This project links the modern American environmental movement, typically thought to have its origins in the social upheaval of the 1970’s, with the earlier postwar period. I argue that the same domestic “turn” which characterized the expanding middle class’s movement toward the suburbs, automobile culture, and other hallmarks of the modern lifestyle paralleled a new belief that modern technology, armed with such innovations as the atomic bomb, had once and for all conquered—or “domesticated”—nature. This new perceived condition generated a powerful anxiety about the role of science in society which is reflected in the literature of the period, taking forms as diverse as cinematic fantasies of mutant insects taking ecological revenge on human cities, pedagogical texts which advised parents to help their children reconnect to the natural world, and wildly popular books and films which used modern photographic techniques to reveal the nebulous depths of the world’s oceans. Most importantly, this popular interest laid the groundwork for environmentalism to be understood as a matter of consumer choice and individual behavior.
This project engages at length the work of Rachel Carson, whose 1962 bestseller Silent Spring is often cited as the beginning of modern environmentalist thought, but uses Carson’s writing as a lens for reading early environmentalism in a variety of texts and genres. I also consult children’s texts such as Charlotte’s Web, childcare manuals, science fiction films and novels, popular science writing, fictional accounts of suburban life, contemporary social criticism, cartoons, and advertisements to understand, broadly, the dimensions of the environmental impulse. My work is driven by the assumption, garnered from social theorists such as Michel de Certeau, that readers’ consumption of these popular genres, the stuff of everyday life, not only gives vital insight into the ideas which govern historical change, but also, in subtle ways, helps to shape it.