Since its founding in 1865, The Nation has been a home for writers instigating, reporting on and arguing about struggles for social and economic justice. We have held fast to our “Nation Ideals”— from racial justice to feminism, from a fair economy to civil liberties, from environmental sustainability to peace and disarmament—throughout our 150-year history. During our anniversary year, TheNation.com will highlight one Nation Ideal every month or two. We’ll celebrate by asking prominent contemporary Nation voices to read and respond to important pieces from our archive. Below, Zoë Carpenter reflects on two 1970 Nation articles on the emergence of the environmental movement. Learn more about our 150th anniversary events and special content here.
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Louisiana is not a place that usually inspires hope for the environment. Nearly a century of oil and gas activity has cut the state’s swamps and bayous into vanishing ribbons. Hundreds of millions of gallons of oil have been spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Underground caverns hollowed out by petrochemical companies are collapsing and creating sinkholes, some swallowing entire communities. Industry has fouled state politics, too, such that elected leaders reward corporations with $1.8 billion a year in subsidies and tax breaks, while starving healthcare, education, and other public services.
Several months ago I had a surprising conversation with a Louisianan named Mike Schaff. He identifies himself as a Tea Party Republican, and won’t call himself an environmentalist, but he’s angry enough about what petrochemical companies have done to the land he loves that he joined a coalition called the Green Army, which is mounting localized challenges to the dominance of the industry in the state. “Our state is kind of looking the other way, saying that’s the cost of doing business in Louisiana,” he told me. “We say ‘bullshit’ to that. It doesn’t need to happen.”
The American people, the journalist Gene Marine argued in The Nation in 1970, “are waiting for someone to notice that ecology is an issue that brings us all together.”
Marine was reporting from year zero of the modern environmental movement. Four months after his article appeared, twenty million Americans poured into the streets for the first Earth Day. Today, the 45th anniversary of the event, it’s hard to imagine a spontaneous green spirit sweeping the country, not to mention Congress taking a day off in support, or The Today Show giving 10 hours of airtime to it. Still, the existence of people like Schaff suggests that the potential for movement-building that Marine perceived is not gone, just unrealized.
Reporting from an environmental conference Marine found himself among
…medical students, law students, architecture students, a few biologists and zoologists, some nurses, some mathematicians, and at least one dentist.… They came with long hair and sloppy clothes, and with short hair and single-breasted three-piece suits and neckties. They were people who would never have spoken a word to one another in a million academic years.