April 22, 1970—The American environmental movement may have reached its apex in this first celebration of Earth Day.
Though the calendar and a more conservative President (Nixon) seemingly indicated that a new era had begun, the nation, plagued by the Vietnam War, operated under the assumption that it was still the 1960s, so the environmental observance was marked by one of the typical occurrences of that decade—teach-ins on pollution and environmental issues at 1,500 college and 10,000 high school campuses.
Four decades of fascination with history have only hardened my Catholic belief in the notion that even the best of us are deeply fallible. One instance of this lies in the life and legacy of the founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson (1916-2005), the late Wisconsin governor and senator and, in his later years, head of the Wilderness Society.
In a time of cynicism, when politicians spend more time appearing on CNN or Fox preaching to their partisan choirs or picking up so much PAC money that they’ve developed permanent stoops, I should want to honor an elected official like Nelson who investigated conditions affecting the lives of Americans and worked tirelessly and effectively on legislation that would change them for the better.
But, for reasons that I’ll explain in a minute, I find that I can only manage two cheers for him.
First, though, what remains honorable and enduring in his record:
As governor of Wisconsin in 1961, Nelson pushed through the legislature an Outdoor Resources Action Program financed by a one-cent-per-pack cigarette tax to fund the state acquisition of parks and wetlands. Two years later, his maiden speech in the Senate advocated a bill banning detergents from water supplies, calling on the country to awake to its environmental danger:
“We cannot be blind to the growing crisis of our environment. Our soil, our water, and our air are becoming more polluted every day. Our most priceless natural resources—trees, lakes, rivers, wildlife habitats, scenic landscapes—are being destroyed.”
Later, in 1963, Nelson convinced President Kennedy to embark on a tour that would spotlight the environmental problem. Unfortunately, the media’s attention centered on another matter taking place the same day that JFK’s tour began: the Senate vote on his limited nuclear test-ban treaty with the U.S.S.R. For the next half-dozen years, the senator cast about for another way to shine a spotlight on his biggest issue.
In the summer of 1969, as protests against Vietnam heated up, he had a brainstorm: why not use teach-ins as a method of protesting environmental degradation? Subsequently, Nelson wrote letters to all 50 of the nation’s governors and the mayors of its largest cities, asking them to issue Earth Day proclamations. The result was wildly successful, drawing 20 million participants that first year.
Nearly a quarter century after the event, the American Heritage Magazine described Earth Day as “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.”
Earth Day took off because of a grand convergence of events and attitudes: the growth of ecology as a rigorous scientific study; photos taken during the space program that underscored Earth’s fragility; the counterculture-led interest in health and returning to nature; and, I would argue, the Santa Barbara oil spill of January 1969, in which 200,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the channel from a disabled oil rig, killing off birds and marine life.
Environmentalism had gone from the nation’s laboratories and aquariums to the American mainstream. President Nixon was only recognizing political reality when, in the same year as Earth Day, he signed the National Environmental Policy Act and set up the Environmental Protection Agency.
One legislative triumph after another followed for Senator Nelson, as he introduced bills that became part of the Clean Air Act, the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Water Quality Act, and the National Lakes Preservation Act.
By almost any measure, these actions improved the quality of American life. I saw its impact, in a microcosmic way, when I took a boat tour on the Chicago River several years ago. Our guide noted that many buildings along the route were turned, oddly enough, away from the river, while others faced toward it.
The reason was simple, he explained: Those buildings facing away from the waterway had been constructed before the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, while those looking on the river had been built afterward.
In fact, the stench from the river was so bad 40 years ago that the tour would not have even been possible then.
Over the past several years, I have wondered why the environmental movement lost so much of its impetus by the 1980s. If you’re a liberal, the explanation is clear: Ronald Reagan. To be sure, the environmental movement was hamstrung by such egregious administration appointees as James G. Watt, Rita Lavelle and Anne Gorsuch Burford, and some of Reagan’s decisions appear petulant slaps at Jimmy Carter’s environmental efforts, such as the 1986 removal of solar panels that Carter had ordered installed in the White House during the energy crisis of 1979.
But I’m afraid that at least some of the blame for the stalling of modern environmentalism should be directed to some of its founders.
It strikes me sometimes that nearly every reform movement attempts a metaphorical “bridge too far”—a moment when it makes a serious mistake and alienates those it is trying to help. In the case of environmentalism, that critical point was reached in the case of the Chicken Little calls for zero population growth.
In 1968, for instance, Paul Ehrlich forecast, in The Population Bomb, that the oceans would die by 1979. It didn’t come to pass, mostly because of Nobel Prize laureate Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution,” which has kept starvation in check for millions in Third World countries for the last 40 years.What did come to pass, however, was predictable.
By the late ‘70s, contraceptives had managed to drive the American fertility rates down barely to replacement levels, from 3.5 children per women to 1.7, but the country was still experiencing growth. There was one major cause of this, several prominent environmentalists believed: immigration. Something, they thought, needed to be done to regulate it.
I’m afraid that Senator Nelson was one of those people. Early in his career, he had identified population control as one of the goals of the environmental movement. Years after, he went down to defeat in the crushing Reagan landslide of 1980, he had become blunter in his message, dismissing charges that immigration controls represented “racism” or “nativism” in his book, Beyond Earth Day:
“Never has an issue with such major consequences for this country been so ignored. Never before has there been such a significant failure by the president, Congress, and the political infrastructure to address such an important issue. We are faced with the most important challenge of our time—the challenge of sustainability–and we refuse to confront it. It is the biggest default in our history.”
Not only could Nelson not be described as a fringe player in this portion of the environmental movement, but he was hardly alone. In 2003, a particularly cogent analysis of this segment of the movement appeared: Betsy Hartmann’s “Conserving Racism: The Greening of Hate at Home and Abroad.”
She pointed out that three members of the Sierra Club’s board of directors were key players in the anti-immigration lobby, and that John Tanton, a major organizer and funder of the anti-immigrant movement, has close ties to a number of racist hate groups. Christopher Hayes has outlined how Tanton founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the nation’s oldest and most influential immigration restriction group, in 1979.
As the son and grandson of immigrants, I can’t watch such developments without extreme dismay. The environmental movement cannot expect to make life better for all Americans if people like Nelson continue to lend credibility and talking points to people like Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh. It’s an especially ironic outcome that dims the legacy of Nelson, an otherwise proud exponent of Midwestern liberalism.
Editors: Sharon Pingitore / Andrea B.
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