Earth Day the First–launched in April 1970 with 1500 events mostly on college campuses by enormous student energy–led the television network news and made the covers of the national news magazines.
Earth Day the Thirty Seventh–in April 2007–was broader based than the First Day but in many ways more debased by corporate greenwashing, and political posturing marinated in corporate campaign cash.
A comparison of the two periods, both characterized by a surge in ecological recognitions of perils and possibilities, is instructive.
In 1970, the environmental arousal focused on pesticides, air and water pollution, with attention to workplace toxics contributing to occupational diseases. Widely publicized were the inversions in the Los Angeles area, chocking with vehicles, and the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland where seeping petroleum slicks were sometimes set on fire–on the river!
The action goals were legislative authority directing the federal executive agencies to regulate and reduce permissible pollution. Compared with today, legislation passed through Congress at a torrid pace. Objecting corporate lobbyists were swept aside.
Among the bills enacted into law were the water pollution and air pollution statutes, the drinking water safety act, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
So prevalent and visible were millions of Americans calling for action that Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford signed them into law with strong statements of support for their promised purposes. He rode the wave rolling across the country to Washington, D.C.
Some results were measurable. The ouster of lead in gasoline and paint reduced the level of lead in peoples’ bodies. Levels of vinyl chloride in the bodies of industrial workers disappeared. Asbestos was close to being banned for most commercial purposes. The first mandatory fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles were issued in 1975 to be met by 1985 at the average fleet mark of 27.5 miles per gallon.
Then came the corporate counterattack replete with money, muscle and daily propaganda. Regulation was blamed for everything save spots on the sun. Deregulation became the mantra that rewarded more and more elected politicians who performed the requisite courtesies and bows. By 1980 the Democrats had joined the race for business campaign cash with the Republicans. The Reagan era began, led by an ex-actor who said that most air pollution came from trees.
Corporate apologists started writing reams of materials about public-private partnerships and marketplace trading of pollution credits. They compromised government’s arms length responsibilities with joint ventures where taxpayer monies were used by Washington, D.C. to subsidize collusive auto industry research, for example, under the Clinton Administration. These projects went nowhere, wasting billions of dollars and shielding in the process auto company exposure to regulation and to the antitrust laws.
The massive environmental stall had begun. Less technology-forcing regulation, less enforcement and less overdue lawmaking to provide ethical-legal frameworks for new risks coming from genetic engineering, nano-technology and the relentless use of many invasive new chemicals in the human environment.
Today, there are reports of many more global Earth Day events, including the global warming networking of Al Gore. Awareness of both the sustaining role of oceans, rivers, air quality, forests, prairies and the enormous costs of their damage or displacement is understood by many more people then in 1970. Consider the remarkable roll-back of the tobacco industry’s deliberate addiction of their customers at an early age.
Companies are rushing to give themselves a clearer environmental image with chain stores taking on more organic food and spreading their environmental labeling of products. More so-called green buildings are under construction. Companies like General Electric are talking a good game, but they are working to bring back nuclear power with all its costs, risks and taxpayer subsidies.
So for all the greenwashing, the auto industries are still on Congress blocking improved fuel efficiencies for motor vehicles which presently are the lowest since 1980. Electric generating plants–often burning coal–have not significantly changed their gross design inefficiencies of bygone years.
The coal barons are still blowing off the mountaintops and widening the land areas they are strip-mining. Asthma rates among children are climbing. Land erosion continues unabated.
One can gauge the lack of progress three ways.
Is the country moving expeditiously to make existing "best practices" the overall practice throughout the economy?
Are we applying the insight of Professor Barry Commoner that prevention is better than tepid often evaded controls of specific, harmful pollutants, as we did when we took the lead out of paint and gasoline?
Do we have a massive conversion agenda, led by leading politicians for solar energy in all its efficient forms, including wind power, and for the dramatic improvements in energy efficiency now readily available for application?
For the most part, the answer to these questions is NO!
RALPH NADER is the author of The Seventeen Traditions