Albion Monitor /Commentary

25 Years of Environmental Politics

by Doug LaFollette

Our response to the obvious environmental insults that inspired the first Earth Day

The first Earth Day in 1970 and the modern environmental movement were born out of the crises of the 1960's. They were motivated by an aversion to choking on the air we breathe, being poisoned by the water we drink, and burying ourselves in the garbage we discard.

Reflecting on the past 25 years of environmental politics in this country I would break this brief history into three stages. The first, which I call the "big chunks period," was our response to the obvious environmental insults that inspired the first Earth Day. The now-famous story of the Cuyahoga River which caught fire in Cleveland, the infamous weekend in Pittsburgh when 26 people died as a result of air pollution-related illness, the "fishless" Fox River in Wisconsin, and dozens of similar incidents around the nation attracted the attention of a great many people and, eventually, their political "followers." After the 25-year growth and development fling following WWII, the black smokestacks, smelly garbage dumps and polluted rivers ushered in the "big chunks period" which was highlighted by Earth Day 1970.

The response to this realization was some environmental awareness and some action to deal with the most obvious insults to Planet Earth. Clean Air, Water and Superfund Acts were passed by Congress, and the Environmental Protection Agency was created. Most politicians learned to pronounce the word environment and school children made posters encouraging recycling and started asking their parents a few tough questions.

The value system that puts profit, convenience and short-term thinking before environmental preservation

All this resulted in some very positive changes. Great strides were made in cleaning up so called "point sources"; black soot from coal burning power plants, foul wastes from industrial outfalls and untreated sewage entering our waterways all became a thing of the past, or at least illegal activities. Garbage dumps have been replaced with sanitary landfills, and to some extent, by recycling. The nation's symbol, the Bald Eagle, is on the way to recovery and wolves have been introduced into the Yellowstone biota, although western politicos make hay with some voters by introducing bills to pay bounties on these endangered creatures. Still, with some fear of being labeled a Pollyanna, I think we can acknowledge that most of the "big chunks" are gone.

However, after a decade of post-Earth Day activities, many of us came to appreciate that really saving our environment was not going to be so easy. Band-Aid measures, political rhetoric, ineffective regulatory agencies, and a lack of public appreciation of environmental ethics have been the legacy of the 1980's. In short, we had all hoped for "painless" solutions to serious systemic problems.

The black smoke may be gone, but the invisible gases, CO2 and SO2, are causing the planet-threatening crises of global warming and acid rain. Fish have returned to our lakes and streams, but we are warned not to eat them because of high levels of toxins such as mercury, PCBs and a host of other human-made poisons.

Some of these may be radically disrupting the reproductive systems of fish, birds and, of course, ourselves. Most disturbing, the underlying cause of all environments impacts, a rapidly expanding human population, goes on unchecked, and for the most part undiscussed. In 1970 the Earth's human population stood at 3.8 billion and was increasing at the rate of two per second. Today we have reached the unsustainable level of 5.6 billion and are blithely adding to this number to the tune of three per second. (A number of international biologists have estimated that the Earth can sustainably support fewer that two billion people.)

The almost universal realization that things are not getting better, along with impatience over neglect on the part of governments and polluting corporations, led citizens in 140 countries across the planet to come together on April 22, 1990, to focus on what we had come to realize since the first Earth Day.

This was the defining point in the second period of recent environmental history, what I call the "it ain't as simple as we thought" stage. During this period, a growing number of people started articulating the belief that our survival will depend on both our understanding of the necessity of true ecological thinking and on our ability to take personal and political action to change the value system that puts profit, convenience and short-term thinking before environmental preservation.

What will follow this "backlash" period?

Learning to appreciate that we occupy a very small niche in the ecology of nature; that we cannot continue to pollute our finite world and destroy other species and their habitats; that we are just one interrelated link in a complex system of living things; and that we are totally dependent on our environment for our survival comes as a rude awakening to many people. Change frightens most people, especially those who are getting rich exploiting our finite resources for very short term gain. The recognition that "growth" cannot continue and that there must be serious limits to human activity is a paradigm shift many refuse to accept.

Saying no to polluting projects, products and technologies is a far better solution than trying to "clean up" expensive and life-endangering messes after they have been created. This idea upsets both the polluting industries and the regulatory systems they have learned to manipulate or buy off. Suggesting that the over-consuming first world nations cut back and learn to find happiness in something other than more and more electric toys, diet dog food and second homes on 5 acre lots upsets those "in power". And finally, telling people that they should consider having no more than one child per family is not the way to get elected to high office.

The general public's reluctance to change has allowed the powerful corporate interests to be quite successful in creating an anti-environmental mood in the country. This is the third and current stage -- "the backlash." Funded with big money from mining, timber, oil and chemical industries and aided by the superficial natterings of the "Rush" and "Newt" crowds, those who profit from the status quo have succeeded in creating an effective backlash to 20 years of progress in environmental protection. They have set up numerous front organizations which publish a steady flow of articles and books with no peer review and employ a few vocal scientists who travel the lecture and talk show circuit.

What will follow this "backlash" period? The "new wave" thinking in Congress is trying to scrap 20 years of meaningful progress and sell off our national parks and forests to the highest bidder. The anti-government mood is running high in this country, but recent polls show that large majorities of the public still favor protecting the environment. How will this schism between public opinion and corporate financed politicians turn out? Will the "backlash" fade or will money and influence carry the day? These are the critical questions of the Politics of Our Environment, the answers to which may determine our very survival.

People in their neighborhoods, in their communities and in their nations must take an active role in responding to these questions. They will have to inform themselves and then come together and commit to protecting and preserving the planet Earth.

Some of the most important environmental challenges of our time are going to be won or lost during the next ten years. If we are successful, the next stage of environmental history can be a safe and healthy environment for our children and grandchildren: a sustainable society that embraces a true environmental ethic -- the final stage.

Doug LaFollette organized Earth Day 1970 and the "big one" in 1990. He is now Wisconsin Secretary of State.

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Albion Monitor April 15, 1996 (

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