"Earth Day may be a turning point in American history. It may be the birth of a new American ethic that rejects the frontier philosophy that the continent was put here for our plunder."

While some environmentalists at the extreme fringe attack modern industrial society, it is rising wealth that has made environmentalism not only popular, but possible.

—Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin), April 22, 1970

 

"The bulldozer mentality of the past is a luxury we can no longer afford. Our roads and other public projects must be planned to prevent the destruction of scenic resources and to avoid needlessly upsetting the ecological balance."

—California Governor Ronald Reagan, February 1970

 

Long before this year's 30th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2000, it was evident that environmentalism had taken its place as one of the pre-eminent social movements in American public life, comparable in its impact to the movements for abolitionism, temperance, women's suffrage, and civil rights. The late Robert Nisbet, distinguished professor of sociology at Columbia University, predicted 20 years ago that, "It is entirely possible that when the history of the twentieth century is finally written, the single most important social movement of the period will be judged to be environmentalism."

Compared with other prominent social movements, environmentalism may be regarded as the most rapidly successful in American history. Whereas the civil rights movement toiled for decades to achieve its principal political and legal goals, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the principal political and legal goals of environmentalism, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as well as the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, were achieved before many environmental organizations were even founded. Also, there have been large and tangible improvements in several categories of environmental concern since the first Earth Day—in some cases, beyond what was hoped for in 1970. But the environment was not a wholly new issue at the time it sprang to life in the late 1960s.

As far back as 1949, author Fairfield Osborn warned in Our Plundered Planet that environmental disaster loomed unless there was a "complete revolution in man's point of view toward the earth's resources and toward the methods he employs in drawing upon them." Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's 1962 warning about the pesticide threat to wildlife, was a sensation, and set in motion a train of events that soon led to the ban on the pesticide DDT in the United States.

President Lyndon Johnson championed several early environmental measures, some of which were substantive, such as clean air and pesticide regulation, and some of which were cosmetic, such as highway beautification. But the environment was not seen as a mass political issue that could capture and move the sentiment of the nation.

Neither Richard Nixon nor Hubert Humphrey talked about the environment in the 1968 presidential campaign, a time when "green power" still meant the Irish vote. Gallup didn' t think the issue was worth polling until 1965, and the early polls generated ho-hum results. A Harris poll in the mid-1960s reported a majority against higher taxes and higher consumer prices to pay for environmental clean up. Today polls consistently find large majorities willing to pay higher prices for a cleaner environment.

Gallup's 1965 poll found that only 28 percent considered air pollution to be a serious problem, while only 35 percent thought water pollution was a serious problem. By 1969, these numbers had risen to 69 and 74 percent. Yet there were still only two registered environmental lobbyists in Washington at the time. But after the Santa Barbara oil spill in January 1969, environmental episodes became big news.

In June, five months after Santa Barbara, a pile of logs, picnic benches, and other debris that had collected beneath a railroad trestle over the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire when sparks from a passing train ignited the kerosene and oil floating on top of the river. The fire burned for only 24 minutes, not long enough for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer to snap a photo. Hence it was reported briefly in the back pages of the paper, and didn' t attract much attention until months later, when a National Geographic magazine article on river pollution gave the episode fresh attention nationwide.

The reaction to the Cuyahoga River fire is an excellent illustration of what economists call the "wealth effect," i.e., how the public demands higher environmental quality as society becomes more affluent. The Cuyahoga, which the mayor of Cleveland had described as an "open sewer" as far back as 1881, had caught fire twice before, in 1936 and 1952, but neither incident touched off fanfare or general outrage. Both were regarded as the price of progress, but by 1969 such a price was no longer acceptable.

The Affluent Society did not want to be the Effluent Society. While some environmentalists at the extreme fringe attack modern industrial society, it is rising wealth that has made environmentalism not only popular, but possible. "These wild things," Aldo Leopold reminds us in A Sand County Almanac, "had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast." As the 1970s began, the environment as a political issue was here to stay.

In 1970, Time magazine named the environment "Issue of the Year." Not to be outdone, its sister publication Life designated the 1970s as "the environmental decade." California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, the originator of the phrase "Money is the mother's milk of politics," offered a corollary: "Ecology has become a substitute for the word 'mother.' "

On April 22, 1970, the first "Earth Day" was held. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, one of the prime forces behind the event, proclaimed, "Earth Day may be a turning point in American history. It may be the birth of a new American ethic that rejects the frontier philosophy that the continent was put here for our plunder."

That year, the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature entries for the environment and related subjects took up less than a page and a half. The following year, 1971, the entries required five pages, signaling the growth curve toward national prominence.