Happy Earth Day!
To start, a quick quiz:
1. Who said the following quote:
“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they, more than we, will wreak the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.”
2. Which organization contributed the most money and support to the first Earth Day?
(Yup, you guessed it: you gotta read the post to find the answers.)
A planetary shout-out
From its scrappy beginnings 43 years ago as an effort to teach the public about America’s environmental crisis, Earth Day has evolved into a major international event. It’s now the largest secular celebration in the world, with millions of activists simultaneously participating in countries around the globe.
Right now the earth needs all the love it can get. But even in the face of today’s catastrophic environmental crises, like climate change and the vast destruction of natural habitats, environmentalism has become a staunchly partisan issue in Washington, where lawmakers repeatedly shy away from legislative action to address very urgent problems. This is evident not only in Congress’ failure to enact any comprehensive legislation on climate change, but also in the alarming number of elected officials who consider the mere suggestion of stricter environmental regulation anathema, a plot to kill jobs and weaken our economy. In fact, many lawmakers now consider the Environmental Protection Agency among the most reviled and distrusted agencies in the federal government. This was evident last year, when several Republican presidential candidates repeatedly called for the agency’s termination.
Have Americans always been so apprehensive about environmental laws and regulations? And has it always been so controversial and partisan?
The first Earth Day
Back in 1970, the environmental outlook was not so shiny either.
After decades of unfettered industrial and economic growth in the absence of strong federal environmental laws, America had managed to majorly muck up its air and water resources. Toxic effluent from factories spilling into streams and rivers was not an uncommon site in industrial areas. Countless open spaces and waterways throughout the country had become dumping grounds, and air pollution was so bad, it frequently left urban areas shrouded in thick blankets of smog.
Consider this timeline of events:
• November 1966: In New York City, 168 people die of respiratory-related illnesses over a 3-day period due largely to horrendous air quality.
• March 1967: Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall, announces the first official list of endangered wildlife species in the U.S. 78 animals are named, including the symbol of American itself: the Bald Eagle.
• January 1969: A blowout at an offshore oil rig near Santa Barbara spills upwards of 10,000 gallons of crude oil for 10 days into the Santa Barbara Channel and onto nearby beaches. At the time, it’s considered largest oil spill in American history (sadly, it now ranks third, overtaken by the 1989 Exxon Valdez and 2010 Deepwater Horizon).
• June 1969: A particularly fetid industrial stretch of the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland bursts into flames (seriously) when oil-soaked debris in the water is ignited by sparks from a passing train.
“If the people really understood that in the lifetime of their children, they’re going to have destroyed the quality of the air and the water all over the world and perhaps made the globe unlivable in a half century, they’d do something about it. But this is not well understood.”
That’s a quote from Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who spearheaded the first Earth Day organizing effort.
Nelson formed a congressional steering committee, invited California Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey to co-chair it and hired 25-year-old Harvard Law School dropout Denis Hayes to direct the undertaking. Borrowing from the Vietnam War protest model, the mission was to organize environmental teach-ins throughout the nation, all during the course of a single day.
With a very limited budget and no email or internet access (didn’t exist yet), Hayes and his small group of young organizers mailed out thousands of letters to high school and college student body presidents across the nation requesting their participation. The group successfully brought together volunteers in dozens of cities and college campuses to organize local events.
The Earth Day organizing effort caught on like “gangbusters,” said Nelson.
On November 30, 1969, the New York Times reported: “Rising concern about the ‘environmental crisis’ is sweeping the nations campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam.”
Hayes, who was interviewed in the recent PBS documentary Earth Days, recalls the sentiment:
“Lord knows what we thought we were doing. It was wild and exciting and out of control and the sort of thing that lets you know you’ve really got something big happening … What we were trying to do was create a brand new public consciousness that would cause the rules of the game to change.”
In all, 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, marking the single largest demonstration in U.S. history.
Recalls Hayes: “It was a huge high adrenaline effort that in the end genuinely changed things. Before (that), there were people that opposed freeways, people that opposed clear-cutting, or people worried about pesticides, (but) they didn’t think of themselves as having anything in common. After Earth Day they were all part of an environmental movement.”
And that brings us to the second question of the quiz: The group that was most supportive – financially and otherwise – of the first Earth Day organizing effort was the United Auto Workers.
An organization not generally known for championing environmental causes, the UAW donated money, provided volunteers across the country, and paid the printing costs of promotional materials.
UAW President Walter Reuther pledged his organization’s full support for Earth Day and for subsequent environmental legislation.
In one speech, he said:
“The labor movement is about that problem we face tomorrow morning. Damn right! But to make that the sole purpose of the labor movement is to miss the main target. I mean, what good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down? What good is another week’s vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can’t swim in it and the kids can’t play in it? What good is another $100 in pension if the world goes up in atomic smoke?”
Soon thereafter, General Motors’ president Edward Cole promised “pollution free” cars by 1980 (that didn’t quite pan out).
The era of environmental regulation
Before we get to that, here’s the answer to the first question of our little quiz. The quote was by none other than (drum roll, please):
President Richard Nixon … during his State of the Union address in 1970.
Yes, that Nixon, best remembered as the conservative Republican who appealed to the “silent majority,” prolonged America’s involvement in Vietnam, and resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal.
Nixon, however, also oversaw and approved the most sweeping environmental regulations in the history of our nation – the very ones responsible, in part, for the fresh air and clean water we enjoy today.
Even before the first Earth Day, Congress and the president began taking action. On January 1, 1970, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which among other things, required environmental impact statements for major new projects and developments.
Environmentalism had never been one of Nixon’s big political priorities, but his administration recognized the growing media attention and public pressure around the issue. In other words, he realized that pushing forward strong environmental regulation was, at that point, a prudent political move.
By the end of 1970, he had signed an extension of the Clean Air Act. Now considered the single most important piece of air pollution legislation in American history, it required the newly formed EPA to create and enforce regulations on airborne pollution known to be hazardous to human health, and, among other things, led to the universal installation of catalytic converters in cars.
By the end of 1972, the Clean Water Act, the Pesticide Control Act (which banned DDT), and the Marine Mammal Protection Act had all been signed into law by Nixon. A year later, he signed the Endangered Species Act and soon thereafter the Safe Water Drinking Act.
Most of these bills were approved with bipartisan support in Congress, some almost unanimously.
In a televised speech in 1972 Nixon said:
“I have sent to Congress today a sweeping set of proposals to clean up our nation’s air and water. This is the most far reaching and comprehensive message on conservation and restoration of our natural resources ever submitted to the Congress by the President of the United States. We are taking these actions not in some distant future, but now, because we know that it is now or never.”
By and large, the regulations worked. Environmental conditions vastly improved. America had been on the brink of ecological disaster, and we did something about it while we still had the chance.
The next decade — through the presidencies of Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter — was somewhat of a heyday for environmentalism in America. Which is not to say that there weren’t strong voices of opposition and major lingering environmental problems. Nonetheless, during this era legislators on both sides of the aisle agreed that protecting the environment simply made the most sense.
In 1979, just before the price of a barrel of oil hit $30, President Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof in support of his Federal Solar Research Institute. He said: “We must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources.”
The end of the green honeymoon
And then, with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the environmental honeymoon came to a swift conclusion. By the end of the first year of his presidency, Reagan had issued an executive order giving the Office of Management and Budget (OMB ) the power to regulate environmental proposals before they became public. He also cut the EPA’s budget by almost half. In his second term as president, Reagan even took the symbolic action of dismantling the solar panels on the White House roof.
And since then, a unified political drive to protect the environment has never quite been revived.
The benefit of tangible problems
Organizers of the first Earth Day had a key advantage: the problems they were trying to tackle were clearly visible and impacted everyday life. Kids couldn’t swim in public lakes and rivers because they were too polluted; parks and open spaces were strewn with trash; people were getting poisoned by pollution in the air. And because of those very tangible problems, there was a clear and urgent connection made between environmental policies and quality of life.
Today, many of the issues at play are perhaps even more threatening – on a global scale – but also more abstract. The idea, for instance, that human action can be the cause of a couple of degrees increase in the global temperature, and that in turn can cause massive disasters is a much harder idea to convey to people who haven’t yet felt the impact.
Interestingly, though, in the wake of the many natural disasters that swept through the U.S. in 2012, the percentage of Americans who said they believed in the concept of climate change has risen slightly. And in his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama broke his long-held silence on the issue and urged Congress to begin to address the problem.
This minor shift in public opinion has clearly not been enough yet to inspire any substantive legislative action in Washington. But it does suggest that when faced with the threat of environmental disaster, Americans grow more willing to accept the idea of regulation. That’s at least, what led to major changes in the 1970s.
What degree of environmental degradation will be powerful enough to inspire real change today?