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For The 50th Anniversary Of Earth Day, Reflecting On The Founder’s Vision

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Next Wednesday, April 22nd, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. So even though we’re living in strange and difficult times – with the coronavirus keeping most of us at home – it is an appropriate time to take stock of how we’re treating our home, the Earth.

The founder of Earth Day was U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. He was a pioneer in environmental advocacy who was at the center of successful legislative efforts to pass the federal Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act; as well as to ban the pesticide DDT; and create the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail.

Senator Nelson framed his vision for the environmental movement in broad terms in the very first Earth Day speech back in 1970.

“I don’t think there’s any other issue – viewed in its broadest sense – which is as critical to mankind as the issue of the quality of the environment in which we live,” Senator Nelson said. “Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and clean water, and scenic beauty, while forgetting about the worst environments in America. In the ghettos, and in Appalachias, and elsewhere.  Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings, and all other living creatures.”

Even before Nelson’s death in 2005, some environmental groups drifted away from his vision toward non-political, mostly feel-good goals, like tree and oyster plantings. But Nelson made clear in his first Earth Day speech that we need to do much more – to change our government, not just our light bulbs or recycling habits. Fighting for a healthier environment is an inherently political act that requires accountability for elected officials, Nelson said.

“If you create – as I think you should, and everybody should – an environmental political action organization in every community in America,” Nelson said. “And every member of the city council, the county board, the legislature, the Congress and candidate for president, should tell the public where they stand and what commitments they are prepared to meet, on the issue of the quality of living, and vote for or against them based on where they stand without regard to party affiliation. If we do that, and if we go to the polls, the system works very well.”

Over the half century since then, the system has worked only moderately well for the environment. Air pollution is down because of strong laws and regulations, as is brain-damaging led and mercury contamination in our environment. Some species, like Bald Eagles, Osprey, Great Blue Heron, deer and wild turkeys have come roaring back. But farm and suburban runoff pollution remain major problems for water pollution. And the Chesapeake Bay’s overall health has not improved at all since monitoring began in the 1980s, according to annual report cards by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Part of the problem is what Senator Nelson touched on in his speech about party affiliation.

Back in 1970, Republicans were as likely as Democrats to be environmentalists. Remember, it was Republican President Richard Nixon who founded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But starting in the 1990s, when the scientific consensus about climate change made it clear that only government regulations on the fossil fuel industry could save our planet from flooding and catastrophe, the Republican party changed. It became the rigidly anti-regulatory, anti-government party we see in the White House today that will accept no rules or financial restraints for industry.

Environmental protections – for the first time ever – became a political litmus test, like abortion or gun control.  And this political polarization – the opposite of what Senator Nelson dreamed about – has effectively frozen progress at the federal level on climate change and many other critical environmental issues over the last three decades.

The answer is not to retreat into ourselves, and our local communities. We should do what Senator Nelson told us to do: Organize and vote, and clean up our contaminated government.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.