Water flows from a melting glacier in the Swiss Alps in Arolla, near Sion. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Celebrated every April 22 for the past forty-two years, Earth Day is showing its (middle) age. Instead of rallying public pressure for far-reaching reforms, Earth Day is becoming, at least in the United States, a bland, tired ritual that polluters and politicians have learned to ignore or co-opt. This year, for example, Monsanto has plastered ads at bus and subway stops in Washington, including at the entrance to the Agriculture Department, boasting about how the giant manufacturer of pesticides and genetically modified seeds has helped America’s farmers become better environmental stewards—despite Monsanto’s record of suing organic farmers for patent infringement after winds blew its seeds onto the farmers’ fields.
Frustrated by such cynicism, some environmentalists have called for abolishing Earth Day. But that would be throwing the baby out with the polluted bathwater. Instead, why not recall the real history of Earth Day and revive its original—and much more demanding—vision?
Organized in 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson and activist Denis Hayes, the first Earth Day so frightened president Richard Nixon that he decided he had to become an environmental president if he wanted to win a second term. And unlike later presidents who invoked that title, Nixon lived up to it. He created the Environmental Protection Agency, which today’s Republicans love to demagogue. His aides pioneered such transformative measures as environmental impact reports and regular pollution monitoring. And he signed landmark environmental laws—the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and more—that on paper are still among the strongest in the world (indeed, that have been the model for the rest of the world’s environmental laws).
Nixon did all this not because he was a closet tree-hugger—the poor man wore wingtips to walk on the beach—but because he was a calculating politician. As Russell Train, the first chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and other aides later revealed in their memoirs, Nixon was keenly aware that 20 million Americans—roughly 10 percent of the population in 1970—took some kind of civic action that first Earth Day, whether it was planting trees, cleaning creeks, teaching kids or joining demonstrations. Coming in the wake of consciousness-raising by such writers as Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner and activism by Ralph Nader and antiwar and civil rights movements, this outpouring of citizen engagement led Nixon to conclude that the environment was emerging as a major public issue—one that Democrats could use against him in the 1972 election. So Nixon pre-empted that possibility by taking environmental action himself.
In short, America’s first and biggest environmental victories were won after mass grassroots activism persuaded an otherwise indifferent president that he had to deliver or risk losing his job. Alas, this history seems to have been forgotten by many of today’s green activists, to say nothing of ordinary citizens. How else to explain why, under President Obama, large environmental groups spent an estimated $100 million to $300 million on a doomed inside-the-Beltway effort to pass carbon cap-and-trade legislation? Doomed, because cap-and-trade had zero grassroots support. “We can’t go out in the streets about cap-and-trade,” one campus activist complained. “Most people can’t even understand it.” And without grassroots pressure, the structural bias of official Washington, where big money dominates much more than in Nixon’s era, is all but impossible to counter.