“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”
— Isaac Asimov
Happy Earth Day! Our recognition of a day when we celebrate the earth was the brainchild of Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin who was horrified by the sight of an oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast in 1969. When Washington failed to take action, he was outraged by the inertia of officialdom and proposed a national teach-in, fashioned after the tactics used by anti-Vietnam-war activists.
In order to accommodate faculty and students who would be on spring break, he suggested that these events take place the following year on April 22, when classes would be back in session and the weather would likely be good. During that same period in the nation’s history, as pointed out by The Week, “smog-choked cities and contaminated rivers and lakes made Americans increasingly anxious about pollution from emissions, industrial waste, raw sewage, and other sources.”
In response to the country’s caprice, President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, the same year as the first observance of Earth Day. It was a happy coincidence involving an agency and an event that went hand in hand.
As activists were gearing up for the first round of teach-ins, Congress was amending the Clean Air Act of 1963, granting the EPA “broad powers to regulate emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes…” Two years later, the EPA was given similar authority over waterways and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. Then the EPA became the agency that regulated pesticides and other chemicals that were sprayed into the air or spread on the soil. And, when toxins seeped into the Love Canal, sickening hundreds of New York residents in 1978, the EPA was charged with administering the Superfund.
Although the EPA seemed to be doing a good job according to most Americans, it was seen as an adversary by both big and small business. By the time Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, anti-EPA lobbyists had persuaded legislators that the “super agency” had to be reined in. Also, the culture was shifting away from the war and post-war activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Although teach-ins continued across the nation, the fiery spirit that typified the birth of the movement had cooled off considerably. The 1980s were a very different era, one in which the Alex P. Keaton image, popularized by Michael J. Fox on “Family Ties,” replaced that of the free-spirited hippie.
President Reagan was right in step with this paradigm shift. During his campaign, he had actively campaigned against “environmental extremists” and set his sights on the EPA as his favorite target.
His choice to head the agency was Anne Gorsuch, mother of our newest Supreme Court Justice. She was pretty much the antithesis of everything that the EPA and environmentalists stood for. The Week states, “Known for wearing fur coats, driving a gas-guzzling Cadillac, and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, Gorsuch took Washington by storm.” But the “storm” didn’t last very long because the idea of cleaning up the environment enjoyed widespread public support, and the EPA made a major comeback under both Republican and Democratic presidents who succeeded Reagan.
Meanwhile, 20 years after its founding, Earth Day was still in the early stages of building momentum. President George H.W. Bush was the first president to declare Earth Day a national holiday (1990). Since then, Earth Day has been celebrated annually in the United States. Over the last decade of the 20th century, the movement continued to grow and spread to all parts of the world, and countries are now linked through the Internet by the Earth Day Network.
March for science
“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson
The year’s Earth Day theme is “March for Science,” a slogan chosen to reaffirm the idea that science serves all of us. Science isn’t Democratic or Republican. It isn’t liberal or conservative. In fact, it isn’t political at all, although it can certainly be used and misused by politicians of any stripe. According to its website, the March for Science “is the first step of a global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.”
Writing for Grist, Gina McCarthy opines, “So this Earth Day, here’s a reminder of a few of the environmental challenges our nation has conquered, with the EPA leading the way ...” Acid rain levels have declined by 60 percent. Because of leaded gas for our cars and leaded paint in our homes, children were in danger of experiencing permanent nerve damage, anemia, and mental retardation. Eighty-eight percent of our kids had elevated levels of lead in their bloodstreams in the 1970s; now fewer than one percent are at risk.
Over the past 45 years, we’ve cut air pollution by 70 percent, although that statistic probably doesn’t hold true in our valley. But, in Southern California, children’s lungs are “10 percent bigger and stronger today than they were in children 20 years ago.” Moreover, the strict standards that were adopted for aerosol spray have reduced the amount of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere, allowing the hole in the ozone layer to heal itself. And there are far too many other “wins” to cover in one column.
With the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, there are many new challenges that need to be addressed, and Earth Day should be the perfect venue. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt brought more than a dozen lawsuits against the EPA. Now, he sees his role as a spokesman for energy and jobs. His goals seem to be to dismantle programs that promote renewable energy and curb greenhouse gas emissions. He will likely try to change rules that require cars and light trucks to achieve an average of 36 miles per gallon by 2025. And, he’s eyeing the expansion of streams and wetlands that qualify for federal protections.
However, recent polls by both Gallup and Pew Research have found that Americans favor protecting the environment over more fossil-fuel development. But, as William Ruckelshaus, the former EPA chief who was appointed by President Reagan, points out, “To a certain extent, we are victims of our own success. It is not so obvious to people that pollution problems exist and that we need to deal with them.” And, of course, that’s what Earth Day is all about.