United States
           Environmental Protection
Office of
Public Affairs (A-107i
Washington DC 20460
August 1989
&EPA   Earth  Day Recollections
           An EPA Journal Reprint
 <-•: •>

                                    Primed on Recycled Paper

Earth  Day  Recollections
Where  We  Were
And  Where  We  Are
by Gaylord Nelson
    Of all the issues that challenge
    mankind on the planet, the one that
stands out above all others concerns
man and his environment. No other
issue is  more relevant to our physic.al
well-being than the status of our natural
  Unfortunately, we are preoccupied
with responding to pressures of daily
events, postponing hard decisions on
pervasive,  long-term problems under the
delusion that delay won't cost very
much, and that we can address the
problem at some other time. Until we
understand that the problems of the
environment are urgent—that every
delay exacts a price, levies a hidden tax,
imposes a cost which  will  ultimately
impoverish us—until we understand
that, and believe, and  are willing to act
on the proposition that the highest and
first priority of our society must be to
preserve the integrity and viability of
those ecosystems that  sustain us and all
other creatures: until then, we will
continue to delude ourselves  with the
seductive notion that we are addressing
the heart of the matter when, in fact, we
are merely tinkering at the periphery of
the problem.
  I don't mean to suggest that we
haven't made significant progress in the
last decade and a half or so. Indeed we
have come a long way, much more
quickly than I thought possible  in 1970
and '71.  A whole series of  legislative
initiatives have been adopted involving
air pollution, water pollution.
pesticides, hazardous wastes. We have
designated 90 million  acres of public
lands a wilderness. We have made
extensive additions to our National Park
System and Wildlife Refuges. We have
an endangered species protection act
which is a  modest success  but needs to
be improved. We are close  to  agreement
on a national program on acid rain
  Most important of all, there has been
a  revolutionary change in the public
 The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 was one event that helped catalyze the new
 environmental consciousness of Earth Day and the 1970s  The full measure of social and
 ecological costs to be borne in the wake of environmental contamination is not easily
 quantifiable in cost-benefit terms Santa Barbara News-Press photo.
attitude and understanding of
environmental issues. For the first time.
the environment is part of the political
dialogue of the nation. No politician can
totally ignore it. Even those who have
no serious interest in the issue pay lip
service to it because they need to
respond to the concerns of their
constituents. But one more revolution is
needed. That will come when our
President, the Congress, and the public
put this issue on the agenda of top
national priorities along with the
economy and war and peace.
  That is bound to happen, but will it
be soon enough? We still have to deal
with  those powerful forces in the
country who do not believe the problem
is serious, and therefore that the
environmental laws and standards are
unnecessary and should not be
enforced. There are others who think we
cannot afford a clean environment, and
there are those who oppose any
governmental interference in the
marketplace. They believe good
intentions and competition will
somehow resolve  this problem in due

 We have come a long way,
much more quickly than I
thought possible  in  1970 and
                                        We still have to deal with
                                       those powerful forces in the
                                       country who do not believe the
                                       problem is serious ....
   There are those—"supply side
environmentalists"—who believe that
self-help, free market, do-it-yourself
environmentalism will work if we all
just calm down and give it a chance for
a decade or two. If you go into the free
marketplace to buy some fresh air and
none is available, just hold your breath.
and as the  demand increases, the price
will rise and the classic, forces of simply
and demand will take over. Then there
will be an  abundant supply, the price
will fall, and even the1 poor people will
be able to buy some. It all sounds pretty
good if you don't think about it too
  Over the past four or five years we '
have, ever  more frequently, heard the
argument that high environmental
standards cost too much. They put an
excessive end unnecessary burden on
business and industry. The costs exceed
the benefits. They want to institute a
system that weighs benefits against costs
to provide  ammunition in support of
proposals to weaken environmental
standards.  And on the other hand, there
are others  who support such assessment
because they believe that the
overwhelming weight of the evidence
will demonstrate that most
environmental mandates need to be
  The reason the two parties reach
opposite conclusions while appearing to
support the same proposition is that
they, in fact, are not supporting the*
same kind  of benefit-cost assessment.
Those who want to use the benefit-cost
approach to weaken support for
environmental mandates do not include
all societal costs and benefits, only
those that  are easily quantifiable in
current dollar costs to the polluter and
measurable on the consumer price
index. They do not include the societal
cost of a polluted river, a lake or forest
destroyed  by acid rain, an aquifer
poisoned by toxic chemicals, or a
wildlife refuge destroyed by selenium.
   If all such costs and benefits are
included, the case is clear beyond
question that preserving a clean
environment is a profitable investment.
Liner in Yosemite National Park. National
Park Service photo
  This arguement is aimed at a major
proposition being advanced by some
environmental critics who insist that at
some point we must make a choice
between a prosperous economy and a
dirty environment, or a clean
environment and a poor economy.
  Those who would dramatically
weaken environmental protection claim
we must, indeed, make a choice
between the two, assuming the two are
separable and must be addressed  as
discrete entities standing alone. They
are wrong by every rational standard of
measurement. 1 assume we are using the
word "environment" in its broadest
context to include all physical
resources. They are all part of the
environment. The appropriate
generalization to be  made is that the
economy and the environment are
inextricably intertwined; a degraded
environment and a poor economy travel
hand-in-hand. While you can have a
country rich in resources with a poor
economy, you cannot have a rich
economy in a country poor in its
resources or its access to them. Each
incremental degradation of nature's
resources—the air, the water, the soil,
forests, scenic beauty, habitats—is a
dissipation of capital assets which will
ultimately be paid for by a lower
standard of living and a lower-quality
  Can anyone tell us what the economic
and recreational loss to the nation will
be unless we move now to save our
lakes from acid rain? What is the
economic value of the protein sources
in the oceans and the water in our
rivers? If we continue to destroy the salt
water marshes and  pollute the estuaries
and the shallow waters of the
continental shelf which provide the
breeding habitat of  most marine
creatures, we ultimately will  destroy the
productivity of the  oceans. Has that
been factored into the economic
equation in the debate over clean  water
  These and other questions can be
asked and every time the answer  will be
that it is far better for the  economy and
cheaper to maintain a clean
environment than a dirty one  In  the
short run.  some very modest  temporary
benefit to the economy might result
from relaxed air and water quality
standards, but it would be dangerous
and enormously expensive If we  do
that, it simply means we are borrowing
capital from future generations and
counting it on the profit side of the
  Quite apart from the ethical questions
involved, there is simply no way  that a
future generation could replace the
capital we borrow from them, because
we cannot restore a polluted  ocean or a1"
polluted lake. The  ultimate test of a
man's conscience is his willingness to
sacrifice something today for a future  «
generation whose words of thanks will
never be heard. D

(Nelson, a former U.S. Senator from
Wisconsin, ivas (he founder of Earth
Day, which first look place in April
1970. He is now Counselor of the
Wilderness Society and associated with
the University of Wisconsin at Stevens

Earth  Day Recollections:
What  ft  Was  Like
When  The  Movement
Took Off
by John C. Whitaker
 Concerned students wore masks and decorated garbage trees to
 pay homage to Earth Day, 1970. Where are they now?
 Don Hogan Charles photo, NYT Pictures.
    When President Nixon and his staff
    walked into the White House on
January 20, 1969/we were totally
unprepared for the tidal wave of public
opinion in favor of cleaning the nation's
environment that was about to engulf
us. If Hubert Humphrey had become
President, the result would have been
the same.
  During the 1968 presidential
campaign, neither the Nixon nor
Humphrey campaign gave more than  lip
service to environmental issues. Rather,
their thoughts focused on such issues as
Vietnam, prosperity, the rising crime
rate, and inflation. Nixon made one
radio speech on natural resources and
the quality of the environment, which
seemed adequate to cover an issue that
stirred little interest among the
                                                                    During the 1968 presidential
                                                                    campaign, neither the Nixon
                                                                    nor Humphrey campaign gave
                                                                    more than lip service to
                                                                    environmental issues.
  In the Humphrey camp, things were
just as quiet. He dedicated a park in San
Antonio, Texas, and the John Day Dam
in Oregon, using both occasions to
discuss the environment and
conservation. Otherwise, Humphrey,
said nothing on the issue.
  If the candidates showed little interest
in the issue, so did the national press
corps. In fact, Nixon staff members do
not recall even one question put to him
about the environment.
  Yet only 17 months after the election,
on April 22, 1970, the country
celebrated Earth Day, with a national
outpouring of concern for cleaning up
the environment. Politicians of both
parties jumped on the issue. So many
politicians were on the stump on Earth
Day that Congress was forced to close
down. The oratory, one of the wire
services observed, was "as thick as smog
at rush hour."
  A comparison of White House polls
(done by Opinion  Research of Princeton,
New Jersey) taken in May 1969, and just
two years later in May 1971, showed
that concern for the environment had
leaped to the forefront of our national
psyche. In May 1971, fully a quarter of
the public thought that protecting the
environment was important, yet only 1
percent had thought so just two years
earlier. In the Gallup polls, public

concern over air and water pollution
jumped from tenth place in the summer
of 1969 to fifth place in the summer of
1970, and was perceived as more
important than "race," "crime," and
"teenage" problems, but not as
important as the perennial poll leaders,
"peace" and the "pocketbook" issues.
  In the White House, we pondered this
sudden surge of public concern about
cleaning up America and providing
more open spaces for parks, and a
heightened awareness of the necessity  to
dedicate more land for wildlife habitat.
Why, we asked, after it was so long
delayed,  was the environmentalist
awakening so much more advanced in
the United States than  in other
countries? What motivated millions to
so much activity so  long after
publication of Rachel Carson's Si/ent
Spring in 1962? Many factors seem to
have been involved.
  First, the environmental movement
probably bloomed at the time it did
mainly because of affluence. Americans
have long been relatively much better
off than people of other nations, but
nothing in all history compares even
remotely to the prosperity we have
enjoyed since the end of World War II,
and which became visibly evident by
the mid-fifties. An affluent economy
yields things like the 40-hour week,
three-day weekends, the two-week paid
vacation, plus every kind of labor-saving
gadget imaginable to shorten the hours
that used to be devoted to household
chores. The combination of spare money
and spare  time created an ambiance for
the growth of causes that absorb both
money and time.
  Another product of affluence has been
the emergence of an "activist" upper
middle class—college-educated,
affluent, concerned, and youthful for its
financial circumstances. The nation has
never had  anything like this "mass
elite" before. Sophisticated, resourceful,
politically potent, and dedicated to
change, to "involvement," it formed  the
backbone of the environmentalist
movement in the United States.
  Other factors included the rise of
television and the opportunities it
provides for advocacy journalism.
  Also, science contributed another
dimension to the national agitation. To
the obvious signs of pollution that
people could see. feel, and smell,
science added a panoply of invisible
threats: radiation, heavy metal poisons,
chlorinated hydrocarbons in the water,
acidic radicals in  the atmosphere, all
potentially more insidious,  more
pervasive, and more dangerous than the
familiar nuisances. This could happen
only in a country able to support a
large, advanced scientific community
with an immense laboratory
infrastructure, marvelously  sensitive
instruments, intensive funding,
computers, data banks, and vast
interchanges of information able to
isolate  and trace the progress through
the ecosystem of elements and
compounds at concentrations measured
in parts per billion, and to establish
their effects upon living organisms  in
the biosphere.
 In  the Gallup polls, public
concern  over air and water
pollution jumped from tenth
place in the summer of 1969 to
fifth place in the summer of
1970 ..
                                          The press served the pollinating
                                        function of a honey bee, transporting
                                        the latest scientific findings to the
                                        public, which reacted with fear and
                                        misgivings. These in turn were relayed
                                        by the press back to the scientific
                                        community, which was stimulated by
                                        public concern to  intensify its
                                        investigations, leading to more
                                        discoveries of new perils, and so on.
                                        This in itself provided a climate in
                                        which support for environmentally
                                        related causes could be elicited.
                                          The feverish pitch of Earth Day 1970
                                        passed, but the environmental
                                        movement did not go away. Instead, the
                                        drive for a cleaner environment became
                                        part of our national ethic. Now it  is
                                        taken for granted, the best possible
                                        testimonial that  progress is being  made.
                                        Our nation's thinking has changed.
                                        Endorsing  growth  without regard  to the
                                        quality of that growth seems forever
                                        behind us. The failure of the economy
                                        to take into full account the social costs
                                        of environmental pollution is being
                                        rectified. Not only are environmental
                                        considerations now factored into federal
                                        government decision-making but over
                                        and over again Americans pay for
        Photo courtesy of The White House.

East Terrace, U.S. Capitol. Washington Convention and Visitors Association photo.
low-polluting or pollution-free products
like low-sulfur heating oil, unleaded
gasoline, and coal from fully reclaimed
strip mines, for automobile emission
controls, for electricity from cleaner
fuels, and for more parklands and
wildlife refuges. More fundamentally,
we are beginning to understand that the
environment is an independent whole
of which man is only a part.
  But in the early 1970s it was clear
that the executive branch could not
respond to public demand to clean up
the environment without first creating
an organization to do the job. Better
coordination of federal environmental
programs was needed. There were 44
agencies in nine separate departments
with responsibilities in the field of what
was then loosely described as "the
environment and natural resources." No
department had  enough expertise to
take charge.
  At cabinet meetings, HEW Secretary
Bob Finch, responsible for air pollution
controls, and Transportation Secretary
John Volpe, argued over which
department should take the lead in
developing a research program for
unconventional  low-polluting
 So many politicians were on
the stump  on Earth Day that
Congress was forced to close
automobiles. On pesticides, Walter
Hickel at Interior and Finch argued for
tighter pesticide controls, while
Agriculture Secretary Clifford Hardin
emphasized the increased crop
productivity resulting from the
application of pesticides. And Secretary
of State  Bill Rogers weighed in
expressing concern on whether a ban on
DDT in  this country might restrict the
supply of DDT to the developing
countries. Hickel, who at the time
handled water pollution control over at
Interior, wanted  more money for sewage
treatment control; Bob Mayo, director of
the  Bureau of Budget would have none
of it. Maurice Stans at Commerce was
wary of tighter pollution controls and
what effect this might have on corporate
profits. Paul McCracken, Chairman of
the  President's Council of Economic
Advisors, worried that we would be
uncompetitive in international markets
if our product prices reflected the costs
of pollution abatement standards that
were more stringent than those of other
countries. There was hardly a Cabinet
officer who did not have a stake in the
environment issue. Even the Postmaster
General joined the  debate, offering to
use postal cars to test an experimental
fleet of low-pollution cars.
  The cabinet meeting left President
Nixon dissatisfied. There was no overall
strategy, too many unanswered
questions. Should enforcement be done
by regulation, or by user fees, or a
combination of both? What were the
overall costs to industry and the
consumer in terms of both the increased
price products for various pollution
abatement schedules under varying
standards and regulations? Finally, what
would the various clean-up scenarios do
to the federal budget? Nixon clearly
needed  a "pollution czar" and one
agency to  look to for the answers.
  First,  Nixon discarded the- option of a
Department of Environment and Natural
Resources as well as several other
reorganization plans. In July 1970 he
submitted to Congress the
Environmental Protection Agency plan:
the new agency came into being on
December 2, 1970. Meanwhile, I had
interviewed a number of candidates to
run the  new agency and recommended
Bill Ruckelshaus to the President. I've
missed the mark on lots of things in my
life, but Ruckelshaus was a "bull's  eye."
  Now,  years later, the
accomplishments of the Nixon years are
plain to see. New clean air, water, solid
waste, and pesticide laws, coastal zone
management planning seed money, new
national parks, including the great
urban parks in New York City and  San
Francisco harbors. In addition, Nixon
ordered federal agencies to shed spare
federal acreage that would be converted
into parks and recreation areas,
especially in urban areas. More than
82,000 acres in all 50 states were
converted into 642 parks, the majority
of them in or very close to cities, really
bringing parks to the people.
  More  money was dedicated to buying
wildlife habitat; Congress passed
Nixon's controversial proposal to
protect endangered species. Nixon's
executive orders restricted ocean
dumping and tightened environmental
standards for off-shore  oil drilling.  To
quell the insatiable development
instincts of the Army Corps of Engineers
he cancelled construction of the
Cross-Florida Barge Canal.

   What Nixon—and subsequent
 presidents—couldn't accomplish is
 to address in  a rational way the cost of
 pollution abatement control: how fast
 should the nation clean up and at  what
 cost? In the early 1970s, our polls
 clearly showed  the public demanded a
 cleaner environment, but data on the
 public's willingness to pay was
 ambivalent. Our initial Opinion
 Research polls showed that about
 three-fourths  of the public supported
 more government spending for air and
 water pollution abatement programs,
 that support existed in all population
 groups, and that it was particularly high
 among the young. But this did not mean
 that taxpayers had committed
  The feverish pitch of Earth
 Day 1970 passed, but the
 environmental movement
 did not go away.
 themselves to spending their own
 money to improve the quality of the •
 environment. Spending for government
 programs never seems to equate in the
 public's mind with spending their own
 money. Opinion Research reported that
 in May 1971, three-fourths of the public
 would pay  small price increases for
 pollution control, but six out of 10
 opposed large price inreases for that
   A Harris  poll in October 1971
 indicated that 78 percent of the public
 would be willing to pay (how much  was
 not specified) to have air and water
 pollution cleaned up, and 48 percent
 would accept a 10-percent reduction in
 jobs for a cleaner environment. Poll
 editor Hazel Erskine indicated that
 individuals were not "personally  ,
 anxious" to foot the bill for  correcting
 pollution damage, although  willingness
 to pay for pollution control  was
   Congress received even stronger
 messages. Twenty-two congressmen, in
 a survey of 300,000 Americans in
 varying kinds of congressional districts,
 asked constituents if they were willing
 to pay more for pollution control.
 Respondents in all but three districts
 answered affirmatively. Representative
 Gerald Ford asked his Michigan
 constituents, "Should the federal
 government expand efforts to control air
 and water pollution even if  il costs you
 more  in taxes and prices?" The. answer:
68.3 percent yes, 27.5 percent no.
Subsequently, Ford voted to override
President Nixon's veto of the Federal
Water Pollution Control Act
Amendments of 1972. (Nixon vetoed it
largely because of the very heavy federal
expenditures, particularly for sewage
treatment plants.) Not surprisingly,
because the perspective almost always
changes inside the oval office,
President Ford later tried unsuccessfully
to hold down sewage treatment
expenditures, as has every president
since then.
  Nixon knew he would pay a political
price by not proposing the "toughest"
and costliest pollution control
standards, but after looking at the
federal budget and the macro-economic
impact, he chose a more moderate
course. As it turned out, Congress,
fanned by the political hurricane of the
environmental movement, enacted
deadlines that could never be met, like
the 1977 deadline for secondary
treatment of municipal waste, and an
$18 billion appropriation over the
three-year life of the law, which
couldn't even be dispensed under the
law's cumbersome grant system.
Similarly, Congress  legislated
technology that didn't exist by setting
emission standards for automobiles that
couldn't be met and later had to be
postponed. The missed 1987 year-end
ozone deadlines  is another glaring
example of Congress' tendency to
legislate non-existent technology.
  Early in the process we recognized
that Congress and the executive branch
mistrusted each other's cost impact
figures for various pollution  reduction
strategies. Even in executive  branch
meetings, the EPA staff repeatedly
seemed to minimize pollution costs,
while other agencies weighed in with
high costs to meet the identical
pollution standard. Often, we halved the
difference, relaxing the standard more
than EPA wanted, but keeping it much
tighter than Commerce, for example,
found acceptable.
  We might have missed a chance in
those early days to help resolve the
debate. Russ Train, chairman of the
Council on Environmental Quality, and
I proposed setting up a national body
with think tank funds plus matching
federal funds to study cost-benefit
analysis for pollution controls. We
hoped that if a body removed from
Congress and the executive branch did
the number crunching, then perhaps the
results would be more acceptable to all
parties inside the beltway. The idea
never reached the President,  largely
because Chuck Colson opposed our
candidate to head this study  group, and
Colson beat me out in the White House
staff warfare that goes on  in any
  Today Americans spend $77 billion
annually for environmental
improvements and that cost could easily
reach $100 billion by the  end of the
century. Rather than ask where the next
billion dollars can be spent, we must
pause and again ask how  clean and how
fast? Today we have infinitely  more
scientific capability and sophisticated
cost-benefit analysis to steer a course
toward a cleaner environment. The
question is, will our elected officials
and executive branch regulators be
willing to lean into the political winds,
as  we did, and act on the basis of
objective information? Q
(Whitaker was President Nixon's
Cabinet Secretary (5969); associate
director of the White House Domestic
Council for environment, energy, and
natural resources policy (1969-1972):
and Undersecretary of the Department
of the Interior (1973-1975). He is now
Vice President, Public A/fairs, for Union
Camp Corporation.)