Earth Day


Earth Day is coming up, on April 22. Forgive us if we’re less than enthused.

Forty years after the great, green, grass-roots environmental movement of the 1970s began, it already has begun to lose its luster.

The greatest environmental catastrophe of all—human-generated global warming—did not rate a mention in last year’s Presidential elections. And if that was not embarrassing enough, it barely got a tweet in President Obama’s State of the Union message in January.

On top of that, the U.S. Senate and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could not even bring to the floor a vote on limiting carbon emissions, effectively stopping not just the bill, but, in our view, the entire environmental effort.

It would be hard to describe to our children what it was like, way back in the early 1970s, when the movement found its feet.

Working from the bottom up, far away from Washington, D.C., activists ultimately inspired Congress to pass the Clean Air Act of 1970.

After that, it was one victory after another—a real winning streak on a big-time level.

Congress passed the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and, at the urging of Republican President Richard Nixon, it created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Across the country, little disorganized groups celebrated a new thing called “Earth Day,” and when you added them all up, there were millions involved in the effort.

The result was palpable.

Big, awful, environmental catastrophes from Lake Erie (it once caught on fire, for Heaven’s sake) to the Hudson River were saved. The quality of our drinking water improved dramatically. In California, smog levels that would rival the Beijing of today grew less oppressive.

It wasn’t just a one-off kind of thing, either.

As Nicholas Lehmann points out in this week’s edition of the New Yorker magazine, dozens of colleges and universities began environmental-studies programs. Many news organizations created full-time environmental beats.

For those of us who sought the pristine beauty of the Sierra Nevada, then chose to live here, Earth Day is every day, of course. Just this past week, here on the Eastside, government groups as diverse as Caltrans, the National Forest Service, the Los Angeles District of Water and Power, and the Mammoth Community Water District all were wrestling with environmental issues.

That is why it is hard for us to fathom the downward spiral of environmental activism.

It is sobering to realize that the last major piece of environmental legislation was nearly a quarter-century ago, when President George H.W. Bush—another Republican—signed off on a 1990 bill aimed at reducing acid rain.

Writes Lehmann:

“Today’s environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer, and better connected than it was in 1970. It’s also vastly less successful. What went wrong?”

It’s a darned good question, and one that author Adam Rome addresses in a new book, “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation” (Hill and Wang).

It is a must-read for those of us who lived through the movement in the 1970s, and that is why we were less than enthused about Earth Day on April 22. 

It reminds us of a time when Earth Day really meant something. Nowadays, it’s a day to remember how we somehow dropped the ball along the way.

It is an indictment that will be hard to live down.