Old U.S. history befouled the wildlife and

Old perils and new ones threatened the environment.
The biggest oil spill in U.S. history befouled the wildlife and pristine waters
and shoreline of Alaska’s Prince William Sound after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground. Scientists warned about
newly discovered ecological threats. Above Antarctica a hole the size of the U.S. reportedly had opened in the ozone layer, which
shields the earth from dangerous ultraviolet rays. Smoke from coal-fired power
plants in the Midwest wound up as acid rain falling on the lakes and forests
of the northeastern United States and Canada.


The Reagan administration tended to ignore these
new dangers while busily rolling back enforcement of existing environmental
regulations. Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, James Watt, had served
as legal counsel for western business interests dedicated to private
development of federal lands. Watt eased restrictions on strip mining, leased
federal preserves to mining companies at bargain-basement rates, and opened up
vast expanses for offshore oil and gas exploration. Other social and political
movements that had gained momentum in the previous two decades also felt a
conservative backlash. Reagan and his allies opposed two key civil rights
initiatives: busing to integrate public schools and affirmative action. The
women’s movement suffered setbacks as well. In 1982, the proposed Equal Rights
Amendment to the Constitution fell three states short of the 38 needed for
adoption. Another key tenet of feminism—the right to choose abortion —came
under growing attack from forces that called themselves pro-life.

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At the same time, however, individual black
citizens and women scored important breakthroughs. Sandra Day O’Connor was
named to the U.S. Supreme Court by Reagan in 1981. In 1983, Sally Ride became the first woman astronaut,
followed two months later by the first African American astronaut in space, air
force lieutenant colonel Guion Bluford. In 1988, the Reverend Jesse Jackson
made a serious run for the Democratic presidential nomination, gaining the second
highest number of votes in the primaries. Geraldine Ferraro became the
Democratic candidate for vice president the same year. A year later, black
politician Douglas Wilder was elected governor of Virginia, once the home of the Confederate capital. Also in
1989, General Colin Powell became the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff. The decade’s two leading TV personalities were Oprah Winfrey and Bill