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Deep Dive: Earth Day and the Renewable Energy Dream

Deep Dive: Earth Day and the Renewable Energy Dream

Today we’re going to do something a little different. Normally, we take a look at something happening in American energy at present and zoom in on it. But this coming Monday is Earth Day, so instead, we’re going to take a look at Earth Day’s history and how its view of energy became the most dominant in the western world. Almost every decision made in America today bears the mark of the environmental movement, or at least contours itself within the movement’s vast shadow.

To do that, we need to understand a few things about the world before Earth Day, toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. This was an age when America evolved from a diffuse, agrarian, smallholder republic into an industrial colossus the likes of which the world had never seen before. Telegraph lines, railroads, telephones, and electric light exploded the country’s thermodynamic competence and launched Americans into the modern age.

The intellectual and higher cultural responses to this are manifold and riven with both excitement and apprehension (Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden and William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis take readers on expansive tours through such responses), but at the street-level many Americans looked toward the technological future with exhilaration and hope. What couldn’t be made better with the twist of the wrench and the purr of the dynamo?

The Electricity Building and Lagoon at the World's Columbian Exposition world's fair, Chicago, Illinois, 1893.

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