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Earth Day at 30: Having a new day, or passé?

By Peter Dykstra
CNN Executive Producer

April 20, 2000
Web posted at: 1:02 p.m. EDT (1702 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

President Clinton announced in 1999 that the American bald eagle was being removed from the Endangered Species List  

In this story:

The early earthy days

The more things change

Red, white, blue -- and green?

(CNN) -- Among the icons of the 1960s -- Vietnam, Woodstock, Martin Luther King and the Kennedys -- a burning river helped spark a movement that turns 30 this week.

Cleveland's Cuyahoga River was not the only stream so choked with pollutants that it caught fire, but it is the one seared into our memories. When a spark from a passing train torched the river in 1969, it capped a decade of wake-up calls:

* Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" blew the whistle on links between the use of DDT and other pesticides and the rapid disappearance of some bird species.

* Several species of whales were brought to the brink of extinction by decades of commercial exploitation.

* Puffing tailpipes and smokestacks brought a new word -- smog -- into widespread use. Johnny Carson made Los Angeles's infamous haze a staple of his nightly jokes on "The Tonight Show."

* Paul Ehrlich and other scientists painted the picture of a starving, overpopulated world of the future.

* An oil spill -- far from the worst, but one of the most widely televised and witnessed -- soiled beaches and seabirds in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969.

All this came against a backdrop of fear that the nuclear arms race could unleash the ultimate environmental destruction in a matter of minutes.

Enter "Earth Day," the first one, April 22, 1970.

The early earthy days

Some scenes from the first Earth Day  

The idea for Earth Day is widely credited to Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, who proposed a nationwide "teach-in" to raise awareness of environmental problems. The idea mushroomed into a gathering of 100,000 people on New York's Fifth Avenue, with smaller crowds in other cities.

On the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and amid Vietnam War protests, there was nothing unusual about like-minded people giving up a day for a cause. But perhaps the last man you would think of as a tree-hugger saw something remarkable.

As he gazed out a White House window at the first Earth Day gathering in Washington, Richard Nixon saw a crowd that to him seemed very different than Vietnam protesters.

"Those people," he said, according to aide H.R. Haldeman, "could be Republicans."

Many were. Thirty years ago environmental issues for the most part defied the liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican battle lines that now seem etched in stone. In the wake of the success of the first Earth Day, Nixon backed what is now the backbone of American environmental laws:

* The Clean Air Act (1970), which took L.A. smog out of the "Tonight Show" monologue;

* The Clean Water Act (1972), widely credited for turning around the Cuyahoga and numerous other blighted waterways; and

* The Endangered Species Act (1972), which helped bring gray whales, peregrine falcons, and the national symbol -- the bald eagle -- back from the brink of oblivion.

Nixon also created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

And during these early earthy days, public interest spawned a wave of new environmental groups. The names of law firms such as the Environmental Defense Fund, all-purpose groups such as Friends of the Earth and hell-raisers such as Greenpeace became at least occasional household words.

The more things change

Former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson is credited with the idea of "Earth Day"  

What has happened since?

While we have cleared the air a bit and cleaned up some rivers, some old problems remain and new ones have piled up.

Childhood asthma, believed to be linked to air pollution, is on the increase. The EPA says many drinking water reservoirs, surrounded by booming suburbs and leaking septic tanks, may be unusable within a decade. Cleanup remains slow on thousands of toxic waste sites.

We are recycling more than ever -- but we are also making more garbage than ever.

We discovered the ozone hole, caused by man-made chemicals, and taken steps that -- if followed globally -- are expected eventually to close it.

While most whales, the bald eagle and other charismatic animals have been saved, we have lost countless thousands of other plant and animal species -- generally including ones that lend themselves less well to the public's imagination. And scientists wonder about the species that may have been lost before ever being discovered.

Fisheries in many parts of the world have disappeared, possibly for good. Many forests are not far behind.

We have taken steps for cleaner, safer energy -- coal burning plants and cars are both far cleaner than they were in 1969. But wind, solar and other alternatives that seemed so promising 30 years ago are still "just around the corner" for mainstream use.

Predictions that world oil supplies would be exhausted by the early 21st century have not panned out. We are not about to run out of oil anytime soon -- or to escape the environmental challenges posed by burning fossil fuels.

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists say "greenhouse" emissions could change our climate, crops and coastlines with possibly catastrophic results.

While some U.S. laws are widely praised, others have tanked. The "Superfund" cleanup program for toxic waste sites is under attack from insurers, manufacturers and environmentalists alike as costly and ineffective.

While Ehrlich's predicted "population bomb" packed much less bang than feared by some, we are still on track to pass 9 billion human inhabitants of Earth in another 50 years.

And while the Cold War is a memory, the nuclear weapons are still among us, and in the hands of more nations than ever.

Red, white, blue -- and green?

Environmental politics during the past 30 years, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, have gotten curiouser and curiouser.

The Reagan Revolution of 1980 drew ideological battle lines on the environment. James Watt, Reagan's first interior secretary, told his Senate confirmation hearing that his apparent lack of interest in protecting species for future generations was due to his certainty that Judgment Day would come before many future generations.

A leader in the Reagan Revolution was a young Georgia congressman, first elected in part by taking a strong environmental stand but who became a staunch opponent of government intervention on the environment.

Fourteen years later, Newt Gingrich led a frontal assault on environmental regulation through the Contract With America.

Environmental groups, long accustomed to an overwhelming public perception as the Good Guys, found themselves increasingly under attack. Ranchers, loggers and some labor unions perceived the environmental movement as caring more for animals than for people.

Backlash over protecting the Northwest habitat of the endangered spotted owl from logging became a contest that seemed to pit families against a seldom-seen bird.

But what may be worse than political shifts in Washington for environmentalists, according to observers like author Mark Dowie, is a reliance on fear as an organizing tool.

To be sure, sharp rises and drops in environmental groups' memberships have followed disaster -- or political threat. The disasters preceding Earth Day 1970, the perceived hostility of the Reagan administration and Gingrich's Contract with America all sparked sharp jumps in Americans' participation in environmental groups and causes.

But the biggest jump came 10 years ago, in 1990, when Earth Day became a truly global event. This followed a new flood of drastic environmental news: the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the first dire reports of the ozone hole and global warming, memorable images of medical waste washing up on New Jersey beaches, and oil staining Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Chemical companies, car manufacturers and others long seen by many as the "Bad Guys" in the environmental drama sang a new, green tune. The 20th Earth Day seemed to mark the day when environmental awareness became universal.

Within a year, however, many environmental groups saw a steep drop in memberships as headlines shifted, images of disaster faded and public ardor cooled. By contrast, political conservatives and leaders in some industries remained as discontented as ever.

Despite the largest meeting ever of heads of state at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, environmental activists found the 1990s to be more of a struggle. Some of the easiest issues - saving whales, stopping direct chemical dumping into waterways and the like -- were already won.

"The environmental movement hit a road block about 10 years ago," Dowie said. "It has been unable to evolve to a more dynamic and imaginative movement at the time when it really needed to."

Awareness of environmental issues is up around the world, say critics and supporters alike.

Some will be watching the public's level of enthusiasm for the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, 2000, as an indicator of whether this movement, now old enough to have its own history, is reaching maturity -- or having a mid-life crisis.


CNN Interactive: Nature
   •In-Depth: Earth Day 2000

Earth Day Network
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
   •U.S. EPA Earth Day 2000
International Earth Day Site

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