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Last week I happened upon a carton stashed away in an upstairs bedroom—a time capsule, of sorts, from the 1960s. It was full of notes for old SI stories, memorandums for lawsuits, and scientific papers and reference books on environmental issues that were of concern to me and fellow members of the Hudson River Fishermen's Association, as well as to an increasing number of other Americans at the time.
In the 1960s, we conservationists—the term environmentalist had yet to come into common use—were regarded by many as weirdos for attacking what was deemed to be progress. But thanks to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who proposed the idea of Earth Day, people who were incensed by water pollution, foul air, the despoiling of public lands and oil spills had the chance—on April 22, 1970—to set forth these issues as matters of national concern.
I did my bit back then. I spoke at two local high schools on the day itself and briefed Paul Newman on ideas for a speech. I also loaned Robert Crichton, the novelist, a federal report on endangered species so that he could write a speech for Leonard Bernstein to deliver in New York's Union Square. Crichton returned the report with a note saying, "I had Lenny talk about the dwarf elk. The little guy always goes over big in Union Square."
After that first Earth Day, the Nixon administration and Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency, strengthened the Clean Air Act of 1963 and passed the Clean Water Act. Since then there has been progress in some areas, but new scourges—PCBs, Love Canal, toxic wastes, acid rain, fouled beaches and the hole in the ozone layer—keep emerging.
During the Reagan administration, the environment took a drubbing and EPA came to mean Everybody's Polluting Again. Despite a signed agreement with Canada to develop air-pollution control policies, the White House refused to take any decisive action on acid rain, lamely asserting that more studies were needed. The federal government permitted existing environmental laws to be ignored or circumvented, and local officials who were eager to enforce the law were hog-tied by bureaucracy.
When he was running for office, George Bush pledged to be the environmental president, but he has hardly lived up to that pledge. Now that the hand-holding and speeches of the second Earth Day are over, we must keep the pressure on politicians, regarding these issues in particular:
?Water pollution. The Clean Water Act required that the nation's rivers and lakes be swimmable and fishable by 1983. That has hot happened. One way to enforce the overdue cleanup would be to make it easier for citizens to file suit under the law and allow them to collect the fines imposed. Even when a citizen wins a case, the government often has the gall to demand the money for itself.
?Garbage. The average American throws out 1,300 pounds of refuse a year, 80% more than in 1960, and we are running out of room to put the stuff. Even when land is available, dumps are not the solution. Since 1978, 14,000 so-called sanitary landfills have had to be closed because of the danger of groundwater contamination. The answers: recycling (not incineration) and banning materials that are not readily biodegradable.
?Deforestation. Tropical rain forests are being destroyed at the rate of more than 17 million acres a year, resulting in a dangerous increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These forests are also a genetic mother lode of plants and animals. Not only do the species that inhabit these forests have a right to exist, but also from a practical—i.e., human—point of view, their survival may be essential. A cure for cancer could be lurking somewhere amid the profusion of flora and fauna. As naturalist William Beebe wrote in 1906, "The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."
?Global warming. This is the biggie. If we lose this battle, we lose civilization as we know it. The solutions: Stop razing the rain forests, overcome our addiction to fossil fuels, which produce gases that are creating a greenhouse effect over our planet, and turn to solar energy and hydrogen as fuels. This transformation would also reduce acid rain and smog—not to mention the number of devastating oil spills, which are an inevitable consequence of the transportation of crude. Global warming must be singled out as the overarching world issue of the 1990s, and conquering this threat will benefit the economy as well as the environment. As Thomas Paine wrote of an earlier America, in words most relevant today, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah."