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Wise Words


I thought it useful to reprint part of Senator Gaylord Nelson’s speech from the first Earth Day, in 1970:

I congratulate you, who by your presence here today demonstrate your concern and commitment to an issue that is more than just a matter of survival. How we survive is the critical question.

Earth Day is dramatic evidence of a broad new national concern that cuts across generations and ideaologies. It may be symbolic of a new communication between young and old about our values and priorities.

Take advantage of this broad new agreement. Don’t drop out of it. Pull together a new national coalition whose objective it is to put Gross National Quality on par with Gross National Product.

Campaign nationwide to elect an “Ecology Congress” as the 92nd Congress–a Congress that will build bridges between our citizens and between man and nature’s systems, instead of building more highways and dams and new weapons systems that escalate the arms race.

Earth Day can–and it must–lend a new urgency and a new support to solving the problems that still threaten to tear the fabric of this society….the problems of race, of war, of poverty, of modern-day institutions.

Ecology is a big science, a big concept–not a copout. It is concerned with the total eco-system–not just with how we dispose of our tin cans, bottles, and sewage.

Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.

Environment is a problem perpetuated by the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars a year on the Vietnam War, instead on our decaying, crowded, polluted urban areas that are inhuman traps for millions of people.

If our cities don’t work, America won’t work. And the battle to save them and the end the divisiveness that still splits this country won’t be won in Vietnam.

Winning the environmental war is a whole lot tougher challenge by far than winning any other war in the history of Man. It will take $20 to $25 billions more a year in federal money than we are spending or asking for now.

Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.

Our goal is a new American ethic that sets new standards for progress, emphasizing human dignity and well being rather than an endless parade of technology that produces more gadgets, more waste, more pollution.

Are we able to meet the challenge? Yes. We have the technology and the resources.

Are we willing? That is the unanswered question.

Establishing quality on par with quantity is going to require new national policies that quite frankly will interfere with what many have considered their right to use and abuse the air, the water, the land, just because that is what we have always done.

I reprint this because it so encapsulates what environmentalism should be and what it has been in the past. Notice the sheer humanism of this speech. The focus is not just on wilderness but on people–on engaging the poorest of American citizens in the fight for a better environment. At its height, environmentalism was a movement about the air we all breathe and the water we all drink, as well as the wilderness that only some of us get to and the animals that most of us don’t see. There’s lots of reasons why the people-oriented side of environmentalism fell apart ten years after Earth Day–the two biggest being that Reagan shut off federal access to environmentalists and generational changes that emphasized the consumption of public lands through recreation over the war on poverty. We still suffer for this today, in a world where many Americans don’t see climate change as a major threat, or at least something they have to worry much about.

Of course, there are advocates working on an environmentalism of the poor, especially in the environmental justice movement, but there’s also real separation between that version of environmentalism and what most of us think of when we think of environmentalism. That’s a problem that everyone knows exists but no one has much of an idea how to fix.

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  • DC

    Great speech, though I do think as someone who works in the environmental policy field that the past two decades have seen a significant refocus on human aspects of environmental management, with such things as ecosystem-based management, Integrated Conservation and Development Projects, the environmental justice movement you mentioned, and local grassroots/government alliances.

    • Linnaeus

      I work in environmental consulting, and I’d second this observation.

    • I agree that things in this realm are definitely better than they were in 1990.

      I also think though that the grassroots side of this is really lacking, although that’s hardly the singular fault of environmental organizations.

      • Linnaeus

        Grassroots actions tend to be pretty localized (maybe that’s inherent to that form of organization) – without revealing too much, one of the projects I’m working on came about due to grassroots activism.

        • Sure. What made the environmental movement successful in the 60s and 70s was that all these localized movements coalesced around a series of principles that had legislative support and made a real impact.

  • c u n d gulag

    Ah, yes, the environmentalists good old days.

    In the late 70’s, Jimmy Carter put solar panels up on the White House roof, to make a point about saving energy.

    One of the first things Reagan did when he was sworn in, was to tear them down.

    Why would Conservatives ever want to actually conserve, when they much prefer to trash things, and mock Liberals while they do it?

    • c u n d gulag

      Oh yeah, and if the Cuyahoga River was ever on fire again, our Conservatives would say, “Never mind The Statue of Liberty – this, THIS, is the real beacon of freedom and liberty!”

      • Scott Walker is pushing to open a 22 mile long gash in the Wisconsin Northwoods for the extraction industry, easing environmental protections, charging the local small communities for the infrastructure damage, and calling it a jobs program.

        So, pretty much what you said.

        • Cody

          Sacrifices have to be made to increase growth in the US.

          Notably, unless you’re at least a millionaire we’re going to need you to give back all that money you stole from the job creators.

  • j

    I think Erik has to provide a more support for the assertion (mostly implied) that environmentalism has somehow moved away from worrying about environmental effects on people. I know he’s floated this idea before, but I don’t think he’s ever been convincing about it. Some types of envirnomentalism and some environmentalists are anti-anthropocentrism, but the environmental movement now, as then, is deeply concerned with human issues. Now if you want to talk pure perception, fine. The right has done a good job (as with so many other issues) of convincing people that all environmentalism is is about taking your [whatever] in order to save the Blind Blue-Bellied Swamp Snail. But I don’t think that has much to do with the underlying issues that environmentalists and environmental groups care about and are working on.

    • In short, the environmentalism of the 60s and 70s was a very people-centric movement. It was about the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. It engaged with organized labor, with consumer groups, with all sorts of organizations. It was also about wilderness and the preservation of nature in ways that might not benefit humans directly. By the 1980s, the former set of environmental concerns had definitely taken a back seat to the latter set of concerns, which had the problem of separating environmentalism from the grassroots. It became a movement about technical experts and Washington lobbying and not about the streets and engaging people to as activists in the communities where they lived and worked. It was a movement about sending money to large environmental organizations to save polar bears rather than, say, cleaning up coal slurry.

      Now, there’s definitely a big place for that latter movement. We need those big green organizations and wilderness and wildlife protection. But such a movement also has certain political liabilities that are really hard to overcome without a larger environmental movement that motivates people to be active in their own environmental communities. That’s been lacking for 30 years.

      • j

        I see. You seem to be talking more about methods and organizations than what issues are being focused on. I’d agree with that — that the environmental movement has gotten more top down, technocratic, etc.

        I think most of this is a result of the successes of the 1970s rather than some kind of purposeful change in direction. There’s less to do at a local level on clean air and water because so much of that is controlled at the national level. So it becomes all about EPA lobbying and APA lawsuits rather than anything local and democratic.

        • It’s about issues too. The 1980s was very much about wilderness and endangered species and not very much about air and water.

          Some of the problem is that real successes occurred over clean air and pollution. Of course, at the same time that this was happening, our political system was encouraging corporations to invest in other countries. But even besides that, there are very great problems with exposure to toxic materials, bad housing, and other issues that predominantly affect the poor. Which in part is the problem. We don’t much care about the poor.

          • SteveHinSLC

            I think this point explains it. As you pointed out in your prior comment, the environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s was about the Clear Air Act and the Clean Water Act. But those both got enacted, and they have done very well, so that now, “pollution” isn’t really much of an issue for most non-poor Americans in most places. (Air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley in the winter is a big exception to this.)

            So because “we” generally don’t care much about the poor, issues about their environment aren’t as big of a deal to “us.”

            • It’s one point in a multifaceted problem. It’s far from a singular explanation to the decline of environmentalism as a mass movement. But it is a valid point that does explain the situation in part.

          • j

            I’d still say that you haven’t carried your burden of showing that your underlying premise is true. Is contemporary environmentalism actually ignoring “toxic materials, bad housing, and other issues that predominatly affect the poor”? Go to the website of a large, generalist environmental group and I think you’ll find that they’re working on issues that concern everyday people. Oil spills and fracking are big issues that have a lot of the resonance that they have due to the way they could potentially affect the rural poor. The anti-coal movement is not only about global warming; there’s a definite air quality aspect to it that disproportionately affects the poor who live near coal-fired power plants. I think GMO concerns are way overblown, but that also is about the health of “real people.” CERCLA still exists and Superfund sites are being cleaned up, most often in poor urban areas. Trying to regulate agricultural runoff is a huge issue that, again, largely affects water poor rural people drink.

    • One other point–

      Certainly climate change is a movement about people as well as the rest of the ecosystem. But it isn’t a movement that engages people directly on the issues that affect their daily lives. So it remains a movement that motivates the big environmental organizations and activist groups that work with McKibben, but it also has made almost no inroads with most Americans, in part because it’s very difficult to make concrete connections between climate change and Tuesday night.

  • pete

    A quick plug for Lewis Lapham’s current piece on The Conquest of Nature (and what we’ve lost). The link is to Tom Dispatch, it’s also at Utne Reader and should be on newsstands in his own Quarterly. There are many dimensions to environmentalism, and his is an important one. So is the blue-green alliance, which does exists as a formal organization but is also important at the local, less formal level.

  • Karate Bearfighter

    Erik, where does Gaylord Nelson fit in on your list of Most Prominent Politicians for Wisconsin?

    • Don’t know. People were so bitchy about the Indiana list that I stopped doing them.

      • Manju

        You got a West Virginia one?

      • Karate Bearfighter


  • Manju

    What we have today that we didn’t in the 1970’s is a major Venture Capital industry. That means we now have massive amounts of capital being thrown at disruptive technologies, ie those designed to rattle if not takeover big, incumbent-driven industries.

    Big Oil is in the crosshairs. Ergo, the $$ being pured into batter technology that will make the electric car viable. I recall the Saudis demanding reparations when this comes to pass.

    • Manju

      $$ being pured into batter technology t

      that should be; “$$ being poured into battery….”

      • GFW

        I figured it was that, or a round-about pancake reference.

  • joel hanes

    There are things you can do that will make a tangible and significant difference.

    Wherever you live, The Nature Conservancy in your state has a list of projects and preservation objectives — places in which, with care, we have a good chance of retaining intact a portion of the web of living things on which we all depend. You can exchange your time and energy, and perhaps some of your money, for a deep involvement in keeping the otters or orchids or beaver or sundew or praire wildflowers or pine forest endemic in your area from being lost in the coming climate change.

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