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Earth Day Blues

The rise and fall of the environmental movement.

1:35 PM, Apr 22, 2010 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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Environmentalists are used to wallowing in misery--in fact, it makes them happy--but the 40th anniversary of Earth Day this week should offer up an extra helping of woe, for the movement has lost its mojo. Opinion surveys show not only that public belief in and concern for global warming is plummeting, but that environmentalism in general is falling out of favor. They have no one to blame but themselves.

Earth Day Blues

The first Earth Day in 1970 was a sensation, amounting to a coming out party for a major new social and political force, and for the next decade the environmental movement became arguably the most rapidly successful social movement in U.S. history, with a string of landmark national statutes passed in quick succession with large bipartisan majorities, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and culminating in the Superfund toxic cleanup act in 1980. But the field has been stagnant ever since, with environmental issues becoming highly polarized on ideological lines resulting in a complete stalemate on new legislative policy initiatives (though environmentalists are still thriving in the courtroom and in the bureaucracy).

In 1990, according to an ABC News/Gallup survey series, 75 percent of Americans said they considered themselves to be environmentalists, with only 24 percent saying they did not. The numbers have been slowly reversing over the last decade. As of 2008 (the most recent year the question was asked), only 41 percent of Americans identified themselves as environmentalists, with 58 percent now saying they do not. And Gallup’s annual environmental survey also finds the public now favors economic growth over environmental protection by a 53 – 38 margin. For most of the last 25 years, even during previous recessions, the public favored the environment over the economy by as much as a two-to-one margin. In 1991, the beginning of a recession, the margin was 71 – 20 in favor of environmental protection over the economy. Surveys also show surging support for nuclear power and expanded oil and gas production in the U.S. No wonder the 40th anniversary of Earth Day is passing quietly this year.

How did environmentalists squander their vast reservoir of public enthusiasm? A closer look back at the very first Earth Day in 1970 reveals a number of ironies about modern environmentalism that have been forgotten by almost everyone, especially environmentalists. Although ecology, as it was called then, was an obvious issue for the liberal reform tradition, it also had a strong conservative and Republican constituency for the common sense reason that no one is for polluted air and dirty water. Even the evil corporations of leftist lore have a high enough self-regard to not want to poison their customer base. Environmentalism in 1970 appeared to be the perfect consensus issue to take the place of increasingly contentious social policy.

Not only did Richard Nixon create the Environmental Protection Agency by executive fiat (Nixon proposed 36 different environmental laws in 1970), he also competed with Democratic Senator Ed Muskie to see who could be the toughest on reducing air pollution. Out in California, Governor Ronald Reagan devoted fully a third of his 1970 state of the state speech to the environment, declaring “the absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment.” Reagan wrote in Nation’s Business that “the one major issue that is most likely to dominate the nation’s political attention in the 1970s [is] environmental protection. . . . The bulldozer mentality of the past is a luxury we can no longer afford. Our roads and other public projects must be planned to prevent the destruction of scenic resources and to avoid needlessly upsetting the ecological balance.” Shortly after the first Earth Day, National Review sounded more like the Sierra Club than a conservative standard-bearer: “If [corporations] do not stop [polluting] we must find ways to compel them in some way to do so. . . . Important people must be interfered with before notice will be taken of disagreeable facts. Instead of demonstrating on Fifth Avenue on behalf of baby seals, the saviors of the environment would get far better results picketing the country clubs of Nassau, Fairfield, and Morris counties.” National Review!

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