The Great Environmental Awakening with Douglas Brinkley

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Show Notes

Don Boozer, the Literature Department Manager and Ohio Center for the Book Coordinator at Cleveland Public Library, steps in as Page Count’s guest host to interview author and historian Douglas Brinkley. During a discussion that covers the burning Cuyahoga River, the conservation policies of past American presidents, environmental activism, and his latest book, Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening, Brinkley sheds light on the history of U.S. environmentalism while offering hope for the future.

Douglas Brinkley is the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University in Houston, TX; a CNN Presidential Historian; a contributing editor at Vanity Fair; and a New York Times bestselling writer. He is the author, editor, or co-author of well over 30 books on American history including works examining the lives of Rosa Parks, Hunter S. Thompson, Henry Ford, Walter Cronkite, and a number of American Presidents. At least six of his books (so far) have been named New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Brinkley won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 2007 and is also a 2017 Grammy Award winner in the Large Jazz Ensemble category for producing the big band album Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom. His most recent book, published in November 2022, is Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening.

Photo credit: Moore Huffman

Mentioned in this episode:



Don Boozer (00:00):
The photo that Time Magazine used was actually from the 1952 fire of the Cuyahoga, not from the one that actually occurred in 1969.

Douglas Brinkley (00:08):
It was fake news!

Don Boozer (00:10):
<laugh> Exactly.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:14):
Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:19):
This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, book sellers, literary advocates and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the Novel BODY OF STARS. Today, I'm stepping away from the microphone, so Don Boozer, the Literature department manager, and Ohio Center for the Book Coordinator at Cleveland Public Library can take my place. You're about to hear his interview with author and historian Douglas Brinkley. They talk about everything from the history of the American conservation movements, the burning Cuyahoga River, how aspiring environmental activists can get involved without becoming overwhelmed. And of course, Brinkley's newest book, SILENT SPRING REVOLUTION. I'll be back hosting in two weeks, but for now, let's have Don take it away.

Don Boozer (01:08):
We're joined today by Douglas Brinkley. He is a professor at Rice University, a CNN Presidential Historian, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and a New York Times bestselling writer. He is the author, editor, or co-author of well over 30 books on American history, including works examining the lives of Rosa Parks, Hunter S. Thompson, Henry Ford, Water Cronkite, and a number of American Presidents. At least six of his books so far have been named New York Times "Notable Books of the Year" and he won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 2007 and is also a Grammy Award winner by the way. His most recent book just published in November of 2022 is Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening. Douglas Brinkley, welcome to Page Count.

Douglas Brinkley (01:55):
And well, it's a joy to be with you. Happy holidays to you.

Don Boozer (01:58):
Same to you. We always start out our episodes with the person explaining their connection to Ohio, so I was wondering if you'd like to give a little vignette on that.

Douglas Brinkley (02:07):
Of course, I was born in on December 14th, 1960 in Atlanta, but my mother and father, relocated to the Toledo area, specifically Perrysburg, Ohio when I was a boy, and that's where I grew up. And I have all of my eternal friendships and we have a class reunion coming up this spring. I don't want to tell you how many, but you could do the math probably. I just loved Perrysburg and that's what really got my interest in history. I would ride my bicycle around and look at historic sites, particularly Oliver Hazard Perry Memorial. I got deeply immersed in War of 1812 history. I would go to Fort Meig's park and study that. I would try to find the homes of people or where they were once stationed or lived like Mad Anthony Wayne, or the great novelist Theodore Dreiser who was in Maumee for a while.

Douglas Brinkley (03:04):
And then I even made a journey when I got my driver's license to a town Clyde, Ohio, where was the model for Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which remains one of my favorite books, maybe even my favorite. I've been kicking myself cause The New York Times recently interviewed me about books that I admire and I for some reason forgot to mention Winesburg, Ohio and Sherwood Anderson. I at one point read all of Anderson's works. I kind of hobby horsed him. And then being in Perrysburg, you know, weren't far from Wapakoneta and so I've written in my book AMERICAN MOONSHOT about how enthralled I was that local hometown boy Neil Armstrong, grew up down the road from me. It meant a lot to me. Later in life I got to do a official NASA oral history of Neil Armstrong and, you know, periodically I will evoke or write Ohio history into my books in one way or another.

Douglas Brinkley (04:04):
And my recent book that I'm here to talk about, SILENT SPRING REVOLUTION, I deal with Ohio, mainly from a crisis point of dealing with the dying of Lake Erie in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but also the Cuyahoga River Fire incident. How that triggered a new national consciousness to waterway protection and heroic figures like Carl Stokes, who, who was a mayor in Cleveland, first black mayor of a major American city, and really pioneered an ideas of what we call environmental justice or environmental racism today. And so, I'm very proud of Ohio. One day I always fantasize about having a summer home there. I've been looking in Waterville along the Maumee and, where I used to go bass fishing and the eagles have returned and I've been able to take my wife Anne and our kids' summers to Put-In-Bay where we get a golf cart and tool around. And so Ohio remains a pertinent part of my life. Also I did my undergraduate work at Ohio State University, THE Ohio State University.

Don Boozer (05:15):
Okay. Got to put the THE in there. <laugh>.

Douglas Brinkley (05:17):
I'm a Buckeye.

Don Boozer (05:19):
Well, that's great. You also talked in your preface about your active life outdoors, and it sounds like that, your growing up in Perrysburg definitely contributed to your love of the outdoors as well.

Douglas Brinkley (05:27):
Well, it was, you know, I would go on a bicycle and we would go to all sorts of parks, and with my friends, you know, we would go down the, not just the Maumee, but place called Oak Openings and we would also vacation and fish along Lake Erie, near Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and I just enjoyed being a kid of the Great Lakes. Even in my book right now, I write about the Great Lakes Protection Movement, where Lyndon Johnson was able to, and Nixon, as presidents were able to bring to fruition places like the Apostle Islands National Seashore or a National Lake Shore in Wisconsin, Twenty-two islands that are just spectacularly beautiful. Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan near Traverse City, Pictured Rock up on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Indiana Dunes, you know, near Gary, Indiana. And so I tell the backstory some of those great preservationist crusades of the post World War II era.

Don Boozer (06:31):
I will say that your book has definitely, brought up the urge to go and visit some of the national parks and all those sorts of places outdoors that you talk about so vividly. I do find it interesting that you said, SILENT SPRING REVOLUTION is actually the culmination of a trilogy that you started over a decade ago. And just to put it into some context, I did some math and all told, if you include the three books of the trilogy and your, THE QUIET WORLD about Alaska's wilderness adds up to over 3000 pages. And to put that into perspective for people, the Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language only has about 2,700 pages. So this is the, a monumental work in every sense of the word, but you've called it a true cornerstone of your work. You say that in the preface, and I'm curious how, why do you see it that way as you really a foundational part of your work?

Douglas Brinkley (07:18):
Well, you know, it morphs together this, particularly the trilogy, my two big interests. I teach at Rice University in Houston, Texas, professor there and my big classes are American Presidents classes and then I teach Environmental history. So in this trilogy, let's call it, and leaving the Alaska book as an outlier of sorts, the trilogy deals with presidents and conservation in the environment. The first one, THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR, was on how Theodore Roosevelt saved 234 million acres of wild America as our conservation president from 1901 to 1909. How he saved the Grand Canyon from being mined for zinc, asbestos, and copper and other minerals by using executive muscles saying, do not touch it, God has made it, you only mar it. He created today's modern U.S. Forest Service. He was the progenitor of our National Wildlife Refuge system. We have 550 National Wildlife Refuges and Theodore Roosevelt got it going with the first 51, some like the Yukon Delta, the size of West Virginia.

Douglas Brinkley (08:34):
It's in Alaska, the Yukon Delta. And this is what's allowed all of our species to survive. They have places to live, to thrive, to reproduce, to be unmolested. At the same time it allows game and for hunting to be rejuvenated and many of the best conservationists are hunters. And then I deal with the fishing world and how important that is to what it means to be an American from TR's generation. That first wave, the second wave dealing with presidents is a book I did called RIGHTFUL HERITAGE: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND THE LAND OF AMERICA. You know, it really tells about how he was an avid bird watcher and wherever FDR was in life, when he had to fill out that line, what is your occupation? He would put tree farmer. <laugh> His whole farm there along the Hudson River in New York was about scientific forestry.

Douglas Brinkley (09:31):
He was remarkable at it. And he, you know, different manifestations of his presidency, we credit him for creating and get a load of this number: eight hundred state parks. It's hard to wrap your mind,

Don Boozer (09:46):

Douglas Brinkley (09:47):
Eight hundred state parks. But, you know, FDR would take, during the Great Depression, the federal government would buy land for cheap, for desperate farmers and rehabilitate westlands. FDR built the Atlantic Flyway and the Central Flyway. So if you're a bird watcher in Ohio, you owe FDR for being able to have that continued enjoyment in your life. And then further, you know, he went and saved all these national parks, places like the Everglades and great Smoky Mountains. On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, while our soldiers were landing on the beaches of Normandy, he established Big Bend National Park. He moved military bases away that were doing testing to protect the trumpeter swan.

Douglas Brinkley (10:34):
He saved the Olympic forest in Washington state, the Channel Islands in California, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Isle Royale up in Michigan. It's endless. So if you take the two Roosevelts and then get a Rand McNally map doing what you did with the Webster Dictionary in my word count, if you just grab a map and put in green the places both Roosevelt saved, it would dominate the American map, particularly in the West. And then he had the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was very active in Ohio. You know, this was unemployed men and women, which were called the CCC with less notoriety, but they would be paid a dollar today to do tree replanting's, restock ponds with fish, beautify our recreational areas. From 1933 to 1945, or actually to 1942, when the CCC went defunct, these work relief programs planted nearly three billion trees, billion talking about eight hundred state park, three billion trees you're getting.

Don Boozer (11:43):

Douglas Brinkley (11:43):
The scope of FDR and this book that I've just done is presidential history and environmental history again, but it didn't have a Roosevelt, it didn't have one figure. I mean, Theodore Roosevelt wrote thirty-seven books, many of them about his outdoors adventures and 150,000 letters. I mean, he was a professional. His first book was published as an undergraduate at Harvard - Theodore Roosevelt called THE SUMMER BIRDS OF THE ADIRONDACKS. And so for a historian, this was a gold mine. You write on TR, there's so much beautiful writing about nature and then you deal with FDR and not only did he write about the natural world from time to time. When he went to the gala Galápagos Islands, he kept a great diary. But you know, his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, would write these "My Day" columns. Much of them have kind of a garden club, national Audubon Society, a variety of columns about the natural world.

Douglas Brinkley (12:39):
I didn't have that for my third wave John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon didn't actively write essays about the natural world. And hence, the two women emerged in my third volume as the main stars or two of the main ones. Rachel Carson, the author of the 1962 book, SILENT SPRING, and Lady Bird Johnson, who grew up on the Texas, Louisiana border around Caddo Lake and became enamored with the big thicket ecosystem. And her whole life, she wrote beautifully about flora and fauna and her diaries are really epic. Things to tap into on nature because his first lady, she promoted beautification, no billboards on highways, she was a progenitor of creating in 1968, two of my favorite national parks, Redwood in California and the North Cascades in Washington state. And so this book dealt with Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon heavily, but I also had a supporting cast. Those are the three waves of environmental movements in the United States.

Douglas Brinkley (13:51):
And I underlined movement, heavy. These were big deals and we could talk about it. We're waiting now for the fourth wave, which would be climate action, climate change, and would have to be global in conception. And it's proving hard. It's a race to get off fossil fuel emissions or to reform some of our habits with the use of plastics or agricultural runoff. I mean, Lake Erie's big enemy is fertilizers from agriculture, hog farms, poisoning rivers and lakes. So until you get a people's movement, everybody's waiting, well who's the next FDR or TR, this book is a better answer. That the sixties and seventies swelled from the bottom up. It came from all sorts of people, public scientists warning about atomic fallout. People saying that DDT needed to be banned because it was making humans sick and making charismatic species like the bald eagle go extinct. So there was a, you know, a lot to be learned of this book for people today that want to get involved with how to save the planet from ruin.

Don Boozer (15:02):
Your book does a really good job. And the whole trilogy does a really good job of showing that these things just didn't happen by chance. I mean there was a concerted effort to save the landscape and to preserve the wild outdoors. I think so many times people this sort of, you know, you go for a walk in the woods or go to a national park, it's like, oh, it's always been this way. It was a, you know, fait accompli, but not at all. It's so many people and I think your books do a really good job of really showing both the grassroots efforts as well as the executive and administrative and, and you know, the big people in history so to speak, that have contributed to what we have now.

Douglas Brinkley (15:37):
And my book got a little longer cause I wanted to begin it with John F. Kennedy. I've had enough of writer with Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. But you know, history is a mysterious business. I started digging into it and it really began in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The modern environmental movement was born when those blast went off and we all celebrated victory over Japan and the war ended. And, you know, America had a consumer driven society, no longer was gasoline or tires rationed. We had a wild spending spree in the forties and fifties. And it was only then that scientists were starting to see that some of the things that were approved quickly, on a hurry up wartime footing, actually could have a detrimental effect to ecology and human life. And so I had to start it in 45 in that sense. And talk about the John the Baptist figures of the environmental movement in the 19-late forties and fifties.

Douglas Brinkley (16:40):
People like Aldo Leopold who wrote A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC or William O. Douglas, Supreme Court Justice, who became a Buddhist after hiking the Himalaya Mountains and brought some of Eastern philosophy into his environmental law. To Barry Commoner, who was a professor of science and biology at Washington University in St. Louis. And was studying teeth and how radiation were making people sick. And even people like Walt Disney starting to make movies where charismatic animals were the stars. A Disney on wolves or bears and coyotes. I mean, if you were a rancher in America, if you saw a coyote, you shoot it. But when Disney shows them as you know, little pups, you know, growing up he turned some young people into being activists for endangered species protection. The list is long, I could go on. Bottom line is Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, what good does it do for me to integrate the lunch counter at Greensboro, North Carolina if when I'm served the milk is contaminated with strontium-90, a contaminant from the Nevada test bombs that we are blowing up.

Douglas Brinkley (17:51):
We blew up the United States from 1945 to 1991. We had detonated 1,054 nuclear or hydrogen bombs in our country in the atmosphere underwater or underground. And so, you know, this is the Cold War feeling here. We talk about the Cold War a lot with beating Russia, going in the moon, Vietnam War, civil rights movement and my book's trying to say, you know, the environmental movement pulled a lot of these strands together in the 1960s and 70s. And all of my three presidents, if I'm a professor grading their records, they're all A or A- presidents. They did elevate environment to the top of the National Agenda.

Don Boozer (18:38):
Yeah, I thought it was very interesting cause I don't think a lot of people think of Richard Nixon as being, you know, environmental president per se. And you talk about the intricacies in that characterization. But the fact that it was him who did the EPA and the other environmental legislation is that's a legacy there.

Douglas Brinkley (18:53):
It's a great legacy for Nixon and it came by accident. He ran for the presidency in 1968. It was a year with a lot of environmental ferment going on. Edward Abbey that year published DESERT SOLITAIRE, Stewart Brand wrote the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG, which has become the favorite book of people like Steve Jobs and others from the Silicon Valley world. And there was a real new consciousness of Native American or Indigenous people's land stewardship principles. In that climate Nixon, not known to be an environmentalist, won the presidency, but he's only president a few days, when you have the Santa Barbara oil spill. And this was a heinous event to witness on television because in 1967, CBS and NBC and the like started doing the nightly news in color, it was black and white all the way to '67. And now early '69, Nixon's only in the White House a few days.

Douglas Brinkley (19:55):
You're seeing the most beautiful, really it's paradise there at Santa Barbara on the ocean and bright blue waters, all with goo and sludge and seeing birds unable to take flight and talking about dead marine mammals and all of the residents along the California coast, understandably were deeply concerned. And Nixon came from California and he knew a lot of these Republican donors who lived on the ocean, who now were screaming NIMBY environmentalists, "not in my backyard", am I going to have oil sludge. That woke Nixon up. And then Nixon had to confront the Time Magazine coverage in particular of that Cuyahoga River catching fire. It had caught fire many times before and nobody made too much of a deal out of it. But once Time Magazine, and this was the heyday when Time was very powerful, once Time did this searing expose on what's happening to Cleveland and the Great Lakes and particularly the Cuyahoga River, Nixon woke up. I mean you couldn't get reelected if you didn't have Ohio, if you're Nixon and California, his home state.

Douglas Brinkley (21:05):
And he decided that I'm going to be an environmental president. I'm going to out green or out environment the Democrats. And meanwhile the Democrats had a long list of people that were protesting the Vietnam War. Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts, Frank Church of Idaho, Eugene McCarthy, Minnesota. Hubert Humphrey was criticizing now Nixon somewhat about the war, and particularly Ed Muskie of Maine. And the one Democrat who wasn't criticizing Nixon's Vietnam was Senator Scoop Jackson, Henry M. Jackson, of Washington State. And it's through Jackson and John Ehrlichman, Nixon's White House aide, that they cobbled together in the fall of 1969 in response to Santa Barbara and Cuyahoga, really what's known as NEPA. Nobody listening to this is going to be thrilled to hear an acronym like NEPA, but it stands for the National Environmental Policy Act. And I promise you it affects all of our lives because NEPA, signed by Nixon on January 1st, 1970 at the Western White House in San Clemente, California.

Douglas Brinkley (22:17):
NEPA says that anybody who constructs anything has to have an environmental impact statement. How is your new interstate going to affect the environment? How is your new grocery store going to affect the environment? And by nature, by forcing everybody that's going to build anything to offer an environmental impact statement, it gave birth to environmental law. So today people studying at Ohio State or you know, Case Western or the like, many become environmental lawyers cause it's a robust business. Some people in environmental law today might become a, an activist about climate or they might be, you know, on water land rights issues. But there's another group that works for corporations, that works for real estate developers, that works for the extraction industry, that works for fracking industry because you've got to constantly, if you're going to frack, what's the environmental impact? And that birth of environmental law out of NEPA is game changing.

Douglas Brinkley (23:16):
We're living on it right now. Then Nixon had to grapple in 1970 with Earth Day, April 22nd, '70. And he tried to stay on top of that. He didn't want to be the boogeyman of Earth Day. So he planted a tree with Pat Nixon at the White House and he did some domestic surveillance with the FBI on some of these student groups that were creating Earth Day. But it turned out to be a massive, some people, people call it the biggest protest, it was called a Teach-In in world history. It was so successful that Nixon really understood and now you're doing a new constitutional amendment, young people getting to vote and I now have got to take all of the aspects of the environment and pull them into a new agency. And the summer of 1970, Nixon establishes the Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA, National Oceanographic and you know, Atmospheric Studies and that combo of those two are big. We're living in that world today of those two.

Don Boozer (24:21):
Yeah, I thought you did a really nice job of putting the Cuyahoga River fire in historical context in your book cause I didn't realize that historically speaking it was a fairly "minor" accident. "Minor" in quotes. I thought it was great that you included the fact that the photo that Time Magazine used was actually from the 1952 fire of the Cuyahoga and not from the one that actually occurred in 1969. That just sort of shows you that it happened so many times before, but the fact that they were able to find a photo that they used even sensationalized the fire is interesting.

Douglas Brinkley (24:53):
It was fake news

Don Boozer (24:55):
<laugh> Exactly.

Douglas Brinkley (24:56):
Photo was from a different era and so they just took it cause it was dramatic looking and ran with it. So in a weird strange way, the history changed in America because of that Time story. And it was a photo that was of a previous Cuyahoga on fire.

Don Boozer (25:12):
Yeah, I noted it caught fire 13 times and it started in 1868. So that is a long stretch of a very dirty river. I did want to point out that if people are able to read your book, you have a photo in there from the Cleveland Reporter from 1969 that has his hand that he dipped into the river and it is, it is a little bit disgusting, so I can certainly understand the uproar.

Douglas Brinkley (25:33):
And Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall of this era came to Ohio before the fire and saw how dirty Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga was. It was just unregulated industrial debris, toxins. There was nobody stopping what was going into that river. And you know, this is a period when many people thought Lake Erie had died. Our great novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote Slaughterhouse, you know, and Breakfast of Champions and other great novels, Vonnegut famously said, Lake Erie is filled with human excrement and Clorox bottles. It's a dumping zone. And yet as anybody in Ohio knows, the lake is one of the great fishing areas in the planet because it's the most shallow of the Great Lakes, it's incredibly inducive for the fishing industry. And Ohio makes a lot of money on outdoor recreational along Lake Erie. I mean, it's not just Cedar Point that I mentioned, but you know, SeaWorld had come in, you know, coming in there to be part of that recreation along Ohio.

Douglas Brinkley (26:35):
Well the fishing industry is a big deal. And so out of it came a movement to clean the lake. I mean, Dr. Seuss even wrote about how smelly Lake Erie was and it become a symbol of disgust. And I've always disliked that feeling that people have, like if you say I'm going to Lake Erie, they still have a stigma against it. But you know, you go out to the Catawba and out into the Bass Islands in Lake Erie and some of the prettiest places in North America, yet the lake has been denigrated in the public consciousness due to its, the misuse of the waterways in that post World War II era.

Don Boozer (27:16):
I did think it was interesting that I read that Dr. Seuss, and I think it was even there that after the 1986, the editions of the Lorax took out that reference to Lake Erie. So he finally came around.

Douglas Brinkley (27:27):
Well Dr. Seuss. A group of Ohio students wrote him and gave him some statistics that his book, which may have been right when he wrote it, that the lake had been rehabilitated. There was a massive environmental recovery effort for Lake Erie and that yet, the Lorax there, it's going to be stuck forever that Lake Erie is a really dirty place. To my surprise, Dr. Seuss said, I'm going to change that, thank you for all the good environmental work you're doing in Ohio. And he did make a tweak in that classic book.

Don Boozer (28:01):
That is great. We're talking about the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie and so that of course moves us right to Cleveland itself and with the mayor Carl Stokes. And you mentioned in the book that he wasn't necessarily an environmentalist per se, but he knew that the way that you phrase it is that to Stokes, clean water and breathable air were central to environmental justice, public health and future downtown redevelopment. That whole idea of environmental justice and environmental racism I think is a really important point in the book that you hit.

Douglas Brinkley (28:28):
Well, you know, we're all looking for when did that movement environmental justice, I mean, what what's the trigger point? I mean, one could argue that forever poor neighborhoods have been dumping zones for toxic debris. But in the modern American context it really happened over, Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers out in California protesting, in their case pesticides, DDT over the agricultural fields, over the Imperial Valley, and Coachella Valley and San Joaquin Valley and the like. And so I'd say they're public saying, we're getting sick from your sprays. Chavez is big. Martin Luther King died at a sanitation strike in Memphis talking about how if you were poor and black in the United States, you were dealing with the asbestos on the wall, lead paint, not proper sanitation or garbage pickups. Using local drainage canals or ponds, that if you fell in it, you'd have to be hospitalized.

Douglas Brinkley (29:32):
It was so, so bad for human beings. And Carl Stokes fell in, in Ohio. He was an early pioneer in recognizing as mayor that it isn't just about getting Lake Erie clean or the Cuyahoga River clean. It's in the end all about making sure that the entire city had clean running water. Like you don't have a Flint water crisis or a Houston water crisis. So one in 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi that nobody wants brown coming out of their faucets. And children needed to be able to go into playgrounds and not be dealing with dump sites, waste sites. I mean we didn't have super fun 'til 1980, which means that we were dumping all of our modern chemical debris and do some hotspots. Some was being buried in Nevada. The worst was Cancer Alley in Louisiana from New Orleans to Baton Rouge area, but also Ohio, up around Cleveland area and Detroit.

Douglas Brinkley (30:33):
These were hotspots of problems. Love Canal up by Niagara Falls up in upstate New York. And Stokes not just as mayor, but you know, there became, by 1971, the birth of the Black caucus and the point of the black caucus was African Americans in Congress kind of sticking together on issues that united, they would have more political power and they made environmental justice a cornerstone of their stances. And then you have David Brower of the Sierra Club who I write about in my book, who's most famous in history for, you know, publishing Ansel Adams beautiful landscape, photographs of national parks or Sierra Club calendars and all. Well, he left the Sierra Club in 1969 and founded a group called Friends of the Earth and they became real watchdogs on what we call environmental justice today. The point being ideal with this throughout my narrative.

Don Boozer (31:34):
Oh, definitely. Yeah. And I did think it was, you mentioned the Black Caucus and Congress and you really bring home the fact that there is a history of bipartisan support for environmental policy up until around 1980. So the fact that that's not necessarily always the case now is, is a little, daunting at times. I did want to ask you about, you use Woody Guthrie's description of his folk music to say that you consider your book to be a "hope machine". And I'm wondering if you could say what gives you optimism and I guess, are you optimistic? <laugh>

Douglas Brinkley (32:03):
Well, the thing I've learned from my elders, whether they're in Native American culture, people thinking about land stewardship, whether it's somebody like David Brower with the Sierra Club or William O. Douglas, is you've got to have fun when you're fighting an environmental movement, otherwise you're going to be depressed. And when you're depressed you're not functioning and it's not healthy. So when young people want to look at climate crisis today, they got to get upbeat about it and they may not be able to be just getting rid of fossil fuels overnight. The best indicator I see of weaning off of them is the state of California and Washington, which by 2035 not going to allow automobiles to be sold there that are run on fossil fuels. So you're starting to see the technology moving very strongly. We've recently had reports of, you know, new ways to use nuclear energy as a potential safe energy source. Lot going on.

Douglas Brinkley (33:02):
But I tell young people, don't get ill, don't get sick, be hopeful and sometimes pick a local place. And let me give you an example. We've been talking about the Cuyahoga River. Well it did get clean, I tell you how Dr. Seuss changed Lake Erie and now Cuyahoga River is a National Heritage River and it's part of a national park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And it's spectacular the work that grassroots activists did to reclaim some of the beauty of Northern Ohio. And so it can be done, and there's an example right in Cleveland right there of many people that are watching this may be living somewhere interspersed with the park in their backyard in one way or another. So, is it perfect? No, but it just shows you that even today's most toxic places can be converted into something special. But your bigger point you made, I think was when you mentioned Republicans, you know, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed 92 to nothing in the Senate.

Don Boozer (34:05):
That's amazing.

Douglas Brinkley (34:06):
By '73, everybody was on the environmental movement. That's what I mean. And those senators are transactional. They'll flip flop either way. What they were doing is constituent demands. The American public said, we want to save the bald eagle, we want to save falcons, we want to save the condor and walrus and manatee and you know, alligators. And there was a demand and Congress listened to the people. So I think you need a people's history really of environmental activism that you can do all sorts of things. And if anybody who cares about the environment would just pick one place and be a custodian of it, just become a friend of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park or a friend of a conservancy or join a garden club or join, you know, Wildlife Federation, if you're a hunter. Just become active with one hunk of it. Because when the big bell rings, when there is a movement that grows in this country, you'll already be one of the foot soldiers.

Don Boozer (35:09):
That's a really good point to not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, but they're really focus on one thing that you can really get your arms around, so to speak.

Douglas Brinkley (35:18):
And we have to stop, I think, uh, shaming people. I think one of the things that the left does wrong is they try to shame people for their carbon imprint. Most people are just trying to put gifts around a tree this holiday season and pay their bills. And we can barely balance checkbooks and keep ourselves financially solvent, let alone detailing what my carbon footprint is. And I think if you're rich or wealthy, you can go buy a Tesla, you can go have it in your garage and feel good about yourself. But bottom line is we're still a country run on gasoline. And I don't think you have to feel bad about that. You don't want to become cynical about alternative energy either, that you have to say, look, I'm excited for the day when it comes that we can have a real energy source that's not as negative as cold, for example.

Douglas Brinkley (36:09):
And so you just want to keep that attitude and not beat up on yourself. And then ask yourself, what place in the natural world do you want to be the steward of? It might be a, you know, a wild and scenic river, a little Miami or something. It could be a uh, Hocking Hills Park. It could be, I mean, pick one and just join it. It might be $20 a year. Get the newsletter, stay engaged, make sure that they're not being overrun by commercial interest or people that are trying to strip away the integrity of those parks and rivers. Because we need them forever for our children's children. Not just one person's quick gouge.

Don Boozer (36:49):
We are so fortunate in Ohio to have so many lovely outdoor spaces. You mentioned Hocking Hills and all that. I have to sort of remind myself from time to time that the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is in the same system as Yosemite and those other ones. So, we are very fortunate to have a national park literally in our backyard in Ohio. And the other, the wildlife refuge areas are just wonderful as well. But the state parks and, and local parks too, were just very fortunate in Ohio to have all of that.

Douglas Brinkley (37:13):
I was a judge for the duck stamp ceremony, which they had at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge where every year people design ducks for a stamp that will be used as that money will then go into a conservation fund. And it's wonderful to see all the artists that come up with these incredible duck ones and the fact that it was held at Ottawa. Because it's just an amazing place for bird watching. And Ohio makes a lot of money on birders. People come from all over to Birdwatch in Ohio and some people will mock it. What's a bird watcher? Really important. Theodore Roosevelt used to say bird watching was the great quality for soldiers in the army because it would teach you to be quiet, to listen, to identify the slightest variation in bird song. And you built a kind of hearing that would allow you to be a better soldier by being able to identify when is a bird in flight flying a certain way, does that mean they're being flushed out by marching soldiers? And he wrote about it at great length. It's a great skill because in a very noisy, busy, speedy world, it gives you that ability of just contemplation and quiet focus, which we all need to kind of calmer, hyperactive minds down.

Don Boozer (38:29):
That's exactly right. That's very good advice. I wanted to just switch gears just slightly in the little remaining time that we have left. We often talk to, fiction writers on the podcast, but I was wondering if you could just briefly talk about your process and your research and your writing and how you've sustained, you know, your work over this trilogy for the last over ten years and just give us a behind the scenes look, if you will.

Douglas Brinkley (38:52):
Well, once I locked onto writing THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR and the book did really well, it hit like number four on the New York Times bestseller list. Even though it was a fact book page wise, it kind of spurred me on the public response, the letters I've got. And I realized that every town in Ohio has a group of conservation voters, people that care. There's so many Americans that care about the outdoor world. And I realized that we needed to take that history of this activism to save America the beautiful really seriously. And there was an opening because nobody had done it before. And so I embarked upon it and it's been hard. I mean, it's a lot of hours, a lot of work, but also a lot of joy of getting to visit many of the parks and places. I mean, I'm writing in this book how John F. Kennedy saved Cape Cod National Seashore.

Douglas Brinkley (39:46):
And you know, I spent a summer in Cape Cod or in the summer I go up into the Russian River and the Redwoods of California right next to Point Reyes National Seashore, that was saved by John F. Kennedy. I'm in Texas right now, Austin. And our family goes down to Port Aranses, which is the gateway town to Padre Island National Seashore, which Kennedy protected and is our great sea turtle incubator really in the United States. So I can go on and on in such a fashion. It's been great fun getting to visit all these places, that you're writing about, but it was exhausting and hard and I'm glad that this book, SILENT SPRING REVOLUTION is being received so well. And I feel like I did what I set out to do.

Don Boozer (40:31):
I will mention that actually went to the bookstore to pick up a copy of your book and they found it on the shelf and they picked it up and I said, oh, that's a, that's a big one. He's like, could it be any other size from Douglas Brinkley? So <laugh>.

Douglas Brinkley (40:42):
One of the problems with books on environment is like I'm writing presidential history and what Theodore Roosevelt said is the single most important role of a president. But people will always put your books under nature and environment, not in with presidential history. And it's just, someday, fifty years from now, as the planet shrunk, the rainforest are gone, as the glaciers have melted, people will see that you have to take this as a really serious issue. It's everything, everything is environmental in the end. And we forget that someday people are going to be hungering for where you can find clean air or clean water or find wilderness areas that haven't been trampled by humans. It's a dwindling resource. So I take the books I'm doing as a kind of pioneering on this topic for the general public. And because if you don't claim that history, it's hard to move forward.

Douglas Brinkley (41:40):
And it's easy to go do a three hundred page book on Abraham Lincoln, how he saved democracy just to make money and hit a bestseller list. I could do that, but I take my role as a scholar and as an American citizen and as a father more seriously than that, that I want to do books that really are researched, offer something new that really matter. I mean history, you have to study. It's not just an entertainment. I went and saw Avatar last night with my daughter and I love it. It's an entertainment with an environmental theme, but you know, really understanding how our sewage treatment plants work in the United States. What is going on with nuclear energy? How do we protect the great lakes from algae or phosphates or, these are really big and important issues. And unfortunately people only think about it when they turn on their faucet and it's brown water.

Douglas Brinkley (42:38):
But we have a soldiers of the natural world and U.S. Fish and Wildlife and state parks and Department of Agriculture and on and on that are out there fighting every day, as surely as our combat troops are deployed around the world. They're trying to make sure that, you know, New York City doesn't get contaminated water and people die.

Don Boozer (43:00):

Douglas Brinkley (43:00):
We're having to really protect our resources right now in a very serious way. So I take what I'm doing by having fun with it. It's important, but I also, there is a kind of wake up people side to it all.

Don Boozer (43:14):
Exactly. Now I realized your plate is full, but I was going to ask you, I know with AMERICAN MOONSHOT you came out with a young person's edition. Do you see anything, any possibility in the future of trying to condense some of that environmental history?

Douglas Brinkley (43:27):
I'm going to do one for young people down the line. I'm hoping to get that done. You know, again, it's the book world.

Don Boozer (43:32):
No pressure, no pressure.

Douglas Brinkley (43:34):
No. I'd like to do that.

Don Boozer (43:35):
That's great. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. I greatly enjoyed this conversation. Thank you very much for joining us and have a great day.

Douglas Brinkley (43:45):
Thank you.

Laura Maylene Walter (43:47):
Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcast. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at, follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.

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