Tom Robertsonteaches at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Rutgers University Press will publish his book The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism in 2012.
This article uses Fairfield Osborn's Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt's Road to Survival to examine the environmental history of two crucial developments in twentieth-century US history: the emergence of a new political economic order in the 1930s and America's emergence as a global superpower during and immediately after World War II. Revisiting the origins of Osborn and Vogt's bestsellers adds an international dimension to our understanding of the transition from the early conservation movement to the postwar environmental movement. It also helps us see how many of the big stories of the mid-twentieth century—the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the postwar economy—had environmental components.
During the 1930s and 1940s, two schools for understanding modernity emerged that would engage in a contentious dance for the remainder of the century: a school of consumption-driven growth most associated with John Maynard Keynes and a new brand of conservation focused on carrying capacity and limits most associated with Aldo Leopold. For the most part, Keynes's ideas of interconnected economies and Leopold's ideas of interconnected nature moved on parallel trajectories. Osborn's Our Plundered Planet and Vogt's Road to Survival struck a chord in 1948, however, because they brought together the two arenas. A consumption-driven world order, they warned, would yield not peace and prosperity, but more war. Linking national security with environmental issues, Osborn and Vogt focused attention on their new approach to an old issue—natural resource depletion—and exposed a growing divide among conservationists.