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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Earth Day at 25 Years: A Retrospective of the Environmental Movement

Air Date: Week of

The first Earth Day in1970 brought environmentalism into the mainstream with an unprecedented ground swell of participation. Reporter Terry FitzPatrick examines the events that shaped the movement, and talks to some of its founders about what they believe it has yet to achieve.


CURWOOD: Twenty-five years ago, the world celebrated the first earth day, and a broad social movement began. Environmental awareness has since moved from the margins to the mainstream of U.S. society. Green thinking has become popular in schools and welcome in the workplace. Many of us link the environment to our food and water, our homes and even the cars we drive. And just how did environmental activism gain this success? Reporter Terry Fitzpatrick of member station KPLU in Seattle tells us the story.

FITZPATRICK: If you look at the headlines of 1960, you'd never think America was on the verge of an environmental revolution.

(John F. Kennedy: "If I'm elected president, or whoever may be, I think we should...")

FITZPATRICK: As John F. Kennedy was promising a new generation of leadership, he was also stressing the need for economic development, not conservation.

(Kennedy: "The development of the resources of this country to prepare the way for the 300 million people who are going to live here in 40 years, I think, is is an essential requirement...")

FITZPATRICK: But shortly after Kennedy took office, the environment edged into the popular culture. The book Silent Spring revealed the dangers of pesticides. Another book, The Population Bomb, became a bestseller. Musicians like Tom Lehrer were singing about pollution.

(Lehrer: "If you visit American city, you will find it very pretty. Just two things of which you must beware: don't drink the water and don't breathe the air. Pollution, pollution, they got smog and sewage and mud. Turn on your tap, and get hot and cold running crud...")

FITZPATRICK: Still, the environmental movement had yet to coalesce. The issues of clean air and water were viewed as intellectual concerns. Banning atomic bomb tests and creating wilderness areas weren't seen as related issues. Activists like Dennis Hayes felt limited.

HAYES: All of this was coming together but they were separate strands. Nobody sort of put them together in a concerted effort that got them a higher priority in people's minds or linked them all together as being emblematic of a - of a shared set of values.

FITZPATRICK: Ironically, one of the crowning technological achievements of the 60s, President Kennedy's space program, would inadvertently provide America with a shared experience that helped inspire the environmental movement.

(Frank Borman?: "This transmission is coming to you approximately halfway between the moon and the earth." Ground Control: "Roger.")

FITZPATRICK: It was Christmas, and for the first time ever, people could see pictures of the Earth as one planet: a fragile home in a forbidding blackness.

(Borman?: "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.")

FITZPATRICK: The image of one Earth helped to unify the country, and on April 22, 1970, concern for the health of the planet exploded in an unprecedented display of support.

("This is a CBS News special. Earth Day: A question of survival. With CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite." Cronkite: "Good evening. A unique day in American history is ending: a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival...")

FITZPATRICK: Earth Day was part teach-in, part mass mobilization. Its organizer, Dennis Hayes, spoke at a rally in Washington.

(Hayes: "We are systematically destroying our land, our streams, and our seas. We foul our air, deaden our senses, and pollute our bodies. That's what America's become. That's what we have to challenge...")

FITZPATRICK: It was a challenge not everyone was willing to accept.

(News broadcast: "Some quarters saw more than coincidence in the fact that Earth Day occurred on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lenin, the father of Soviet communism. And the Controller General of Georgia, James Bentley, sent out $1,600 worth of telegrams warning that Earth Day might be a Communist plot.")

FITZPATRICK: But Earth Day events attracted 20 million participants: more than enough to dispel the critics and create the political momentum that Dennis Hayes was seeking.

HAYES: What we wanted to have was people at the end of it who understood these issues, cared about them passionately, were prepared to vote on the basis of such issues, were prepared to make changes in their own lives - in everything from the number of children that they had to the kind of automobile that they drove, on the basis of what they learned.

FITZPATRICK: It worked. It grabbed the attention of Congress. Leon Billings, then Chief of Staff for the Senate Air and Water Committees, says Earth Day turned environmentalism into an unstoppable political force.

BILLINGS: There was a tremendous wellspring of - of goodwill among young people who were looking for something to be for, after the bloodletting of the Vietnam War demonstrations and so on. And the environmental issue was a perfect - I mean, it was a perfect opportunity.

FITZPATRICK: Politicians had to support the environmental cause simply to survive, even president Nixon.

(Nixon: "Because there are no local or state boundaries to the problems of our environment, the Federal Government must play an active, positive role. We can and will set standards. We can and will exercise leadership. We are providing the necessary...")

FITZPATRICK: Leon Billings says Nixon didn't really are about the environment. What he cared about was the environmental vote, which was lining up to support Edmund Muskie's bid to challenge Nixon for President.

BILLINGS: The whole White House strategy was to try to cut Muskie off from that constituency through pre-empting those issues. We got into one of those wonderful points in American politics where you had political one-upmanship as between Congress and the President.

FITZPATRICK: In short order, this one-upmanship resulted in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency; all these environmental landmarks were approved in just 3 years. The early 70s had become an environmental renaissance. The environment was even the province of musical superstars.

(Marvin Gaye?: "Whoa, oh, mercy, mercy me. Oh, things ain't what they used to be, no, no. Where did all the blue skies go? Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and sea...")

HAYES: Suddenly, here was a movement in which a - a middle-class housewife who had never done anything activist before in her life but cared passionately about the kind of world she was passing on to her kids - there was a role in this one for her.

FITZPATRICK: Dennis Hayes and other activists won praise from all directions. Even Republicans, like Williams Ruckleshaus, head of the newly-formed EPA.

RUCKLESHAUS: As a society, we owe a debt to those who have made the environment a call to action. They are for the most part sincere, dedicated, and fair-minded advocates of environmental responsibility.

FITZPATRICK: But it wasn't an unbroken string of environmental victories; there were major defeats. The first big fight under the Endangered Species Act was lost when Congress approved a dam that wiped out a fish called the snail darter. In the wake of the OPEC oil embargo, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was approved. As the 70s drew to a close, environmentalism had lost some of its magic. But then came Love Canal.

(Broadcaster: "An unusual hostage incident is underway in Niagara Falls, New York tonight. No weapons are involved, as 2 officials of the Environmental Protection Agency are being held against their will by members of the Love Canal Homeowners Association at the group's headquarters. The two hostages are...")

FITZPATRICK: Residents of Niagara Falls, America's honeymoon capital, were getting sick because of chemical leaks from the Love Canal dump site. Angry homeowners were fighting back. This was a blue collar town. People like Lois Gibbs hadn't been part of the environmental consciousness that swept the country.

GIBBS: When I lived in Niagara Falls, and we smelled chemicals, and we had black clouds, we had brown clouds, we had white clouds, I mean it was terrible. We smelled that and we thought: good economy. We didn't think air pollution poison because we didn't understand. Because nobody was talking about it at our level.

FITZPATRICK: But soon the entire nation was talking about toxic waste. This was just the first of many communities to learn that chemical dumping could threaten human health. Love Canal was evaluated; so was Times Beach, Missouri. Then, the Superfund list was developed, detailing America's worst hazardous waste sites.

GIBBS: The release of the list woke up America in a way that they had never been woken up before, because every local paper took the list and talked about the sites in their community. Everybody said, "I've got a Love Canal," and so people really became concerned. They saw their self-interest and they wanted something done immediately.

FITZPATRICK: Lois Gibbs founded a clearinghouse to help others who were fighting toxic dump sites. It was the beginning of a second wave of environmental awareness among working class people.

GIBBS: None of us were trained organizers. None of us had any experience in even being an environmentalist. If you were to ask my neighbors today if they were an environmentalist they would say no. What we're about is fighting for justice.

FITZPATRICK: Other events continued to strengthen support for the environment, most notably the nuclear power accident at Three Mile Island. But suddenly, in 1981, the movement was on the defensive. Ronald Reagan took over the White House. To Reagan, environmental groups were special interests that hurt the economy. It was time for business to have a stronger voice. Leading the charge was Secretary of the Interior James Watt.

(Watt: "Businessmen pay taxes. Businesspeople have rights. All Americans won in November, and those liberals from the special interest groups are furious that the positions of power have been opened up to America for Americans. And that's our objective...")

FITZPATRICK: Watt wanted to roll back environmental programs and open more public lands to things like mining and grazing. But the Reagan revolution foundered when it came to the environment. Congress was unwilling to water down the landmark legislation that Leon Billings had helped to craft a decade before.

BILLINGS: We survived the Reagan-Watt era, these policies survived, because of their militancy. People, the American public, saw what they were proposing as too radical.

FITZPATRICK: Watt unwittingly helped his opponents. He showed a remarkable lack of political finesse, such as this comment when announcing his appointments to a Federal commission.

(Watt: I've appointed the Lenos Commission, 5 members: 3 Democrats, 2 Republicans. Every kind of mix you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, 2 Jews and a cripple. And ... ")

FITZPATRICK: Watt undermined the Administration's credibility on environmental policy. Even Vice President George Bush distanced himself from the Reagan record. In his run for the White House in 1988, Bush said he'd be the environmental president. Later, events like the Exxon Valdez oil spill hardened public resolve to protect the environment. But as the movement approached its 20th anniversary, activists were worried by the lesson they'd learned during the Reagan years: that legislative gains are vulnerable to changing political tides. Dennis Hayes was steering the emphasis of Earth Day 1990 toward a broader societal goal and away from a focus on government.

HAYES: There was a widespread correct perception that some of those laws had not worked terribly well, and that we probably had to do some things that affected the culture, affected the society in ways other than by placing legal restrictions and regulatory restrictions upon something that reached into people's behavior.

(Woman: "We have 3 types of trash bins around; they're not hard to miss. We have one for aluminum only, one for bottles and one for just trash. So help us trash your trash. Thanks.")

FITZPATRICK: Earth Day 1990 focused on individual environmental responsibility: things like recycling, waste reduction, energy conservation. The event revitalized the movement, but it felt more like a festival than political rally. It was a place to take the kids.

GIRL: We are a student group showing adults that kids care about the environment, too.

WOMAN: Your exhibit's called The Next Generation. Why?

GIRL: Because we're the next generation; it's going to be our world in about 30 years. So we better make sure it has a future.

FITZPATRICK: What does the future hold? One of the nation's premiere environmentalists is now Vice President, but advocates for property rights and economic growth seem to control the political agenda. Activists like Lois Gibbs say to meet this challenge, the movement needs to build its grass roots support among minorities, working people, and others directly affected by environmental problems.

GIBBS: Historically, we talked about rivers and air and endangered species and trees and so forth. This next 25 years is going to be really looking at people. And people are going to become the endangered species, and people are going to be the ones who define the laws that affect our environment and affect the way we do things.

FITZPATRICK: Long-time organizers like Denis Hayes think the movement should also rekindle the ideals of 1970. He feels Earth Day's big message - building an environmentally-sustainable economy - has largely been lost.

HAYES: This has been much more a reformist movement. Its achievements start from a presumption that, that the fundamentals are good. What we need to do is scrub up around the edges and make things a little bit cleaner. And partly as a consequence of that, most of our heroic victories and expensive victories over the last 25 years have stopped the nation from getting very much worse during that period. But we haven't really profoundly improved in very many areas.

FITZPATRICK: Profound improvement, says Hayes, includes a lowering of the birth rate and a dramatic drop in the use of natural resources. He says we must change the way we think about the Earth: a spiritual transformation. Although the environmental revolution has come a long way in this fundamental regard, the revolution has just begun. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry Fitzpatrick reporting.



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