A historic political perspective on environmental issues

October 14, 2009

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl

President and Vice President

Illinois Renewable Energy Association

When we started our doctoral work at the University of Michigan, it was a time of intense national interest in cleaning up the environment.

Environmental conditions had been deteriorating for many years, and selected economic and political leaders agreed it was time for a stronger role for the federal government in environmental regulations. Environmental leaders were frustrated in their efforts to clean up the Great Lakes as some states, such as Indiana, resisted efforts to develop regional air and water quality standards as they were likely to adversely affect industries and communities along their very limited shoreline.

In a private conversation, a New Jersey Oil Company official expressed his desire to have national regulations so they could build similarly-designed oil refineries in any part of the country that served their interests, which were often greeted with intense local opposition.

The solution to pollution included a strong desire to pass political power from local and state governments to the national government so federal officials could develop, implement and enforce national environmental standards. U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis., 1963-1981) decided environmental teach-ins at college campuses could stimulate interest and arouse public support for environmental reforms.

The pilot Earth Day was held at the University of Michigan. The president of New York’s ComEd talked of the need for citizens to be willing to pay more for their electricity to implement energy efficiency programs. Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, talked of building fewer, smaller cars to reduce their adverse environmental impacts, and others talked of the need to limit both population and industrial growth. Biologists spoke of industrial and agricultural chemicals’ multiple adverse impacts on nature and humans.

The effort gained momentum from a decision made by Stanley Cain and his staff at U.S. Department of Interior at the request of President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had dramatically expanded the Vietnam War, and at the same time, was funding social programs known as the War on Poverty. He doubted he could get Congress to raise federal taxes and sought additional funds by selling off rights to potential ocean oil fields. He called for a study by Dr. Cain that would justify drilling for oil off the California coast near Santa Barbara.

Dr. Cain explained that if he and his staff resisted Johnson’s request, they would be fired and replaced by a team willing to give the president what he wanted. Cain feared drilling into the oil field’s fractured rock formation could result in a major oil spill, so he recommended the oil wells be fitted with shutoff valves and built more than 3 miles from shore to preserve the illusion of an open ocean vista.

Cain also revealed that congressional efforts to limit military spending were met with press releases indicating that a Russian nuclear submarine was spotted off the coast. Seldom mentioned was the fact that both U.S. and Russian subs had been patrolling each other’s coasts for years.

After Richard Nixon was elected president, a massive oil leak from the Santa Barbara wells brought tremendous pressure from wealthy California Nixon supporters to pass environmental legislation, which led to national efforts to control pollution.

Cain also mentioned that the United Nations was floundering without a mission of any major significance, and was in danger of losing funding. So it was assigned a new mission of reporting on global environmental conditions, and providing the world with planetary health data based on long-term studies. Much of the data we have today about the loss of biodiversity, the decline of the tropical rainforests and coral reefs and global climate change have their roots in the United Nations’ environmental mission.

What our economic and political leaders choose to do or not do does not reflect on the quality of the environmental data. Environmental conditions continue to decline as a result of never-ending population expansion and industrial consumption of nature. Just as Dr. Cain and his cohorts knew the potential adverse consequences of drilling off the Santa Barbara Coast, today’s scientists are alerting society of the dangers to ourselves and the planet from our continued ignoring of adverse environmental consequences.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. The Vogls and the IREA are members of the Environmental Hall of Fame. Dr. Robert Vogl is vice president of Freedom Field, and Dr. Sonia Vogl is a member of Freedom Field’s Executive Committee. The Vogls consult on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are active in preserving natural areas and are retired professors from Northern Illinois University. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the October 14-20, 2009 issue

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