I would say that the hippie movie way back when started making the environmental movement cool. That set the stage, tying the environmental scene to popular music.
I think the source below does a great job of tracing the roots of the environmentalist movement in America back to Henry David Thoreau and his writings about conservation. I agree with tristan that environmentalism did become more cool during the 60s and 70s, through music and the outcry that followed Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. However, I definitely think that environmentalism became more “mainstream-cool” during the early 2000s when celebrities started getting into it, buying Priuses and carbon credits and donating to environmental groups. One explanation is the growing awareness and immediacy of the climate change issue during this time-people were beginning to see its effects and care more about preserving their natural surroundings.
The 1970s were a critical decade for environmentalism. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 was enacted in 1970, in the wake of the catastrophic Santa Barbara Oil Spill and Rachel Carson’s monumental Silent Spring a year prior. From then on, you see the government getting a lot more serious about taxing and punishing businesses that are harmful to the environment. In response, businesses eventually feel pressured to clean their public perceptions and all kinds of things like ‘corporate responsiblity’ and recyclable fast food bags start to take shape, allowing businesses to pollute without actually being perceived as polluters (see BP, British Petroleum’s eco face-lift from big oil company to friend of the earth multinational, Beyond Petroleum). This Madison Avenue-style marketing blitz, in turn, filters out into the wider culture as celebrities and pop cultural figures are tapped to make big businesses look environmentally responsible. It soon becomes very difficult to differentiate the sincere people from those with ulterior (see money) motives. This is partly why ‘cool’ can be so dangerously stifling to serious efforts to actually deal with environmental problems (for one, almost all serious, systemic solutions require serious sacrifice, which is far from cool).
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