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A crowd attending the first Earth Day celebration at Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 22, 1970 (photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Alamy Stock Photo)

Society & Culture

Paul Ehrlich, the Real Founder of Environmentalism

It’s become an accepted opinion that marine biologist Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring (1962), was the founder of the modern environmentalist movement. But this may very well be a myth. Recent historical scholarship suggests that this title more likely applies to controversial Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 best seller The Population Bomb.

What that means is that Ehrlich’s message that overpopulation was leading the planet to catastrophic famine, epidemics, and resource depletion may have done more to spark the environmentalist movement than any other issue, including Carson’s worries about the effects of synthetic pesticides and herbicides on the health of different species.

No one has bolstered the Carson myth more than former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who contends that without Carson “the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.” In 1994, Gore wrote that reading Carson’s book had a profound impact on him, and that he has a picture of her hanging on his office wall. Her example, he claimed, inspired him to write his own book, Earth in the Balance (1992).

Others have echoed Gore’s viewpoint. It was her pioneering work that “gave birth to the environmental consciousness we have today,” her biographer, Linda J. Lear, asserted in 2005. In 2012, The New York Times declared...

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