Rebecca Onion

Department of American Studies
University of Texas, Austin

2013 to 2014
Postdoctoral Fellow

Dark Futures: Environmental Catastrophes and American Childhood in the 1970s

Abstract: This project explores representations of negative environmental change in children’s culture in the United States during the 1970s. This project will be the first cultural history of the way that American adults and children talked to each other about environmental problems and risks during this decade. At least since Rousseau, in his Emile, or On Education (1762), depicted childhood as inherently connected to nature, references to a strong emotional connection between young people and the environment have been commonplace in Western discourse.  How did the environmental movements of the seventies, with their new interest in warning the public about the dire consequences of industry and development, represent the threatened natural world to the portion of the population presumed to feel the most strongly about these threats? How did these representations depict the project of science, and its relationship to politics and policy? When, how, and with what misgivings did adults seek to mobilize the children consuming this culture as environmental activists? I ask how adults have created cultural objects (magazines, books, movies, television shows) that aim to teach children about fraught subjects such as pollution, extinction, population “explosions,” scarcity, and climate change. I look to such sources as the National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick magazine, children’s letters written to Senator Gaylord Nelson around the time of the first Earth Day, the writings of child psychologists on children’s fears and environmental threat, and books such as Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah (1974), Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (1972), and Bill Peet’s The Wump World (1970). As I move forward with my research, I will be looking for documents and archives that could illuminate the thinking behind the framing of these issues for children’s consumption. And as often as the historical record allows, I will seek to include children’s own responses to these cultural objects and to the problems that they describe.