Earth Day then and now … Part two: Why should we care?

We heard of potential global warming during the first Earth Day at the University of Michigan in March 1970. Learned economists spoke of the need to curtail the cowboy economy and implement an economy in which environmental costs were integrated into the price of goods and services.

The president of Consolidated Edison of New York accepted the need for pollution controls and the need to pay a little more for our electricity to clean the air and water.

Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, called for less reliance on auto transportation and increased miles per gallon to curtail auto pollution. He endorsed the notion that we needed to build fewer cars and support more efficient forms of transportation.

Speakers called for families of only two children, birth control and decreased rates of immigration. Family planning and sex education were advocated as a means to lessen the likelihood of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Unchecked population growth was recognized as undermining government attempts to raise the standard of living for the poor. Curbing high rates of consumption characteristic of developed countries was advised to lessen environmental damage.

Charles Worster, fresh from successful court battles in Wisconsin to ban DDT, warned that a plethora of closely related chemicals remained in the marketplace. He said that mounting court battles to limit them one chemical at a time only meant future generations would suffer adverse consequences of reproductive failure, rising rates of cancer, and increased disorders of the central nervous system.

Speakers warned of the dangers of overfishing and the potential of whaling to eliminate that majestic species. They warned that unregulated economic growth and unregulated markets would bring the global economy ever nearer to a point of collapse.

One freshly minted Ph.D. biologist who was part of the team that unlocked the secrets of DNA recognized the potential this new knowledge could have for waging wars and curtailing human freedom. Before a packed audience in the Crisler arena, he announced he would no longer engage in DNA research but would spend the rest of his life working for peace.

What was refreshing about the March trial run of the first Earth Day at the University of Michigan was the candor with which environmental problems were discussed and the willingness of a range of corporate interests to acknowledge that their practices were environmentally damaging. Leading economists also recognized that environmental problems could be solved at reasonable costs and, in many cases, with improved profits if more modern, efficient and cleaner methods of manufacture were used.

The initial Earth Day was envisioned as a celebration of all the goods and services provided free to us by nature. It was also a recognition by bipartisan interests of the need to lessen the adverse impacts of economic development and an ever-growing human population on the environment. The necessity for both private interests and government bodies to work together to solve these problems was widely acknowledged.

Today, the spirit of working together for the common good is gone. Some private interests demonize government actions, weaken environmental regulations, and cast doubt on the validity of scientific studies. Why?

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