The Liberal Consensus and the Throwaway Society

Today, in 1993, it's hard not to be aware of the environmental movement that has been growing in the United States for at least the last 3 years. Whether you are actively involved, or merely read a newspaper article once about some group in Oregon that's trying to stop the logging in the seemingly ever-abundant Pacific Northwest forests, the idea that there is more interest in "the environment" now than there has been in the last 40 years is generally wide spread. You can't even go to the grocery store without seeing the reusable canvas grocery bags for sale, or some product that now contains "25% recycled fibers" in its packaging, or being asked "paper or plastic" as you pay for your provisions. While it may seem that this is a relatively new movement, sprung up spontaneously in the late 1980s by organizations such as Greenpeace, the environmental movement has much deeper roots, directly dating back over 20 years to approximately 1970, the fall of the liberal consensus. This is important to note because it was the liberal consensus and the beliefs of the liberal consensus that, if it did not outright create it, certainly amplified America's "throwaway" attitude, turning society into a "throwaway society" where waste, trash, and pollution weren't everyday worries. Because of the ideas of the liberal consensus, America became a highly wasteful and environmentally uncaring society, not to be altered until the end of the liberal consensus in America.

The liberal consensus of the period from approximately 1950 to approximately 1970 (should we call this the Age of Consent?) was the set of political and societal beliefs and ideals that had an oddly long-termed period of favor in American history. The beginning of the liberal consensus coincides closely with the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the (then) Soviet Union, which explains one aspect of the liberal consensus - that of anti-communism. Other facets included (over?)confidence in capitalism, belief in the ability of capitalism to create abundance (so there won't be homeless or hungry people), (extreme?) trust in the government and especially the President (caused partly by anti-communism sentiment - if the President said that a certain program or action taken by the government was going to help stop the spread of communism, it would likely get wide popular support), and the cure of social problems through government programs. These and other attitudes ruled the way Americans thought and acted for 20 years, and let straight into, among other things, the "throwaway society".

The term "throwaway society" is a reference to American consumer attitudes for most of the 20th century, including the present. It refers to the (incorrect) belief that trash and pollution will take care of themselves, in short. "How can a few million cars possibly create a pollution problem? There's an awful lot of air in the world, we can't possibly fill it all up." The same sentiment existed for the oceans of the world, where much dumping of (especially liquid) wastes was done. Solid trash was just taken to the dump, either by a homeowner or by a municipal garbage hauling service, and that was that - out of sight and out of mind. In previous years, nobody would have believed that the air actually could fill up, or that dumping in the oceans would have dramatic repercussions on us on land, or that we would run out of land space to dump our trash, but all of this is happening now, and attitudes are slowly changing. The old attitudes are ancient, brought over to America from Europe by the pilgrims and immigrants - Native Americans had, and still have, very different attitudes about nature, resources, and the environment than we as Americans have ever had - and are very deeply instilled into the mindset of Americans as a whole.

What does this have to do with the afore-mentioned liberal consensus? Just about every aspect of the liberal consensus contributed to an increase in consumption, and the "societal okay" that consumption was good. The liberal consensus heralded, among other things, abundance (Hodgson, p51). Abundance meant that factories were producing fast and cheap, so more people could afford more things. This was especially important in the rapidly growing suburbs, where households could afford to have every new technology to be produced, from nylons to dishwashers. With increased production, which was creating all this abundance, came increased industrial waste. There were very few, if any, federal regulations on industrial pollution. The concept of resource management was not a factor because raw materials were viewed as unlimited. Factories only had to be efficient in the use of their raw materials in order to cut costs, and if it was cheaper to buy raw aluminum than to buy scrap, the aluminum mines would stay open while city dumps filled up with aluminum cans.

In the mindset of America since before 1900, the national parks were there to preserve parts of the wilderness, the rest should be put to good use (Hodgson, p402). It wasn't until the liberal consensus came along that this belief was really put to the test. Production was up because the economy was growing. Increased production used increased natural resources. In the large white move to the suburbs, houses needed to be built, and that required lumber, lots of lumber. Land had to be prepared for suburbia - forests are not good places to build subdivisions, so cut down the forest. Natural habitats had to be wiped out in favor of an artificial one - human habitation. Metal was needed for household appliances, wood for furniture, and electricity to run everything. And all of this on an increasing basis, because of the abundance the liberal consensus had created. To the consumer, because things were cheap, they could be easily replaced when they got old or disabled, in which case the old item can be discarded. A car can usually be repaired for much less than the cost of a new car, but if your blender goes on the fritz, just go get a new one! This is the throwaway society - when the economy is growing, prices are falling, technology is increasing; keeping up with the Jonses, out with the old, in with the new. "Waste not, want not" was a thing of the past, related to world wars and devastating depressions.

Also under the liberal consensus, the population held a great deal of trust in the government. People voted, but did not try to actively check on the government to make sure that things like Watergate or the Bay of Pigs weren't going on. People seemed to trust that the government, and the President, would do the right thing. Thus, since the federal government didn't have an environmental agenda, the public didn't think about it. Since the government didn't regulate industrial pollution, the public didn't think about it. Since the government didn't regulate wildlife habitat destruction, the public didn't think about it. Later, the government would play a crucial role in crushing the environmental movement of the early 1970s by taking a strong anti-conservation stand on issues, which much of the public would follow, killing the environmental movement, almost. Because the environment was not a concern of the liberal consensus, it was not a concern to the rest of society.

The problems with the liberal consensus view of the environment are numerous, but were not pressing problems at the time. When a household generates trash, that trash is taken to a landfill or dump to sit for a few decades. Landfills are usually located somewhere outside a city, and are literally either holes in the ground or artificial mountains of trash. While it seems that there should be plenty of land available for such dumping of refuse, today, in 1993, we are realizing that the United States is dangerously low on landfill space, and there is a real possibility that within, say, 50 years, there will be nowhere left to dump our trash. From the 1950s through the 1980s, this was not an issue because it wasn't a problem (as it isn't really a problem at the moment, but we are realizing that soon, it will be a problem), much like the use of DDT (a toxic insecticide) wasn't banned until after several years of use because nobody was aware of its side effects. The throwaway society wasn't causing problems for themselves, they were creating problems for the generations after them. Water was being polluted, forests were being devastated, land was being mined, and society was happy at the abundance being created.

In the 1960s, issues involving "the environment" were appearing more often in the news. The scientific community was increasingly aware that increased technologies posed more serious threats to the environment, not just to the birds and the bees and the trees, but to humans as well (Hodgson, p402). Smog in California was beginning to become a problem by the mid-1960s, and membership was up in environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club (Hodgson, p403). In 1968, the remaining California redwoods were saved by growing environmentalist pressure. In 1969, an oil tanker spill off the coast of California caused a huge public uproar, and was undoubtedly highly publicized in newspapers across the nation. The media was forgetting the old-hat news of the inner city and the war in order to publicize (exploit? create?) the new societal consensus on the environment, which in turn drew more of the public opinion on the side of saving the trees. By 1969, even President Nixon was riding the coattails of the environmental movement, mentioning it in his State of the Union address of that year (Hodgson, p404). In 1970, the President established the Environmental Protection Agency, and Earth Day was first celebrated as an observance of what we owe to the planet for our continued existence. This was surely no liberal consensus movement - people and government were saying that using all our resources to the best of our abilities was bad! How can we create abundance if we can't cut down our trees?

The specific reasons why the environmental movement sprung up so suddenly in the late 1960s is still unclear to me. It could have been increased studies on the dangers of the new technologies and on pollution; it could have been public boredom with the decades-old liberal consensus, some new problem to concentrate on after the gender and race movements had fallen out of the limelight. Whatever it's original cause, the environmental movement as a full-forced movement was terribly short lived. Where in 1970 the government had taken a very strong pro-environment stance, in 1972 that same Presidency had reversed gears and was "openly attacking the environmental lobby" (Hodgson, p404). The liberal consensus, which had been left in the dirt just 4 years before, was back, and the public once again forgot about the environment. Except that the larger liberal consensus was deteriorating even as it made this last push. Vietnam was losing public support, new issues were coming to head in American politics, and economic growth wasn't seen as the great institution that it once was (Hodgson, p403).

With the loss of the liberal consensus came further dealings with all of the issues that the consensus had failed to resolve, including the racial equality movement, the peace movement, the gender equality movement, and the environmental movement, whose seeds were planted in 1970 and whose time has come in 1990. The throwaway society that the liberal consensus (unknowingly?) advocated did not die along with the liberal consensus, although it did suffer a setback at the beginning of the end of the consensus' 20-year hold on America, while a new consensus was beginning to form. As it turned out, there was no room in the new consensus of the 1970s for the environment either, but neither was it forgotten completely by the new consensus. America is still a throwaway society, but things are finally beginning to change from the un-environmental standards set in the 1950s, at the height of the liberal consensus in America.


Hodgson, Godfrey. America In Our Time. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

Tyler Jones, May 6, 1993