By Thomas Jundt
On this day forty-four years ago, some 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and lecture halls for an event billed as a national environmental teach-in—Earth Day.
When he announced plans for the event, Wisconsin Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson, a longtime conservationist, hoped it would gather enough attention to pressure his colleagues into passing environmental legislation that he had been struggling to push through Congress. It did. President Nixon and policymakers responded to the growing environmental fervor with some of the most significant environmental laws in the nation’s history. Although Nixon once called environmental issues “just crap,” he was a savvy politician who understood that the public mood required some sort of action.
On 1 January 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law. The National Environmental Education Act, which mandated environmental education in public schools, was signed into law in October. By President Nixon’s executive order the Environmental Protection Agency came into being two months later, charged with overseeing the enforcement of federal environmental policies. The Marine Mammal Protection Act followed in 1972.
Environmentalists had urged such action for decades. The brutal light of atomic bomb flashes revealed a vulnerable planet, and key intellectuals soon recognized other ways that humans might destroy the earth. The head of the New York Zoological Society, Fairfield Osborn, warned of “man’s conflict with nature” in his 1948 bestselling book, Our Plundered Planet. Among the many planetary threats he addressed was the chemical DDT, made public shortly after the war. “The new chemical is deadly on many kinds of insects—no doubt about that,” he conceded. “But what of the ultimate and net result to the life scheme of earth?”
Big business was at the epicenter of this threat. “One of the most ruinous limiting factors is the capitalistic system,” William Vogt emphasized in his own 1948 bestseller, Road to Survival. “Free enterprise—divorced from biophysical understanding and social responsibility… must bear a large share of the responsibility for devastated forests, vanishing wildlife, crippled ranges, a gullied continent, and roaring flood crests.” Desire for stronger federal environmental regulations had been building long before Earth Day, and years before Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring in 1962.
The Earth Day era’s reforms proved inadequate. Rules and regulations that worked well initially were often less effective once corporate lawyers went to work figuring out how they could be exploited, and corporate lobbyists aimed their skills at softening their impact. As Denis Hayes, hired by Senator Nelson to organize Earth Day, said years later, the new laws looked good so long as you ignored things like “graft, corruption, huge campaign contributions, friendships forged on golf links, and all of the other stickiness in the system.”
The real world bore little resemblance to a political-science text. Indeed, in 1972 Nixon moved to undermine his own EPA. The president told his aid, John Ehrlichman, to have the EPA “say a number of things designed to shock the consumer that the cost of the environment will be very high and that the air quality laws are very impractical.” The EPA complied, shaking the public’s confidence enough to reduce or delay a number of antipollution regulations opposed by the automobile industry. “Whether it’s the environment or pollution or Naderism or consumerism,” President Nixon assured a gathering of Ford Motor Company executives, “we are extremely pro-business.”
None of this would have surprised many of the Americans who turned out for Earth Day. As ecologist Kenneth Watt observed in a speech at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, “More and more people are giving up on the system. This isn’t just the young people, or the poor, or the black people. I’ve been startled to discover the extent to which white, middle-class, suburban housewives have become so frustrated and are so full of despair about the ability to have any effect on the system that they’ve given up on it.” Mary Humphrey, of the activist group Ecology Action, at an EcoFair near Los Angeles concurred: “I don’t think you’ll find anyone who really thinks the government will do something.”
Perhaps the most telling admission that the political system was not up to the task was made by prominent Senate Democrat and conservationist Edmund Muskie of Maine. “The power of the people is in the cash register,” he proclaimed in an Earth Day speech. He was right.
In a study that asked those who attended Earth Day events in 1970 what actions they would take to help the environment, the plan most frequently cited, by 40% of Earth Day attendees polled, was to change their “consumer behaviors.” In comparison, only about 8% mentioned changes in activities such as joining others to take action.
For critics, this is a troubling example of businesses’ ability to co-opt the ideals of reformers and sell them back to them as organic soy lattes. They charge those who practice personal politics through consumption with avoiding the more difficult work required to organize for traditional politics.
But the retreat to eco-consumerism is understandable. Lacking political solutions, with a two-party system beholden to the very corporations pillaging the planet, citizens concerned about the environment have turned to alternative green consumption. They are not lazy or indifferent, and they are certainly not ignorant. The fact is policy and enforcement favor business at the expense of citizens and the environment.
Organics and other products believed to be environmentally friendly exploded in popularity as producers recognized a ready market in the millions who turned out for Earth Day events across the nation. Today, nearly all consumer products seem to offer a choice of greener alternatives, and for most Americans, consumer choice remains the most popular, if ironic, expression of environmental concern.
During the Cold War Americans heard about citizens in the Soviet Union who coveted Beatles records and blue jeans. Although it might have been a desperate and limited response, we comprehended that type of counterculture consumption as an under-standable reaction to political conditions Soviet citizens felt powerless to change. Green consumption is similar, limited yet understandable. With government in thrall to corporations and chamber of commerce ideologues, as we watch the seas rise, buying a Prius seems like the only game in town.
Thomas Jundt is a visiting assistant professor of history at Brown University, and author of Greening the Red, White, and Blue: The Bomb, Big Business, and Consumer Resistance in Postwar America.