Postwar Consumer Capitalism
and the Environment

Earth, Wind, and Fire:
Nature and History in America

From Industrial to Consumer Capitalism

  New consumer goods in the 1920s

­ Automobiles, refrigerators, electric mixers, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, water heaters

­ First products made from nonbiodegradable synthetic materials: cellophane and Bakelite

  Problem of durable goods

­ 1924: planned obsolescence (light bulbs)

­ 1924: regular changes in styles and features (GM’s automobiles)

­ 1920s: disposable products (safety razors)

­ 1924: White Castle, the first fast food restaurant

  Advertising is the key to selling sex, status, and self-gratification

­ Movies, mass media, national radio

  Consumer capitalism speeds transfer of money, increasing income

Consumer Capitalism and Waste

Postwar Air Pollution Crisis    

  Donora, Pennsylvania

­ Halloween 1948

­ 21 die

­ One-third of city ill

London’s “Killer Fog”

  December 1952: 4000 dead

Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River burns



Energy Transition: from coal to petroleum

Rise in demand for oil

  Texas and Pennsylvania: gushers

  Oily sheen on land, streams, forests

  Venting & loss of cheap natural gas

­ 1922-34 1,250,000,000 cubic feet/day

­ 1950s: 1/2 of all gas burned at wellhead

Postwar development

  Prosperity fuels consumerism

­ FHA & GI Bill fuel urban sprawl

­ Cheap, inefficient housing

­ Flooding, erosion

­ Septic tank pollution

­ Freeways, interstate highways

­ Era of automobile

­ Cities rip up mass transit tracks, buy buses

Urban Sprawl: Levittown, Long Island, N.Y.

Urban Sprawl

The Good News

  Coal smoke declines after 1950

­ RRs switch to diesel

­ Power plants to natural gas

Now the bad news

  New synthetics put worse chemicals into air

  Automobile transforms American environment

­ Air pollution, roads, urban sprawl

­ High compression engines require leaded gasoline, 1920s

  Cars on leaded gas pass factories as polluters

­ Smog noticed, LA, 1943;  traced to autos, 1957

­ Surgeon General: air pollution & lung cancer, 1959

  Los Angeles County: alert system, 1955

New Hazard: Supertanker Oil Spills

  Several major oil spills in 1967

­ Torrey Canyon disaster: first supertanker spill

Santa Barbara Oil Spill

  Oil well blowout, Santa Barbara Channel, 1969

­ 235,000 gal. over coastline, 800 sq.mi. of ocean

­ Kills 1000s of birds & animals, several grey whales


Postwar Water pollution

  New chemicals & synthetics

­ Synthetic fibers

­ Aluminum & plastics

­ Inorganic fertilizer

­ Pesticides & herbicides

­ Use more energy (oil) to produce

­ Produce more durable wastes

­ Detergents, not soap

A Throwaway Society

  Rise of fast food: McDonald’s

­ Disposable food packaging

­ Cans replace returnable bottles

  1960: disposable styrene cups

  By 1970, landfills are overflowing

Atomic weapons

  Building the bomb

­ Oak Ridge, TN; Hanford, WA; Los Alamos, NM

  Atomic Energy Commission

­ Atomic atmospheric testing, 1945–63

  Barry Commoner, Washington U. biologist

­ 1953 Troy, NY, incident vs. AEC secrecy

­ Committee for Nuclear Information; Science and Citizen

­ Baby Tooth Project: strontium-90 and milk

Atoms for peace

  Getting public support

  Promoting peaceful uses of the atom

­ Clean power, “too cheap to meter”

­ Late 1950s: First civilian nuclear power reactors

­ Trust science to solve problems