when evidence of how dangerous it is to use C8 and and how C8 has escaped from their factory in West Virginia and is polluting the water and is polluting nearby land where they were dumping waste. They doubled down 3M eventually decides it's not going to make C8 anymore. And DuPont instead of finding an alternative builds their own C8 factory in North Carolina. And all of this is secret. This only comes out as a result of a miraculous series of circumstances, all of which could have easily not happened that allow an attorney Rob Billot to slowly build the evidence of how much DuPont knew, how great lengths they went to keep it secret, how they didn't make decisions that they easily could have made that wouldn't have even been that expensive, that could have avoided an environmental catastrophe. And the more interesting discovery in some way for me with DuPont was they they tried to create sustainable alternative to artificial fibers like polyester and nylon. And they tried to create a sustainable biofuel as an alternative to gasoline and for that matter, ethanol. And they put a huge amount of effort into it. And and they didn't get the results out of it, the financial results out of it that they hoped. And I think that's a key part of the puncturing of the balloon of the boosters, is that, you know, they make it sound like if people just had the will, they could create all these green new products and people would buy them and they'd make money. Green is Gold is the title of one book. It's not that simple. First of all, it's not always clear what is more sustainable product is and most companies don't have any expertise in thinking about this. So, they make mistakes but the market, the fundamental flaws of capitalism mean that greener products are always competing against things that are cheaper but dirtier

John Fiege 

right, and then the public absorbs the costs, right? Environmental cost.

Adam Rome 

Exactly. And, and some of those products can still find a niche, you know, like the Prius, or, you know, early on certain kinds of organic food. But a niche doesn't change the world, 

John Fiege 

Right

Adam Rome 

and it and it also doesn't make enough money for big multinationals like DuPont that are publicly listed corporations to satisfy the shareholders... Right, and the shareholders rebelled. So, DuPont doesn't exist anymore. And part of what the part of what the shareholders the activist shareholders were rebelling against was the R&D Enterprise, which, which is crucial to sustainability. If you have to only think three months ahead, you're not going to be developing a lot of sustainable products, the things that DuPont was trying to do took a decade or more. And that's hard, even even if it's just a standard product, but especially if it's something that's trying to anticipate what would really be greener, 10 years from now. But, you know, the market doesn't reward that it rewards quick and dirty returns, not long-term farsighted thinking.

John Fiege 

And you make this, this point that I think is really powerful that, you know, there, there are two different types of making business more sustainable, there are things like reducing waste, and being more efficient. And and using fewer materials, those things are all beneficial environmentally, they also make the cost of doing business less right there, they save money for the company. And companies have very enthusiastically taken that side of kind of eco thinking on and and often advertised how great they are for doing that. But there are other things that actually make the cost of doing business much higher, and things more difficult and more risky and less likely to to produce shareholder value. And those are the those are the things that companies haven't done well at all 

Adam Rome 

Right.

John Fiege 

I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that. And what you've seen with DuPont and other

Adam Rome 

Right, so those those win-wins, where it's environmentally better, and it's more profitable, are usually in the category of what's come to be called Eco efficiencies. And even those aren't always easy. That was another lesson for me and DuPont was Woolard pushes his scientists as researchers to find ways to reduce waste. And in their initial response is pushback. No, we can't do that. Are you crazy? If you know if we could do that we would have done it already. It's going to cost more or it's technically impossible. But a lot of times thinking outside the box, in fact, allowed these win-win solutions, these eco efficiencies. And sometimes the savings were gargantuan, really. 

John Fiege 

Right. 

Adam Rome 

And, and it's not all just in production processes. You know, Xerox, realized that it could take back copiers and use the parts in the copiers to quote remanufactured copiers. And that would save them a lot of money. And it was and then they realized it would save them even more if the copiers were designed from the beginning to be disassembled and reused like that. And that was, you know, hundreds and hundreds of million dollars a year of savings. But only, you know, someone had to prod them to do that. So, it takes leadership. But then there are all these harder things were in the current business model. They're not likely to to be as rewarding as the alternatives. And at the worst extreme, you know, there are incentives in the market right now, to make climate change worse, you know, there are lots of ways not just a fossil fuel, people can profit from some of the things that are going on, rather than trying to solve the problem. So, if your actual goal is a green economy, whether it's a capitalist one or any other kind of one, then the rules have to change fundamentally the way we understand what business is and what it does, and what its responsibilities are having to change fundamentally. Because we're never going to get to a sustainable economy. If some things pay, and some don't that are green

John Fiege 

Right

Adam Rome 

Everything has to be paid to be green, or we have to get to a system where that's not the standard judgment anymore.

John Fiege 

Yeah, yeah. You've also done some really fascinating work around fashion as a driver of consumption, environmental destruction. Could you talk a bit about the story of the Beaver, and kind of the the ascendant merchant class in Europe and the wide-ranging impacts of the fashion aspirations on on rivers, meadows, wetlands in North America, that kind of thing.

Adam Rome 

The reason fashion looms so large for me was you know, there's only so much that you can eat or drink. No matter how wealthy you are, you know, there's, there's a biological limit. And, and that's true for a lot of other things that we consume, but, but fashion creates this potentially unlimited demand, that, that if something goes out of style, and you're no longer willing to use it, even if it's perfectly functional in every other way, and then you buy something new, that's, that's an unbelievable demand on resources, to have, essentially insatiable appetites. And it started with clothing, and especially with the beaver hat, that became a fashion item in Europe, and then and then in the US. But in the 20th century, it's expanded to lots of other things, you know, your, your smartphone is a fashion item, Apple is a fashion company, in many ways, you know, cars became fashion items, and were sold on style, as much as anything else. And so many other things have become like that, that that's become a major form of marketing is to get you to be dissatisfied with what you have, because it no longer is cool, right, and then to junk it and get something else and, and, and that cycle is incredibly destructive, but it starts with beaver. The poor Beaver, you know, their pelt happened to be really good for making hats better than wool, which was the alternative, you know, it was easier to shape, and it was water resistant, and it was easier to dye in it. And it was more expensive. So, it also therefore was more of a status object. And, you know, at the beginnings of modern capitalism, the rising merchant class wanted to have a way of showing that they were important and, and having stylish attire, and especially stylish hats was part of it. And as a result, all the Beaver in Europe is wiped out except for the very far reaches of Siberia, then the New World, new to Europe, at least, is opened up to exploitation. And there's lots of beaver in the northern US and in Canada. And over the course of the centuries, the Beaver is nearly wiped out in North America. All to satisfy this never-ending demand for stylish new hats.

John Fiege 

It always struck me as kind of the perfect example of what environmental history is. Because not only did this fashion sense in Europe, originally, wipe out the Beaver for the most part in North America. But because beavers were no longer making dams, then it changed the dynamics of the rivers. 

Adam Rome 

Right.

John Fiege 

and it destroyed wetlands. And it it changed the dynamics of whether there were meadows or not. And this, this very lofty idea of fashion and what people thought of themselves, in a, in a distant land in Europe, had these very real and immediate environmental impacts on the landscape in North America. And that, to me, that seems to be such a perfect encapsulation of the power of what environmental history is combining those two things.

Adam Rome 

You're right, you know, that's part of the world of consumption, too, that's so dangerous is that where we consume can be half a world away...

John Fiege 

right 

Adam Rome 

...from where the impacts are the greatest impacts, and we have no way of knowing that. I mean, we've gotten better in the last couple of decades at trying to find ways to find that out. But, but it's still incredibly hard. And as the distance between producers and consumers, and even that's almost a totally outdated way to think about it. I mean, that you know, your your smartphone. Well, who's the producer that I mean? There's a zillion things in it. And most of them are made in different places. Th ey might be assembled in one place.

John Fiege 

Yeah, and lots of rare earths, they have to be mined from every corner of the earth.

Adam Rome 

Right? Exactly. So, it's, it's become very hard to be responsible as a consumer, you know, whereas 500 years ago, mostly people were still ordinary people still consuming things that were made close by. And they wouldn't know if there were really serious consequences of that.

John Fiege 

And that's something I've always thought about, you know, with the success of Earth Day, you know, you talk about during Earth Day, and the the legislation that came after Earth, they targeted specific pollutants and chemicals. And the reduction in those chemicals in the United States in the subsequent decades was dramatic, dropped, dropped 90% or 75%, or whatever, enormous, enormous progress. But at the same time, with a lot of that manufacturing and pollution being exported around the world, the overall emissions and pollution globally has gone up dramatically. And it continues to rise today. And in a way, you know, one of the contradictions of all this is, you know, the success of Earth Day in our success of cleaning up the environment in the United States, has allowed us to, to be ignorant and blind to to what has happened around the world as a result of our consumption here. And no longer is our consumption tied to the effects of that production. That, yeah, they're separated, they're separated geographically now, and you know, climate change, in some ways, is going to start to bring it back together, because everyone's going to be impacted by it. But anyway, you wrote an article called Can Capitalism ever be Green? You seem to be saying that there's a middle way when it comes to making our economy sustainable. So is there a middle way? And what does that look like? If there is?

Adam Rome 

So, my argument is partly pragmatic. What would convince people that you can't make capitalism green? If we really try hard and we fail, then a lot more people might be willing to say, okay, now we really have to think outside the box. What, what's the alternative? So, so I want people to really try their hardest, which we haven't come close to doing. 

John Fiege 

Right, for sure

Adam Rome 

But it has to be, and this is why I think it's so important for environmentalists to get out of their comfort zone and realize that they need to think about this as much as Yosemite. That you can't save capitalism from within the firm. You can't rely on enlightened leadership of companies, and there are some enlightened leaders of companies, right, but they can't do it, unless the rules change, and they can't change the rules themselves.

John Fiege 

Right, we can change the rules by voting, 

Adam Rome

Right, we can change the rules by voting, or by acting differently, as as, as citizens and other ways or as, you know, consumers-citizens, or we can create new legal tools, but but the rules of the market are set mostly outside the market. And and we need to think about what the rules are, that reward people for doing the right thing. And that's not easy to do. And it's even harder to get the the social movement and political power that would insist on that. But, and again, that speaks to a deep, deeper challenge for environmentalists, you know, the movement early on, when it was still mostly about saying no, could could be could could see itself as self-contained. But now that it's about trying to or should be building a sustainable society. There's no such thing as a sustainable society, that's an unjust society. Right. And, and, and so the movement that would be needed to check the powers that are causing all kinds of unsustainability in our society, not just environmental would have to be a much broader movement than an environmental movement. Right, you know, would have to be,

John Fiege 

which I think is is starting to happen. We are starting, we are starting to see, you know, anti-racism in environment and human rights and immigrant rights and LGBTQ plus writes, you know, all of it is seemingly starting to converge in some powerful way. 

Adam Rome 

Yeah, I think young people especially get this right that they understand that You know, I wish I had a better word for it, but that we need intersectional activism. And, and, and I think that's true. But again, I think even if you just start thinking again saying again and again, this is a sustainability movement now it's not an environmental movement that inherently forces you to challenge some of your assumptions about who's in and who's out, and who will care and who won't.

John Fiege 

Right. Yep. And, well, this is a giant question. But what do you feel like you've learned through your study of environmental history and through life in general about our relationship to the rest of nature,

Adam Rome 

You know, I, I, you know, I happen to discover the field at a time when I was trying to figure out how to be most socially useful, while also studying history. And I came to believe that this was the freshest, most exciting kind of history going. And I had to learn a lot of things that I didn't know anything about. And I had some dark moments when I was overwhelmed. I remember, you know, almost throwing up. And it is a grand challenge. And it's incredibly interesting intellectually, but it's also important. And because so many interesting people are thinking about it, it's constantly stimulating, it's a real community. So so, you know, and I, of course, part of that involves, as we've said, a number of times, rethinking our place in the larger world. But I actually, I actually think about that on a day-to-day basis, surprisingly little, you know, but at some level, one of the things that I've come to appreciate, I guess, through all my work is, you don't have to have the big answers, to do great things day to day. You know, right to see opportunities to improve things. I hadn't thought about this till you asked, but, but I don't wake up every day thinking how can I, you know, myself and how can our society get right with nature? That's, that's just in the background. Even though that's usually important, I'm really more day to day focused on, you know, what's some big aspect of that, that I can work on, that other people might might be also working on and might benefit from what I do. 

John Fiege 

That's great. And, and what have you learned about how we protect life on earth? You kind of changed your thought about that over time.

Adam Rome 

Probably, I guess that's the biggest thing is the sense that we have to outgrow the limits of the environmental movement. And, and, and we have to start thinking much much more about sustainable society. 

John Fiege 

That's inclusive of everything 

Adam Rome 

Yeah, and, but that's also involves creating something that doesn't exist rather than restoring something that we've wrecked or stopping something from getting wrecked. That's been wrecked, right at the moment.

John Fiege 

Which you can send to kind of exciting, utopian thinking too, you know, I was I've met some Sunrise Movement, folks last summer. And they were really keen on this. There's just like, we need to bring back utopian thinking we need to envision something that we've never seen before, because that's what we need. 

Adam Rome 

Right. I agree. That's, that's wonderful that you were hearing that from the Sunrise people because

John Fiege 

they give me a lot of hope.

Adam Rome 

Yeah. And the very name of their organization, obviously is, 

John Fiege 

yeah, brilliant, 

Adam Rome 

is brilliant. And so yeah. You know, what, what do we want is something that doesn't exist, yet, parts of it exist. And parts of it are close enough to existing that it's easy to imagine how they might exist, but other parts, we really have to stretch our imagination. And that that also, again, moves us well beyond the technological that's art. That's literature. That's film. You know, that's ethics. That's lots of things.

John Fiege 

Right? Well, I've asked you to bring a quotation to read that's been particularly meaningful on kind of your journey in life. If could you end the show by by reading what you brought and telling the story of its significance to you?

Adam Rome 

So, this is a line from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. It's in a chapter called Needless Havoc. And it's, it's, I mean, the whole book is so fabulous. But yep. And the whole book is full of these incredible questions. That that the more you think about them, the more profound you realize they are. And so, here's what she says, that I keep coming back to, and I also force my students to think about it. "The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized" And what I love about that, a couple of things, but but she, she's saying this is a twofold challenge. One is purely practical, are we going to survive? And the other is moral. Even if we survive, will we still have the right to call ourselves civilized? Will we still be proud of, of what we've done? And and I think, as we're trying to imagine what a sustainable society would be, you know, it clearly has to be one that doesn't destroy itself, but it also has to be one. That's moral. That's upstanding. That's, that's just right. And, and so she's pushing us to think about how to make sure that what we build is both

John Fiege 

right, and we can’t enforce environmental sustainability in some authoritarian way, because that would contradict everything else, we know of as, as moral and what we value.

Adam Rome 

And the word life is brilliant. Because it, it, it encompasses every aspect of human society, and then every other living thing. So even though she wasn't really thinking about social issues, you can take it that way. You know, we have to do right by all people, as well as all other living things. Right, we can't wage war in the same way that we can't wage war on nature, we can't dominate some people. And assume that that's going to be sustainable, just as we can't try to dominate nature and assume that it's going to be sustainable.

John Fiege 

Well, that was beautiful. And I'm, I'm so glad you ended with Rachel Carson, as you know, I I named my son, his middle name is Carson, after Rachel Carson. So, she is enormously important in my life. And you, you know, I knew about Rachel Carson, she played an important part of my life before I studied with you, but but then your work working with you in graduate school really reinforced her as really my guiding light through my life, really.

Adam Rome 

Well, thank you, and thank you for pushing me to find a quote. At first, I didn't think I would come up with one. But as soon as I thought about it, I said, No, no, no, no. There's that line from Rachel Carson that I think about over and over. And, you know, we need to answer that question the right way.

John Fiege 

Great. Well, thank you so much. This has been fabulous. Even though we talk all the time. This has been an amazing treat.

Adam Rome 

For me too John, I'm so thrilled again that that we're colleagues, not just in the grand scheme of things, but here at the University of Buffalo.

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Outro

John Fiege  

Thank you so much to Adam Rome. Go to our website at chrysalispodcast.org To see the quotation Adam read from Rachel Carson, and check out a list of his work, including the Bulldozer in the Countryside, The Genius of Earth Day, and the wonderful audible original lecture he did on the history of Earth Day.

Chrysalis is produced and edited by Gabriela Cordoba Vivas with music by Daniel Rodriguez Vivas. Design by Unai Reglero and mixing by Juan Garcia. Isabella Nurt is our social media producer and assistant editor, and Shubh Jain is our web developer and assistant editor.

If you enjoyed my conversation with Adam, please rate and review us on your favorite podcast platform. Contact me anytime at chrysalispodcast.org where you can also support the project, subscribe to our newsletter and join the conversation.


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