Why We Celebrate Earth Day and How Did Environmentalism Become so Divisive
Climate change policy has become one of the most divisive issues in US politics, joining immigration, guns and abortion. Its difficult to remember now, but there was once a time in America when protecting the environment was a bipartisan issue.
Environmentalism began with the rise of the Conservation Movement at the beginning of the 20th century and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered for his comments at the Grand Canyon; “You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.” And Five years later, he created the Grand Canyon National Monument. Most Americans supported wilderness lovers like Roosevelt who wanted large areas of the West left alone, but even then there was some opposition. Those with economic interests, like timber and energy companies argued that these lands should be utilized for their timber, oil, minerals, and coal. Later in the 20th Century, environmentalism moved beyond conservation of wilderness to focus also on the damage we do to the environment. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring drew attention to the impact of chemicals on the environment. Carson, a marine biologist, wrote of how chemicals like pesticides and insecticides, used on farms, forests and gardens, were contaminating the environment and threatening human health. Major oil spills occurred from tankers at sea in 1967 and 1969, and in June 1969, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River become the poster child for the birth of the modern American environmental movement. It was one of the most disturbing images in American history: A river, so polluted with chemical and industrial waste that it caught fire and burned. And it came to represent most of the waterways in the eastern half of the US…too dirty to drink or to swim or fish in. Smog from traffic and factories also become a national concern when medical experts reported its toll on our health. Increased public awareness led to the first celebration of Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Millions of Americans coast to coast took part in parades, concerts, speeches and fairs devoted to preserving the environment.
Even Richard Nixon went green. In his 1970 state of the union address, President Nixon said: “Shall we make peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our land, to our air, and to our water? It has become a common cause of all people of this country, clean air, open spaces. These should once again be the birthright of every American.” Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and signed a flurry of landmark environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. But as these laws began to be implemented, many in the business community found that environmental regulations were having a negative impact on the profitability of mining, forestry, manufacturing and other extractive and polluting industries and they became active opponents, funding candidates who supported their interests.
In 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan was elected President, bipartisanship largely ended. By appointing anti-environmental crusaders like Interior Secretary James Watt and EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch to office, Reagan and much of the Republican Party signaled their opposition to additional environmental regulation. Today, while the green movement is galvanized by issues such as climate change, wetlands preservation, and species extinction, the business community and the Republican Party remain vehemently opposed to any new environmental legislation.
If you are interested, Brian Black a Professor at Penn State has a bit more of the history here. And Happy Earth Day!