Looking Back 40 Years To The First Earth Day
Question: In the three or four years following the first Earth
Day in 1970, there was a tsunami of new environmental laws in
America. They governed clean air, clean water, endangered species,
toxic substances, pesticides, marine mammals, and what-have-you.
The EPA was created, along with the Council on Environmental
Quality and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
How did all that happen? Hayes: Politicians had always viewed
environmental issues as narrow things of no great political
consequence. Sort of NIMBY issues. A big part of the reason
was that the groups that cared about wilderness didn't talk
with the groups that were trying to stop freeways from cutting
through inner cities, and neither of them talked to the folks
who wanted to stop the military from dumping Agent Orange on
Vietnam. Earth Day gathered up those strands, and dozens more,
and knitted them together in the public consciousness as "environmental"
issues. The nation was pretty startled when 20 million people
hit the streets. Congress, which had adjourned for the day to
go back to its districts, was blown away. Then that fall, we
targeted twelve members of Congress with terrible environmental
records as the Dirty Dozen. We defeated seven of them, including
a hugely powerful guy-the chair of the House Public Works Committee.
The Pork Committee. When we took down George Fallon, it was
clear that Earth Day was not just a walk in the park. Congress
began taking us very seriously. We built some unconventional
coalitions. A charter member of the Coalition for Clean Air
was Walter Reuther, the visionary president of the United Auto
Workers, the nation's largest union. Walter's presence at our
first press conference utterly changed the dynamics of the coverage
-we had instant credibility. And we didn't limit ourselves to
environmental arguments. When we defeated the Supersonic Transport,
we rounded up prestigious economists who testified that it would
be disastrous for the nation's balance-of-payments. We were
young and idealistic and unschooled in the ways of Washington,
and a lot of power brokers underestimated us until we ate their
lunch. It can be a huge advantage to be underestimated. We had
a great run. The laws passed between 1970 and 1974 fundamentally
changed the way America does business. Question: Was Earth Day
mostly about reigning in business? Hayes: That was a big part
of it. Environmentally, business in America in 1970 was very
similar to business in China today. Even if a CEO wanted to
be a responsible corporate citizen, he (and they were all "he's"
then) simply couldn't invest a billion dollars in pollution
controls to produce a product that was indistinguishable from
those of his competitors. His products would be priced out of
the market. Passing laws that created a clean, level playing
field for whole industries had to be a core focus of the 1970s.
However, there was also a critically important cultural dimension.
By 1975-and continuing to today-all Americans came to believe
that they had a "right" to a safe, clean, healthy
environment. When I grew up, no one seriously criticized the
steel mills and paper mills for the deadly stench they produced-that
was the smell of prosperity. Today, no one would tolerate such
conditions in an American city. Question: It's been about 40
years since you organized the first Earth Day. For the last
few decades, things seem to have slowed down. Some people say
the environmental movement has lost its momentum. What happened?
Hayes: The Republican Party, starting with the Reagan Administration,
began taking a strenuously anti-environmental stance...The Republican
"Southern Strategy" destroyed the prospect of continued
bipartisan support for the environment.
Denis Hayes coordinated the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970,
when 20 million people took to the streets and kicked off the
environmental movement of the last 40 years.