Archives Experience Newsletter - April 20, 2021

  • Earth Day 2021

On Thursday we mark the 51st observance of Earth Day, a day aimed at galvanizing the public to take action to clean up the planet. Launched in 1970 in the U.S., mostly by young people, the movement went global in 1990. The Earth Day organization now claims that one billion people in more than 190 countries have taken part in Earth Day. The same year, President Richard Nixon committed government resources to the problem with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order. This federal institution works to protect people and the environment from health risks.

The environment and climate change continue to be some of the most important and passionate issues for the Millennial and GenZ generations. Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops help clean up their neighborhoods and cities. Communities adopt highways and plant trees. Hybrid and electric cars dominate auto sales and bike lanes are popping up on nearly every street. Recycling bins abound. Whether it’s Earth Day or any day, for more than 50 years, citizens have added their individual contributions to the collective effort. This week, we look back at both environmental tragedies and triumphs documented in the National Archives.


Patrick Madden
Executive Director
National Archives Foundation


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In 1971, the EPA created the DOCUMERICA Project,
hiring freelance photographers to document
environmental problems, EPA activities, and everyday
life across the United States. Not all the
photographers chose to take pictures of environmental
issues, but many of them did. Bruce McAllister took

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this shot of rusting cars in a polluted
pond. Leroy Woodson documented the
smog in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1972. The
publication of photographs depicting the seriousness
of pollution in the United States most certainly
helped the cause of environmentalism.

The National
Archives is the repository for the results of the
DOCUMERICA Project, including more than 22,000 color
slides, black and white negatives, color
transparencies, photographic prints, and 25 boxes of
textual materials that support the photographic
records. In 2015, the Archives also organized an

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Searching for the Seventies: The DOCUMERICA
Photography Project

that featured the work of some of the 115
photographers who took part in the project.

Catalyst for Change

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Some say that the first Earth Day, observed on April
22, 1970, was the impetus for the establishment of
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December
of that year. Other factors probably contributed,
including a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara,
California, in 1969. But the most frequently cited
catalyst of the environmental protection movement is
the publication of Rachel Carson’s book
Silent Spring in 1962.

Born in 1907 in
Springdale, Pennsylvania,

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Rachel Carson
was an

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aquatic biologist
who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries before
becoming a full-time writer. She published
The Sea Around Us, the first book of a
highly praised trilogy about the ocean, in 1951.
Then in 1962, she published Silent Spring,
a dissection of the dangerous effects of chemical
pesticides, particularly DDT, on many species,
especially birds.

As a scientist, Carson felt a
great obligation to make sure that the science that
informed the writing of Silent Spring was
as accurate as she could make it, so she enlisted
the help of prominent scientists to review the work
before it was published. That said, by the time she
published Silent Spring, Carson was already
well respected for her ability to communicate
complex concepts in lyrical prose.

As Carson
anticipated, Silent Spring met fierce
opposition from chemical companies, but it was also
serialized in The New Yorker and chosen as a
selection by the Book of the Month Club, which got
it into the hands of people all across the country.
Many people were horrified by what they read and
were moved to take action.

While she was researching
and writing Silent Spring, Carson was also
battling breast cancer. She succumbed to the disease
in 1964. She lived long enough to see her work
hailed as ground-breaking and instrumental in
boosting the environmentalist cause. In 1980,
President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded Carson
the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United
States’ highest civilian honor.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

National Archives Identifier: 999999

Oil spills, particularly in oceans, are devastating
industrial disasters that are also far too common.

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of the more recent and destructive oil spills
occurred in April 2010, when methane gas exploded in the Deepwater
Horizon oil rig, operated by British Petroleum, in
the Gulf of Mexico. More than 90 workers were
evacuated from the rig, several of whom suffered
injuries. Eleven workers are still missing and are
presumed dead. The rig sank two days later, on April
22, 2010.

More than three months passed before the
well was finally sealed off. In that time, nearly
five million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf of
Mexico. Millions of tons of oily debris were cleaned
off beaches in the American South, and the toll on
wildlife and marine habitats, tourism industries,
and fishing industries persist to this day.
Furthermore, oil slicks were spotted immediately
after the explosion, but leaks continued after the
well was officially declared sealed, creating new
oil slicks. The U.S. government responded to the
disaster by paying for the cleanup of beaches and
wetlands and the containment and eradication of oil
slicks at sea.

History Snacks

Cleaning up America

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You might think that because you are a kid, you
can’t do much about environmental pollution, but the
fact is that young people have been leaders of the
environmental movement from its very beginnings.

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up trash

to helping your family and school recycle, there are
many ways that you can contribute to making the
environment cleaner and safer for everyone.

“How to Destroy the Earth”

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Sometimes the best way to get your point across is
to use satire. In 1990, the Boston office of the EPA
produced a booklet titled

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“How to Destroy the Earth”
that did just that. Featuring tips like “Run the
water while you brush your teeth” and “Drive
everywhere,” the booklet is sarcastic, snarky, and
spot-on. It almost reads like something that might
have been written today—and its advice is exactly
what we still need.