Manny of you have probably seen this pollposted on the Huffington Post today. Forty-two years ago, on the first Earth Day in 1971, 63% of Americans believed it was ‘very important’ to work to restore and enhance the national environment. In 2013, only 39% said it was very important.
This sounds alarming on the face of it. What changed? The conservative revolution? The generational change? The endless onslaught of four decades of “regulations cost jobs” punditry funded by Wall Street? Apathy bred of weariness? I don’t think that’s it.
It seems to me the reason Americans are less concerned about the environment is precisely because we've come so far. The environment just doesn’t look like the same imminent problem it was in 1971. We used to see pollution everywhere, pollution so bad that once we realized just how bad things had got, that a country badly divided by politics, race, economics, class and the Vietnam War came to the sort of consensus that you almost never see anymore in our society—63% thought it was very important, 25% thought it was ‘fairly important,’ and only 8% said it wasn’t important. 88% in favor of anything doesn’t happen too often. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike made common cause on a subject now more likely to divide them than unite them.
Forty years of concerted effort later, we no longer see factory and powerplant smokestacks vomiting coal smoke into the air everywhere we go, and our rivers by and large no longer stink like open sewers because of the raw sewage dumped into them every day. Factory and car emissions aren’t splattering lead all over the country, to the detriment of our children’s developmental health. Our drinking water is tested for pollutants and its sources are protected for posterity. Hazardous industrial wastes can no longer be dumped anywhere on a whim—although some of it does still happen, now it’s illegal as all hell rather than standard procedure. Companies that store potentially devastating quantities of dangerous materials (yes, I’m looking at you, West Fertilizer) are required to store the materials carefully and warn local governments of the hazard.
None of these victories were easy. Some of them took over a decade of legislation and litigation and public outcry, and all too many of them were prompted only by disasters like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, Love Canal, or the epidemic of lung cancer and mesothelioma that followed the asbestos industry wherever it went. There was a struggle at every step—Ronald Reagan nominated two business industry lawyers, Anne Gorsuch and Rita Lavelle, to senior positions at EPA in 1980 with the express mission of castrating the agency. In a display of bipartisanship that really doesn’t happen anymore, Gorsuch was cited for contempt of Congress, and Lavelle was convicted of lying to Congress.
Some of our successes are less obvious and less dramatic. We use more and more natural gas instead of coal. We have made wind power and solar power proven technologies rather than the dreams of sci-fi writers or hippies. Even though we generate more solid waste (garbage) than we did in 1980, recycling and composting programs recovered 85.1 million tons of solid waste for reuse of 2010, up from 15 million tons in 1980. Ocean dumping is ended, and incinerators now have air pollution controls. Rather ominously for my own career prospects (I’m a hazardous materials consultant), as a nation we generate about 1/10 of the hazardous waste we did two decades ago. At this rate I’m going to have to find a new career well before I get to retirement age…
It’s easy to not realize how far we’ve come. I was born in 1978—most of the federal environmental laws were passed before I was born, and I didn’t grow up in the shadow of smokestacks the way my parents did. I once met a woman, Helen Gagliarducci, who lived in the south end of Springfield, MA during the late 1940s, when it was a prosperous and respectable neighborhood. Her husband bought her the first Cadillac sold in Springfield after the Second World War’s moratorium on car production was lifted, a bright red Series 62 coupe with what would now be considered a thoroughly indecent amount of chrome. Mrs. Gagliarducci and her family lived about a quarter mile from the United Electric Light Company’s power plant and the Springfield Gas Light Company gasworks. Between the two of them, these two facilities put out enough sulfur and other pollutants from the soft coal they burned that the brand new car’s finish was thoroughly ruined within two years. Mrs. Gagliarducci doesn’t drive anymore because her eyesight is not so good, but she still lives in the same house (though it is no longer such a nice neighborhood) and still owns a Cadillac (though not the same one). I met her when I had to drill a hole in her back yard to find out whether gasoline was oozing beneath her house. She talked my ear off and insisted I eat lasagna she made. Five years ago, I met another woman, Henrietta Molitoris, who worked in a textile mill in Stafford, Connecticut during the Second World War. A good-sized stream flowed through the factory complex, and it turned colors depending on what color the factory was dyeing the cloth that day.
We’re not done yet. We have a long way to go on some issues—we’re still cleaning up the toxic waste dumps from half a century ago, and we still get 40% of our energy from coal. Our automobiles are now our largest threat to air quality and the health of people who breathe (which is almost everyone, except maybe for Dick Cheney).
There are new battles, too. Genetically-modified organisms have eclipsed exotic pesticides as the centerpiece of the agribusiness alchemy. Water supplies like the Ogalalla Aquifer are under greater strain than before, thanks to decades of urban sprawl. Bisphenol A and other endocrine disruptors, a subject not even on the radar forty years ago, are now a major subject of debate in public health.
Some old battles just won’t end—for all the scientific consensus on global warming, it is still as debated as it was in Nixon’s day.
Maybe it’s complacency that we don’t care as much as we used to? Maybe our record of success has cost us some momentum, made it seem less vital that we continue trying.
But try we will.