Earth Day: Effective in promoting environmental protection?

I like nature. I hike and have a garden. I know the Missouri state flower is the hawthorn and the state tree is the flowering dogwood. I like to drink clean water and breathe clean water. I buy dolphin safe tuna.  Call me a crazy environmentalist, if you must. But wait: I  doubt the efficacy of Earth Day.  I’ve been dubious about it since April 22, 1970 despite spending several days with the late-Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, and bringing him to Columbia in 1997. Earth Day did not “start it all.”

Below is my op ed published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in April 2010.


Opinion    St. Louis Post Dispatch

Moving on from Earth Day

History • The “green” movement began well more than 40 years ago.

  • By David J. Webber
  • Apr 22, 2010

The week of April 22 will bring annual Earth Day activities with festivities, speeches and editorials all mentioning that it is the 40th anniversary of the “beginning of the environmental movement.” Earth Day 1970 was a day of teach-ins across the nation, but it was not the beginning of U.S. environmental policy making.

The founder of Earth Day is widely acknowledged to be the late Gaylord Nelson, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1962 to 1981 after serving as governor of Wisconsin. He said he had the idea after seeing anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins” in 1969 and aspired “to inspire a public demonstration so big it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and force the environmental issue onto the national political agenda.”

I was a college freshman on Earth Day 1970. Even then I had trouble reconciling the few, but highly visible, people who were smashing automobiles, preaching about shutting down steel mills (where I was fortunate to get a job that summer) and arguing private property should be abolished to protect our natural resources from abuse. Having been in 4-H and Boy Scouts, I enjoyed and valued our water, forests, and scenic resources. I still plant a garden each spring.

I had the opportunity to talk with Sen. Nelson several times in 1995, 1997 and 2002, and I consider him an admirable public servant. Somewhere along the line, however, the role and history of Earth Day 1970 took on a life of its own and now has plays a counterproductive role in environmental policy making.

We do not need to mark the anniversary of Earth Day 1970. Celebrating its anniversary reconfirms the myth of the original Earth Day’s impact and suggests an overly simplified view of U.S. environmental policy making. Moreover, there is often an “anti-establishment, anti-technology” tenor held over from the first Earth Day to which many citizens object.

A widespread misconception is that Earth Day caused the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and President Richard Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. It is now common for textbooks, academic articles and historical exhibits to repeat these inaccuracies. Professor Jerold Schnoor, editor of Environmental Science & Technology, in the commentary “Earth Day at 40,” and The History Channel offer standard historical accounts that overstate the importance of Earth Day’s impact on environmental policy making.

The single most glaring incongruent fact at odds with this historical misinterpretation is that President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act on Jan. 1, 1970, almost four months before Earth Day 1970. Earlier, on May 29, 1969, Nixon established the cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council and devoted a great deal of his State of the Union Address to environmental issues. Weeks before, on Jan. 4, 1970, the Washington Post editorialized that the “environment is now a big issue.” Time magazine initiated an “Environment” section of the weekly magazine in August

Similarly, both congressional environmental legislation and American public opinion were becoming more “environmentalist” well before April 22, 1970. Following the first national water and air pollution control laws (in 1948 and 1955, respectively), Congress established the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in 1958. That led to enacting landmark legislation such as the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1965 and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 — all well before Earth Day 1970.

Gallup polls show a tripling of the percent of the public selecting “reducing pollution of air and water” as a national problem from 17 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 1970. Opinion Research Corporation surveys show that the percent of the public viewing air and water pollution as “very serious or somewhat serious” increased from 28 percent to 69 percent for air pollution and 35 percent to 74 percent for water pollution over the same time period.

Getting the history of Earth Day 1970 right contributes to understanding the workings of the American political system. While the myth of Earth Day 1970 may be an effective political mobilization tool, it contributes to the equally widespread view that elected officials are out of touch with public opinion and public problems and only wake up when millions of citizens rally in the streets.

Arbor Day, May Day and the vernal equinox would be suitable replacements for the anniversary of Earth Day. The coming of the spring is worth celebrating. So is the progress the United States has made since World War II in reducing environmental pollution while increasing social equality, increasing the quality of life for senior citizens, increasing population mobility and increasing access to higher education.

We certainly have economic, energy and sustainability challenges to face. Connecting these with April 22, 1970, is needlessly counterproductive and limiting.

Let’s move on.

David J. Webber is an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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