On this 50th anniversary of the publishing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, there may be no better time to reflect on the history of the environmental movement in this country and to ask ourselves what legacy we are leaving for our children, grandchildren and future generations.
There was a time when science mattered. Now, it is a political football used by opposing interests to distort facts to an undereducated American public.
The average age in the US is 36.9 years; roughly half of the people in this county were born after 1975. Silent Spring was published in 1962. It is likely most people are unaware of how present politics have hijacked the process designed to protect the resources of our country, and unaware of how far the ideological pendulum has swung. Also, likely unaware of what special interests have done and are willing to do to bolster their bottom line. There are no evil demons that set out to destroy the environment. No, it is done purely for profit. When phrases such as streamlining the regulatory/permitting process and becoming more competitive in the world market are thrown around, one needs to ask what are the consequences of being on par with India’s wages or China’s environmental protection policies. When in hindsight Richard Nixon can be viewed as an environmental champion, we should ask ourselves – do we really know in what direction our county is being led, and by whom?
Maybe it’s time for a little environmental history lesson.
Here are Richard Nixon’s remarks on signing the Clean Air Amendments, December 31, 1970.
“This is the most important piece of legislation, in my opinion, dealing with the problem of clean air that we have this year and the most important in our history,” Nixon said at the bill signing ceremony. Earlier that same year, Nixon created the EPA, which enforces the act.
“I think that 1970 will be known as the year of the beginning, in which we really began to move on the problems of clean air and clean water and open spaces for the future generations of America.”
“I think 1971 will be known as the year of action. And as we look at action, I would suggest that this bill is an indication of what action can be, because if this bill is completely enforced, within 4 years it will mean that the emissions from automobiles which pollute the environment will be reduced by 90 percent.”
“And if, as we sign this bill in this room, we can look back and say, in the Roosevelt Room on the last day of 1970, we signed a historic piece of legislation that put us far down the road toward a goal that Theodore Roosevelt, 70 years ago, spoke eloquently about: a goal of clean air, clean water, and open spaces for the future generations of America.”
The Endangered Species Act and a string of other significant environmental laws were enacted during the Nixon administration. In fact, during his 5.5 years in office, Nixon helped enact an unmatched series of environmental laws by the time he resigned. From 1970 to 1972, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed laws including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. He also signed executive orders and international agreements on environmental issues. The Nixon administration is not held in very high regard by many, but his legacy of environmental protections is considerable and should serve to underscore how the collective consciousness in this country has shifted.
The reason there are environmental laws is simple, for without them we are at the mercy of corporate profits. Let us learn from the past; there is no more appropriate phrase in today’s climate than: “Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it”.
Here some environmental highlights from the 1960s and 70s.
Silent Spring written by Rachel Carson and published by Houghton Mifflin on September 27, 1962. The book is widely credited with helping launch the environmental movement. Silent Spring facilitated the ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972 in the United States. The book documented detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly on birds. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and public officials of accepting industry claims uncritically
Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire on June 22, 1969,. There is little doubt the effect had, many credit it as being a catalyst for Congress to finally pass the Clean Water Act in 1972 and for the creation of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.
Times Beach, Missouri, plagued with a dust problem in the early 1970s due to its 23 miles (37 km) of dirt roads and lack of pavement funds, the city of Times Beach hired waste hauler Russell Bliss to oil the roads in and around the town in 1971. From 1972 to 1976, Bliss sprayed waste oil on the roads; however, Bliss had mixed hazardous waste with the oil. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began investigating. On December 23, 1982, the EPA announced it had identified dangerous levels of dioxin in Times Beach’s soil. Panic spread through the town, with many illnesses, miscarriages and animal deaths attributed to the dioxin. On February 23, 1983, the EPA announced the town’s buyout for $32 million. Later, PCBs were also found in TimesBeach soil. By 1985, the town was evacuated.
Love Canal was a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York. In the mid-1970s Love Canal became the subject of national and international attention after it was revealed in the press that the site had formerly been used to bury 21,000 tons of toxic waste by Hooker Chemical (now Occidental Petroleum Corporation). Construction of a housing development, combined with particularly heavy rainstorms, released the chemical waste, leading to a public health emergency and an urban planning scandal. Hooker Chemical was found to be negligent in their disposal of waste. The dumpsite was discovered and investigated by the local newspaper, the Niagara Falls Gazette, from 1976 through the evacuation in 1978. Ten years after the incident, New York State Health Department Commissioner David Axelrod stated that Love Canal would long be remembered as a “national symbol of a failure to exercise a sense of concern for future generations”.