Back in the 1960s, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and fellow Senate Democrat John Stennis of Mississippi never had much to say to each other. Nelson was chairman of the poverty subcommittee, had been an environmental activist since the early 60s, and was the leader in the attack on the perils of the internal combustion engine. For his part, the conservative Stennis ran the Senate Armed Services Committee like a doomsday machine. But just before Earth Day in 1970, the two lawmakers had a rare meeting. I’ve been thinking Gaylord, drawled Stennis, you know you are right. I am getting concerned about the environment, too. We’ve been lax. Its time to do something.
To be sure the time had come for action. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so overrun with volatile industrial discharges that the river caught fire and burnt two railroad trestles. A study revealed that American women carried in their breast milk three to ten times more of amounts of DDT than federal regulations permitted for human consumption and the air in Los Angeles could be cut with a knife.
ProgressAmerican-style-, he told me in an interview in 1969, adds up each year to 200 million tons of smoke and fumes, 7 million junked cars, 20 million tons of paper, 48 billion cans and 28 billion bottles. A few years before he died on July 3, 2005, he told a reporter, all across the country, evidence of environmental degradation was appearing everywhere, and everyone noticed except the political establishment.
What transformed that apathy into action was Nelsons brainchild, Earth Day, a nationwide protest shaped by the campus teach-ins against the Viet Nam War. On April 22, 1970 , more that 20 million citizens turned out to clean up rivers, march on their state capitols and pick up refuse for recycling. President Nixon, no environmentalist he yet always the astute politician jumped on the bandwagon. Besides creating the Environmental Protection Agency, he soon signed all the major bills which are the foundation of our environmental regulatory structure today The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. In the presidents next State of the Union address he declared that this must be the decade when America pays it debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and our living environment. It is literally now or never.
No one summed up the new movement better than Jesse Unruh, then the Democratic leader of California’s Assembly. Ecology, he said in 1970, has become the political substitute for the word mother. But it also triggered the debate over growth V. no growth which continues to today. Nelson, believing that that debate was a false one was adept at arguing that a cleaner environment and strong economic growth were compatible. He liked to point out that the world ecology derives from the Greek word oikos, means house and the study of houses or environments. The word economy, which has the same root, means the management of houses or environments.
No one knows what Nelson thought of the current decline in congressional bipartisanship that made all those first laws possible. However, he likely noted that the current Republican hostility to environmental protection was ironic given the fact that Republicans had every reason to claim that that their party’s record until the 1980s at least was no less distinguished than that of the Democrats. After all it was President Theodore Roosevelt, a staunch Republican if there ever was one, who set aside the first wildlife refuges and national monuments, a legacy that Richard Nixon proudly carried on.
The betting here is that he might have found a sliver of hope in the words of California Governor Schwarzenegger: Pollution reduction has long been a money saver for businesses. It lowers operating costs, raises profits and creates new and expanded markets for environmental technology. Similar words roused the nation in the 1960s when they were uttered by Gaylord Nelson, the true father of the modern environmental movement.
By James Bishop, Jr. the author of Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist, the Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey. He is based in Sedona, he was a Newsweek Correspondent in D.C. from 1966-77.