Yesterday was the 48th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970. Back then, April 22nd was a turning-point day, what anthropologists call a liminal moment, a threshold, in American political history. Pages upon pages of environmental legislation have been signed into law since that great populist moment. And economic elites have risen up to battle, undermine and attempt to destroy virtually every one of them. Pollution, it turns out, is the price we pay, the hidden subsidy we supply as taxpayers, to those doing business as usual in America. In fact, it seems as if the nation’s economy is run by what I’ve come to call the Pollution Industrial Complex. Not paying for pollution directly, but either pawning it off on us or just plain covering it up, is an essential strategy in advancing the bottom line of almost too many corporations to count. Turning a blind eye to pollution is also a fiscal strategy of the military and its complex of industries, both in peace and war.
What we have learned since Earth Day 1970 is close to heartbreaking. Despite all the important advances in public health, resource conservation and public lands brought on by environmental legislation, we now know that pollution is everywhere and has gone largely underreported, under-acknowledged and undertreated, even now. We have learned that there is a whole part of our population who are active anti-environmentalists and that they can win public office and work to wipe out environmental laws and regulations. We’ve learned that companies, after a 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, are treated like persons when it comes to privacy and political funding but are not treated like persons when they subvert the law and public will when it comes to scofflaw behavior related to the environment. They get a free ride. They are not held accountable, not penalized in meaningful ways like a person who breaks the law would be. Chemical companies, manufacturers, energy corporations, the nuclear industry — all are high-tech enterprises that have the science infrastructure to know exactly what they are doing when they pollute and to surmise accurately the range of dire consequences. The more we’ve learned about the reality of the Pollution Industrial Complex’s intractable strategy of deceit, deception, obfuscation, spin and the evil genius of commercial propaganda, the more we’ve felt our own gorging of anger and along with it the dangers of turning our deepening skepticism into the futility of cynicism and fatalistic despair.
Earth Day 1970 didn’t really cause anything to happen itself. But it did galvanize, inspire, empower and motivate millions of American citizens, and many businesses and professional associations, to take the environment more seriously. It also paved the way for the innovations and commercial success of renewable energy, laid the political foundations for myriad local environmental statutes and regulations and created a vast constituency that backed the fundamental science of climate change prediction.
Long before Earth Day, environmentally-aware constituencies, who were often the suffering victims of smog, pushed for the creation of the Clean Air Act of 1963, the National Emissions Standards Act of 1965 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. After Earth Day, a deluge of such laws, backed by a massive grassroots movement and almost universally opposed by conservatives and polluting industries, attempted to heal and cleanse environmental filth and disease that could potentially be plaguing all Americans. The Occupational Safety and Health Act; the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments; the Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Endangered Species Act; the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act; the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act were all passed into law in the 1970s. Richard Nixon signed an executive order in December 1970 creating the Environmental Protection Agency, which is now in the hands of its arch enemies. The Superfund program, known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was passed in 1980. The Oil Pollution Act became law in 199O. And a slew of updates, amendments and new laws have added to the American environmental safety net ever since, each one bitterly opposed by lobbyists who pawn themselves off as the champions of free enterprise and limited government, but who are the hirelings of polluters.
It’s not too great a leap to say the constant enmity and assaults on environmental laws and the questioning of environmental science, especially as it relates to the deterioration of public health, have led to the terrible current predicament the world faces today — rapidly advancing climate change and its terrible consequences in extreme weather events, from droughts to floods to storms to rising seas.
The reality we’ve seen emerge since the first Earth Day might be described as a struggle between “common sense” and “vested interest,” between people suffering from air and water and ground pollution (directly through smog and poisoned water or indirectly from climate change) and those who used their vast corporate resources to deny culpability and even the reality of harm itself.
And we can see, on the day after Earth Day this year, that not only are all the generic predictions of environmental science coming true, but also that none of the “what me worry” anti-environmental lobbying claims of “reasonable doubt” have ever materialized or been proven true. So in the year 2018, we see the alarming situation of drought spreading further east in ways never imagined even by environmental populists. Since 1878 when John Wesley Powell, explorer and geologist, designated the 100th meridian as the metaphoric line drawn in the sand between the arid West and the humid East, that line of demarcation has been a steady and reliable guide to thinking about the climate of the North American continent. But now because of long-predicted climate change, researchers are making reliable speculations that the line is moving east some 140 miles to the 98th meridian and that aridity and drought are moving ever deeper into the Great Plains, the breadbasket of the nation. And in New Mexico we are seeing the particulars of climate change affect our traditional patterns as well. Not only has our windy season generally shifted from March to April and even May, but our hottest season has shifted from June to July and August and has, by my reckoning, extended the very hottest temperatures several degrees higher and lasting perhaps two or three weeks longer. And that’s just in the past five or seven years.
But Earth Day, and the popular uprising that created it, has had a profoundly beneficial effect in New Mexico, both during the build-up and in the aftermath — energizing Bosque restoration, open space preservation, revived local agriculture, water conservation, watershed protection and a host of other local efforts to protect our land and water.
But I wonder why a reinvigorated environmental populism hasn’t appeared with any force in recent years. Where is the populist outrage over the catastrophic jet fuel spill and snail’s pace clean-up at Kirtland Air Force Base and its threat to our drinking water supply? Where is the populist outrage over the hazardous and nuclear waste dumping at Sandia Labs over the years, especially the Mixed Waste Landfill? Where is the outrage over the monstrous pollution in Albuquerque’s South Valley?
A few brave souls and their organizations try to keep the public’s attentions directed toward these dangers and what they imply about greater but undisclosed pollution in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. But the mainstream media has all but ignored them, and most local politicians have danced around their issues every chance they get. Only Congressperson and gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham has registered the kind of alarm and call for action about the Kirtland spill, for instance, that I consider appropriate. Perhaps others have, but they’ve been given little or no press coverage that I’m aware of.
It’s surely time for a new Earth Day, Earth Decade, Earth Century energized by a new generation of environmental populists, armed with new knowledge and a new sense of urgency, unwilling to beg off or be sidelined, ready to take action against those forces that threaten their future. When will they rise up?
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image by Gideon Wright)