Some 45 years ago U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat, founded the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. To his great surprise, more than 20 million Americans joined together to celebrate, educate and ultimately fight for protection of the environment upon which all life on Earth depends.
While modern generations may find it hard to believe, prior to 1970 industrial pollution and environmental destruction were rampant in the U.S. This lawless exploitation of the nation’s resources resulted in horrific consequences almost unimaginable today. Heavily polluted rivers caught on fire; the Great Lakes, the single largest connected bodies of fresh water in the world, were shut down to commercial fishing due to industrial pollutants; factory smokestacks poured pollution into the atmosphere; and everywhere there were signs that we were killing our planet at an alarming pace.
The effort by Nelson and many others to raise environmental awareness bore significant fruit. Only months after Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency was established via executive order by Republican President Richard Nixon. That was followed in the next decade by foundational legislation to protect and restore the environment for future generations including the Clean Air Act, The Water Quality Improvement Act, the Water Pollution and Control Act Amendments, the Resource Recovery Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Toxic Substance Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the Superfund Act.
As a nation, we should all be proud of this American legacy to lead the globe in protecting and restoring our lands, air, water and wildlife. Moreover, it’s worth noting that, faced with the very real and evident need, Democrats and Republicans joined together to implement the measures needed to turn our environmental train wreck around.
But now, the very goals that produced Earth Day and subsequent landmark legislation are being threatened by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is being pushed by President Barack Obama, a handful of congressional Democrats and the majority of Republicans.
Better known as the TPP, the so-called “free” trade agreement has been negotiated largely in secret from the American public. President Obama wants “Fast Track” authority for the measure, which means Congress may review, but not amend, whatever trade agreement Obama’s negotiators finalize. To accomplish this travesty of democracy, the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 was introduced late last week by Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan.
Montanans – and Americans – with good memories can recall the disastrous effects of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, enacted during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Contrary to the promises of job creation, NAFTA did just the opposite, causing a tidal wave of corporate migration to low-wage nations such as Mexico, where environmental regulation is minimal, dealing a devastating blow to American manufacturing. Meanwhile, an influx of cheap Canadian lumber simply out-competed domestic production.
The TPP has been called “NAFTA on steroids” for good reason. First, it includes a significant number of Pacific Rim countries, from Australia to Vietnam to Canada. Second, it includes “investor-state” provisions that allow corporations to challenge the environmental protection laws of the nations that sign the pact if they feel their “expected future profits” have been diminished by regulatory policies. Thus they skirt the American legal system entirely by taking those challenges to international tribunals, where they can demand that taxpayers pick up the tab for their projected “losses.” And if this all sounds somewhat unbelievable, consider that more than $400 million has already been paid out under similar NAFTA provisions while a whopping $14 billion in claims is now pending over environmental policies, toxics bans, zoning and permits, and health and safety measures.
Luckily, TPP and the Fast Track bill have significant opposition in Congress and throughout the American public. Most Democrats are against the measures, joined by a significant number of breakaway Republicans who are repulsed by the concept of foreign corporations calling the shots on the American public.
As Gaylord Nelson asked after the first Earth Day: “Do we really have to destroy tomorrow in order to live today?” The answer must be NO — and since Congress is expected to move quickly on the Fast Track bill, now is the time to let your senators and representative, know where you stand.
More information: www.ExposeTheTPP.org
Take Action: bit.ly/VoteNOFastTrack
George Ochenski was a long-time environmental lobbyist at the Montana Legislature and is a columnist whose work has appeared in CounterPunch over many years.
This column originally appeared in the Missoulian.