Brown smoke comes out of tall pipes from an industrial area behind a brick building in a grassy landscape.

Darkening Day: Air Pollution Films and Environmental Awareness, 1960–1972

Circulating Now welcomes guest Jennifer Lynn Peterson, PhD Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Woodbury University in Los Angeles, to explore a set of six 1960s-era films now highlighted on Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM which document the history and environmental impact of air and water pollution. These six titles show the emergence of modern environmentalist discourses.

A woman in a skirt an blouse sits on a railing over water holding binoculars.
Rachel Carson at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 1950
Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives, Connecticut College, Photograph by Edwin Gray

The 1960s represent a turning point in popular awareness about environmental problems. While the first wave of conservationist ideas and US government policy (dating back to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century) was concerned with wildlife and land use, centering on wilderness preservation and the formation of the national parks, the modern environmental movement that emerged in the mid-1960s and early-1970s focused on a new set of concerns such as air pollution, water pollution, and pesticides. This shift is in part due to the influence of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which is often credited with initiating the modern environmental movement. A groundswell of activism and federal environmental legislation followed in its wake: more federal environmental bills were signed in the 1960s and early 1970s than at any other period in U.S. history. Lyndon Johnson authorized the first federal regulation on air pollution with the Clean Air Act of 1963, followed by expansions authorized by Air Quality Acts in 1966 and 1967. This legislation was expanded by Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and who signed a significantly expanded Clean Air Act in 1970. As environmental historian Scott Hamilton Dewey writes, “[i]n addition to the prominence of air pollution among environmentalists and the general public, it also was one of the key issues, perhaps even the single leading issue, driving federal environmental policy during the late 1960s.” Air pollution was certainly not a new problem in the 1960s (urban air pollution dates back hundreds of years), but it became a newly urgent topic in this period.

Cover of a pamphlet advertising public health films for group showing.
Free Films on Air Pollution pamphlet cover, 1967.
National Library of Medicine #12592560

This essay considers six films about air pollution held by the National Library of Medicine that were produced or supported by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) between 1960–1972. Air pollution in the 1960s was specifically handled by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (known as HEW, it was renamed the Department of Health and Human Services in 1979, when it split off from the newly formed Department of Education). Other forms of pollution were handled by other Departments: water pollution fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, while pesticides were handled by the Department of Agriculture, for example. This organizational logic explains why so many films about air pollution were made by the PHS, a division of the HEW. While many government agencies  produced multimedia educational materials, including motion pictures, the particular confluence of education and air pollution in the HEW may have encouraged the production of more films on air pollution than on other environmental issues in the 1960s.

An Airlie Production text on top of an image with fire
Closing Credits for Beware the Wind, 1967
National Library of Medicine #101465310

The first five films I discuss focus on air pollution; the last title I discuss, released in 1972, addresses environmental concerns more generally. Co-produced by the PHS and a range of commercial and nonprofit institutions, these films reflect an era in which the government took a leading role in educating the public about environmental health threats. Multimedia approaches to public education were newly important in this period. In order to educate the public about air pollution, the PHS joined forces with commercial companies such as Westinghouse, nonprofit film production companies such as Airlie Productions, educational institutions such as the George Washington University Medical Center, and nonprofit organizations such as the National Tuberculosis Association (now the American Lung Association). With the exception of the first title I discuss here, which was shown on television, these 16mm films would have been shown in what was then known as the “nontheatrical” distribution circuit of schools, libraries, public halls, churches, and other venues outside the commercial motion picture theaters. As a 1960 government film catalog explained, “Generally speaking, Government agencies use several different methods in distributing, nontheatrically, their films throughout the United States.… In so doing, the Government is following the same patterns as most educational and industrial film producers who use, in variation and combination, different loan, rental, and sales outlets.” In recent years, there has been a groundswell of interest in such nontheatrical films, as scholars have begun to account for the wide influence and vast number of educational films that were produced and distributed from the 1920s to the 1980s.

Scientific consensus today has formed around the idea that human actions have affected Earth Systems to such a degree that we have left the Holocene epoch and entered a new epoch known as the Anthropocene.

These six films illustrate some of the ways environmentalist discourse changed across the 1960s and into the early 1970s. All of the films frame air pollution as a problem caused by human industry, and all argue that pollution can be controlled by federal and state regulation, along with personal actions. But the titles from 1960–­62 present an official, serious tone, addressing air pollution as a public health issue that citizens must be educated about. In the films made later in the decade, we see the emergence of a countercultural critique of post-World War II consumerism and waste. The last title I discuss, Countdown to Collision (1972), reflects a broader environmentalist rhetoric characteristic of the environmental movement after 1970. The first Earth Day in 1970 is heralded by environmental historians as a turning point in popular environmentalism, the moment in which individual issues such as air and water pollution coalesced into a single vision of environmentalism as a network of interconnected concerns. By the 1970s, what had been presented as a matter of public health was reframed as a countercultural critique.

To read the full essay and to see the films go to NLM’s Medicine on Screen, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM’s collection.

Jennifer Lynn Peterson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. She is the author of Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film (Duke University Press, 2013). Her scholarly articles have been published in Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Camera Obscura, The Moving Image, Getty Research Journal, and numerous edited book collections. She has published film, art, and book reviews in Millennium Film Journal, Film Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and

Peterson’s research and teaching interests center on cinema and media history, experimental and educational films, and the environmental humanities. Previously a tenured Associate Professor in the Film Studies Program at the University of Colorado-Boulder, she has also taught at UCLA, UC Riverside, the California Institute of the Arts, and the University of Southern California. In the early 2000s she worked as an Oral Historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and briefly in the Home Entertainment division at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She was a scholar in residence at the Getty Research Institute in fall 2012. She is currently working on a book entitled “Cinema’s Ecological Past: Film History, Nature and Endangerment Before 1960.”


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