Earth Day then and now … Part one: What’s at stake?

• U.S. needs bipartisan effort to create environmentally and socially sustainable economic system

In March 1970, the first Environmental teach-in took place at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin had seen Vietnam War teach-ins and decided to use the same model to promote public awareness regarding the need for environmental reforms. California Senator Pete McCloskey became a co-sponsor, giving the event a bi-partisan flavor. The next month, similar events took place on college campuses across the United States. The event became known as Earth Day.

We were there.

The teach-in was eye-opening and inspiring, with a long list of prominent business, political, environmental and labor leaders. Yet, in retrospect, what we remember most about our experiences in Ann Arbor was one class from world-prominent ecologist Dr. Stanley Cain.

In September 1969, Dr. Cain had returned to teaching from a Washington tour of duty as the director of the Department of Interior.

Early in the class, Dr. Cain acknowledged the role he and his advisers had in the disastrous Santa Barbara oil spill.

President Lyndon Johnson wanted the oil to pay for his “guns and butter policies.” Cain and his staff knew that drilling for oil in a fractured rock formation in the ocean was environmentally risky, but if they refused the president, they would be replaced by more compliant experts.

When drilling began, the oil found its own route out and spread widely onto the beaches of Santa Barbara.

Oil on the beaches of wealthy backers of President Richard Nixon generated additional pressure for him to sign the Clean Water Act in 1972, which still forms the backbone of today’s water quality legislation.

While we were impressed with Cain’s candor, it was depressing to know how quickly technical competence succumbs to raw political power. Since then, some federal legislation has been passed to provide protection to officials who go public with embarrassing insider information.

In Cain’s day, DDT was found in wildlife around the world, which invigorated the United Nations with a new role of monitoring global environmental trends. The hope was that early recognition of emerging global problems could lead to effective action. An early success was the detection of the hole in the ozone layer and a global agreement to gradually stop using the damaging chemicals. The network continues to document global problems, such as expanding oxygen-depleted zones in the ocean caused by chemical runoff from the land.

Cain’s final point was that growing populations, increased conversion of natural resources into goods and services, and rising levels of pollution increasingly undermined global ecological integrity and human welfare. Thirty-five years later, these problems have intensified. While some profit enormously from these dismal trends, the global environment is far worse off than it was.

The first Earth Day helped lift the veil of ignorance and secrecy regarding the vulnerability of the planet and human welfare to the ravages of endless economic growth. The environment is again under siege; this time on a scale far greater than before. Our country desperately needs a bipartisan reawakening to create an economic system that is both environmentally and socially sustainable.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!