The Impacts of Human Destruction

The twentieth century in the United States was consumed by destruction. Between the many wars that spanned the 1900s, such as World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, there was a constant looming threat of violence that hung in the air, a violence all that more potentially destructive because of technological advancements in weaponry. In the midst of this destruction, there was little concern for the environmental repercussions that wars, modern industry, and technology had — the air pollution from the mass factory production, the radioactivity from nuclear testing, or the water pollution from offshore dumping. As a result, the environmental movement began in the 1960s and took off in the 1970s and into the 1980s, drawing off of the culture of political activism present in that era. The environmental movement intersected with many of the values of the antiwar and peace movements of the 1980s, as the impacts of militarism and the arms race that characterized the Cold War period led to rising concerns about the consequences of human destruction on the environment. While the fear of nuclear warfare and technological destruction greatly influenced the antinuclear peace movements and the environmentalism movement of the 1980s, that same fear paralyzed activists, preventing them from effectively confronting the ever-growing military-industrial complex, worsened by politicians subordinating environmental concerns to a focus on growth. 

It wasn’t until the 1970s that environmental issues found a place in politics, but only as an appeal to voters. Environmental concerns in the 1970s were a culmination of the affluence and consumerism experienced in the 1950s. Consequently, many politicians were hesitant to advocate for the environmentalist movement, as they were worried it would negatively impact economic growth and impede upon Americans “absolute and unlimited freedom of choice” (Woodhouse, 55). The policies and concerns of the latter half of the twentieth century prioritized the inhabitants of America – their spending habits, their safety, the reputation of the nation they lived in – and not the environment they inhabited. There was an overwhelming need to be the best and to have the most, a mindset that directly resulted in the arms race and military build-up of the 1980s. The limits of the environment were of little concern to the government of this period, as the focus was on growth and production.

Thus, many environmentalists abandoned the politics of the issue, viewing democratic processes as an inadequate way to address the impending crisis of a societal and ecological collapse (Woodhouse, 67). The radical environmentalists of the 1980s advocated for drastic measures and decisive action, which could not be achieved through the slow and methodical procedures of a democratic government. This urgency for action came out of the impending fear many felt towards the environmental crisis, the need to act before it was all too late. In this sense, the fear of destruction did not act as an obstacle for the environmental movement, instead serving as a motivation for immediate and dramatic action. However, the fear did not act as an obstacle because the fear was still manageable at this point. The movement did not yet feel powerless and the problem did not seem unstoppable. The fear was used to reinforce this crisis in the minds of the American public, casting doubt on traditional measures of reform and cementing the idea that immediate action was necessary (Woodhouse, 67). The environmentalists saw the nearing breaking point of our ecological society, but that very society was unwilling to respond to their concerns. As a result, the problem only worsened, exacerbated by the Cold War and militarism of the 1980s.

The peace movement and environmental movement both saw the need to halt the means of human destruction, as the nuclear arms race of the Cold War could have no true winning side. The antinuclear movement, specifically, shared many of the same values and concerns as the environmental movement, with both sensing a breaking point in the amount of destruction the world around them could handle. The nuclear arms race of the Cold War caused a worldwide rapid increase in the production of nuclear weapons, leading to an increase in pollution, radioactivity, toxic waste, and uranium mining (McNeill & Engelke, 160-61). The mindset of prioritizing a nation’s reputation and livelihood carried into the 1980s, the height of the Cold War, and resulted in a hyper-militaristic attitude that was meant to exhibit the power and advancement of America. Nevertheless, in doing so, environmental resources were slowly being depleted and poisoned. The ramifications of nuclear testing and the ensuing radioactivity were incredibly dangerous, both for the environment and for humans’ health. The health effects of nuclear fall-out became a main force of mobilization for the antinuclear movement, with many beginning to realize that a nuclear war was a war that could never be won (Meyer, 197). Both the environmental and antinuclear movement saw that the only outcome of this arms race was the inevitable destruction for both humanity and the environment. For many not involved in these movements, the fear of destruction became debilitating, causing a feeling of powerlessness due to the difficulty of imagining a world beyond this destruction (Abrams). As the environment continued to deteriorate and the Cold War tensions rose, the problem ballooned in the eyes of the nation and it seemed almost pointless to stop it. However, fear was still used by the environmental and peace movements alike as a tactic of mobilization, motivating many to join the movement for nuclear disarmament and generate more care and respect towards the environment.

The widespread concerns articulated by the peace movement and environmental movement were best exemplified by the conferences that took place during this time. Formal gatherings were especially effective, used to bring together like-minded individuals while sharing and expanding upon their platform. One specific conference, The Fate of the Earth Conference, took place at the height of the Cold War in September of 1984 and focused on the impact of fear on the peace movement, in addition to tying in the politics and environmental factors of the nuclear disarmament (Abrams). The event was an overall success, drawing in a crowd of 2,000 people to the campus of Loyola Marymount University. The conference drew from the main tenets of the antinuclear movement, with an emphasis on peace and compassion to overcome fear. Speeches focused on things like “Overcoming Nuclear Despair” and “Moral Issues in Deterrence Theory,” as seen in a pamphlet covering the event.

Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA.

The negative impacts of new technological and military advancements were central to both the antinuclear and environmental movements, which highlighted the interrelationships between human greed, Cold War militarism, and environmental destruction. Edward Teller, a main speaker at the event, acknowledged that the main environmental pollutant is man himself in his book Energy from Heaven and Earth, making it necessary to avoid war and a military build-up (Teller 268). Man’s environmental pollution stemmed from many factors, but mainly emerged as a result of the consumerism and mass production of the past decades and the rapid militarization of the current decade. Fear of nuclear warfare was at the root of the lack of environmental concern, causing an increase in weapon production for defense and creating the apathetic attitude many exhibited towards these issues. Compassion and hope were needed to confront these issues and put an end to human violence. The emphasis on the need for universal love and compassion as key tenets of the peace movement and necessary to confront the problems of human greed and demolition drew off of the university’s religious values, illustrating an intersection between the peace movement and religious ideals. In other words, the values behind the peace movement and the environmental movement were based on putting an end to the pattern of human destruction that characterized the twentieth century and facing the fear caused by this destruction with peace and resilience. 

The sense of helplessness many felt in the face of this fear drove people away from the movements of the 1980s. The political tensions of the Cold War, deterioration of the environment after decades of violence and human destruction, and the military-industrial complex of the 1980s created an atmosphere of apathy and despair. However, this fear could also be used as a source of motivation for joining the peace movement and environmental movement. There was a call for prioritizing peace and the well-being of the world we inhabit instead of prioritizing the reputation and technologies of nations. Thus, the social movements of the Cold War period called upon governmental and societal actions in order to confront the repercussions of decades of man-made violence and ruination, calling attention to the fact that there can be no real winner to war if the environment around us is destroyed. 

Written by Emma Balda, History/Sociology, LMU 2022

For Further Reading

Primary Sources

Abrams, Garry. “Ideas: Conferees Try to Light a Fire Under the Peace Movement at LMU Meeting LMU: Lighting a Fire Under Peace Movement.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Sep 26, 1984. Accessed 22 November 2019.

Teller, Edward. Energy from Heaven and Earth. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1979.

The Fate of the Earth Pamphlet, September 22-23, 1984, Series 2, Box 3, Folder 4, Campus Ministry (RG-005). Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA.

Secondary Sources

McNeill, J. R., and Peter Engelke. “Cold War and Environmental Culture.” In The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945, 155-206. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Meyer, David S. “How the Cold War Was Really Won: The Effects of the Antinuclear Movements of the 1980s.” In How Social Movements Matter, edited by Giugni Marco, McAdam Doug, and Tilly Charles, by Tarrow Sidney, 182-203. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Woodhouse, Keith Makoto. “Crisis Environmentalism.” In The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism, 54-94. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.