Earth Day Recollections: What It Was Like When The Movement Took Off

by John C. Whitaker
[EPA Journal - July/Aug. 1988]

When President Nixon and his staff walked into the White House on January 20, 1969, we were totally unprepared for the tidal wave of public opinion in favor of cleaning the nation's environment that was about to engulf us. If Hubert Humphrey had become President, the result would have been the same.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, neither the Nixon nor Humphrey campaign gave more than lip service to environmental issues. Rather, their thoughts focused on such issues as Vietnam, prosperity, the rising crime rate, and inflation. Nixon made one radio speech on natural resources and the quality of the environment, which seemed adequate to cover an issue that stirred little interest among the electorate.

In the Humphrey camp, things were just as quiet. He dedicated a park in San Antonio, Texas, and the John Day Dam in Oregon, using both occasions to discuss the environment and conservation. Otherwise, Humphrey said nothing on the issue.

If the candidates showed little interest in the issue, so did the national press corps. In fact, Nixon staff members do not recall even one question put to him about the environment.

Yet only 17 months after the election, on April 22, 1970, the country celebrated Earth Day, with a national outpouring of concern for cleaning up the environment. Politicians of both parties jumped on the issue. So many politicians were on the stump on Earth Day that Congress was forced to close down. The oratory, one of the wire services observed, was "as thick as smog at rush hour."

A comparison of white House polls (done by Opinion Research of Princeton, New Jersey) taken in May 1969, and just two years later in May 1971, showed that concern for the environment had leaped to the forefront of our national psyche. In May 1971, fully a quarter of the public thought that protecting the environment was important, yet only 1 percent had thought so just two years earlier.

In the Gallup polls, public concern over air and water pollution jumped from tenth place in the summer of 1969 to fifth place in the summer of 1970, and was perceived as more important than "race," "crime," and "teenage" problems, but not as important as the perennial poll leaders, "peace" and the "pocketbook" issues.

In the White House, we pondered this sudden surge of public concern about cleaning up America and providing more open spaces for parks, and a ened awareness of the necessity to dedicate more land for wildlife habitat. Why, we asked, after it was so long delayed, was the environmentalist awakening so much more advanced in the United States than in other countries? What motivated millions to so much activity so long after publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962? Many factors seem to have been involved.

First, the environmental movement probably bloomed at the time it did mainly because of affluence. Americans have long been relatively much better off than people of other nations, but nothing in all history compares even remotely to the prosperity we have enjoyed since the end of World War II, and which became visibly evident by the mid-fifties.

An affluent economy yields things like the 40-hour week, three-day weekends, the two-week paid vacation, plus every kind of labor-saving gadget imaginable to shorten the hours that used to be devoted to household chores. The combination of spare money and spare time created an ambiance for the growth of causes that absorb both money and time.

Another product of affluence has been the emergence of an "activist" upper middle class -- college-educated, affluent, concerned, and youthful for its financial circumstances. The nation has never had anything like this "mass elite" before. Sophisticated, resourceful, politically potent, and dedicated to change, to "involvement," it formed the backbone of the environmentalist movement in the United States.

Other factors included the rise of television and the opportunities it provides for advocacy journalism.

Also, science contributed another dimension to the national agitation. To the obvious signs of pollution that people could see, feel, and smell, science added a panoply of invisible threats: radiation, heavy metal poisons, chlorinated hydrocarbons in the water, acidic radicals in the atmosphere, all potentially more insidious, more pervasive, and more dangerous than the familiar nuisances.

This could happen only in a country able to support a large, advanced scientific community with an immense laboratory infrastructure, marvelously sensitive instruments, intensive funding, computers, data banks, and vast interchanges of information able to isolate and trace the progress through the ecosystem of elements and compounds at concentrations measured in parts per billion, and to establish their effects upon living organisms in the biosphere.

The press served the pollinating function of a honey bee, transporting the latest scientific findings to the public, which reacted with fear and misgivings. These in turn were relayed by the press back to the scientific community, which was stimulated by public concern to intensify its investigations, leading to more discoveries of new perils, and so on. This in itself provided a climate in which support for environmentally related causes could be elicited .

The feverish pitch of Earth Day 1970 passed, but the environmental movement did not go away. Instead, the drive for a cleaner environment became part of our national ethic. Now it is taken for granted, the best possible testimonial that progress is being made. Our nation's thinking has changed. Endorsing growth without regard to the quality of that growth seems forever behind us. The failure of the economy to take into full account the social costs of environmental pollution is being rectified.

Not only are environmental considerations now factored into federal government decision-making but over and over again Americans pay for low-polluting or pollution-free products like low-sulfur heating oil, unleaded gasoline, and coal from fully reclaimed strip mines, for automobile emission controls, for electricity from cleaner fuels, and for more parklands and wildlife refuges. More fundamentally, we are beginning to understand that the environment is an independent whole of which man is only part.

But in the early 1970s it was clear that the executive branch could not respond to public demand to clean up the environment without first creating an organization to do the job. Better coordination of federal environmental programs was needed. There were 44 agencies in nine separate departments with responsibilities in the field of what was then loosely described as "the environment and natural resources." No department had enough expertise to take charge.

At cabinet meetings, HEW Secretary Bob Finch, responsible for air pollution controls, and Transportation Secretary John Volpe, argued over which department should take the lead in developing a research program for unconventional low-polluting automobiles. On pesticides, Walter Hickel at Interior and Finch argued for tighter pesticide controls, while Agriculture Secretary Clifford Hardin emphasized the increased crop productivity resulting from the application of pesticides.

And Secretary of State Bill Rogers weighed in expressing concern on whether a ban on DDT in this country might restrict the supply of DDT to the developing countries. Hickel, who at the time handled water pollution control over at Interior, wanted more money for sewage treatment control; Bob Mayo, director of the Bureau of Budget would have none of it. Maurice Stans at Commerce was wary of tighter pollution controls and what effect this might have on corporate profits.

Paul McCracken, Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors worried that we would be uncompetitive in international markets if our product prices reflected the costs of pollution abatement standards that were more stringent than those of other countries. There was hardly a Cabinet officer who did not have a stake in the environment issue. Even the Postmaster General joined the debate, offering to use postal cars to test an experimental fleet of low-pollution cars.

The cabinet meeting left President Nixon dissatisfied. There was no overall strategy, too many unanswered questions.. Should enforcement be done by regulation, or by user fees, or a combination of both? What were the overall costs to industry and the consumer in terms of both the increased price products for various pollution abatement schedules under varying standards and regulations? Finally, what would the various clean-up scenarios do to the federal budget? Nixon clearly needed a "pollution czar" and one agency to look for the answers.

First, Nixon discarded the option of a Department of Environment and Natural Resources as well as several other reorganization plans. In July 1970 he submitted to Congress the Environmental Protection Agency plan; the new agency came into being on December 2, 1970. Meanwhile, I had interviewed a number of candidates to run the new agency and recommended Bill Ruckelshaus to the President. I've missed the mark on lots of things in my life, but Ruckelshaus was a "bull's eye."

Now, years later, the accomplishments of the Nixon years are plain to see. New clean air, water, solid waste, and pesticide laws, coastal zone management planning seed money, new national parks, including the great urban parks in New York City and San Francisco harbors. In addition, Nixon ordered federal agencies to shed spare federal acreage that would be converted into parks and recreation areas, especially in urban areas. More than 82,000 acres in all 50 states were converted into 642 parks, the majority of them in or very close to cities, really bringing parks to the people.

More money was dedicated to buying wildlife habitat; congress passed Nixon's controversial proposal to protect endangered species. Nixon's executive orders restricted ocean dumping and tightened environmental standards for off-shore oil drilling. To quell the insatiable development instincts of the Army Corps of Engineers he cancelled construction of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal.

What Nixon -- and subsequent presidents -- couldn't accomplish is to address in a rational way the cost of pollution abatement control: how fast should the national clean up and at what cost? In the early 1970s, our polls clearly showed the public demanded a cleaner environment, but data on the public's willingness to pay was ambivalent. Our initial Opinion Research polls showed that about three-fourths of the public supported more government spending for air and water pollution abatement programs, that support existed in all population groups, and that it was particularly high among the young.

But this did not mean that taxpayers had committed themselves to spending their own money to improve the quality of the environment. Spending for government programs never seems to equate in the public's mind with spending their own money. Opinion Research reported that in May 1971, three-fourths of the public would pay small price increases for pollution control, but six out of 10 opposed large increases for that purpose.

A Harris poll in October 1971 indicated that 78 percent of the public would be willing to pay (how much was not specified) to have air and water pollution cleaned up, and 48 percent would accept a 10-percent reduction in jobs for a cleaner environment. Poll editor Hazel Erskine indicated that individuals were not "personally anxious" to foot the bill for correcting pollution damage, although willingness to pay for pollution control was growing.

Congress received even stronger messages. Twenty-two congressmen, in a survey of 300,000 Americans in varying kinds of congressional districts, asked constituents if they were willing to pay more for pollution control. Respondents in all but three districts answered affirmatively. Representative Gerald Ford asked his Michigan constituents, "Should the federal government expand efforts to control air and water pollution even if it costs you more in taxes and prices?" The answer: 68.3 percent yes, 27.5 percent no.

Subsequently, Ford voted to overrride President Nixon's veto of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972. (Nixon vetoed it largely because of the very heavy federal expenditures, particularly for sewage treatment plants.) Not surprisingly, because the perspective almost always changes inside the oval office, President Ford later tried unsuccessfully to hold own sewage treatment expenditures, as he every president since then.

Nixon knew he would pay a political price by not proposing the "toughest" and costliest pollution control standards, but after looking at the federal budget and the macro-economic impact, he chose a more moderate course. As it turned out, Congress, fanned by the political hurricane of the environmental movement, enacted deadlines that could never be met, like the 1977 deadline for secondary treatment of municipal waste, and an $18 billion appropriation over the three-year life of the law, which couldn't even be dispensed under the law's cumbersome grant system.

Similarly, Congress legislated technology that didn't exist by setting emission standards for automobiles that couldn't be met and later had to be postponed. The missed 1987 year-end ozone deadlines is another glaring example of Congress' tendency to legislate non-existent technology.

Early in the process we recognized that Congress and the executive branch mistrusted each other's cost impact figures for various pollution reduction strategies. Even in executive branch meetings, the EPA staff repeatedly seemed to minimize pollution costs, while other agencies weighed in with high costs to meet the identical pollution standard. Often, we halved the difference, relaxing the standard more than EPA wanted, but keeping it much tighter than Commerce, for example, found acceptable.

We might have missed a chance in those early days to help resolve the debate. Russ Train, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, and I proposed setting up a national body with think tank funds plus matching federal funds to study cost-benefit analysis for pollution controls. We hoped that if a body removed from Congress and the executive branch did the number crunching, then perhaps the results would be more acceptable to all parties inside the beltway. The idea never reached the President, largely because Chuck Colson opposed our candidate to head this study group, and Colson beat me out in the White House staff warfare that goes on in any Administration.

Today Americans spend $77 billion annually for environmental improvements and that cost could easily reach $100 billion by the end of the century. Rather than ask where the next billion dollars can be spent, we must pause and again ask how clean and how fast? Today we have infinitely more scientific capability and sophisticated cost-benefit analysis to steer a course toward a cleaner environment. The question is, will our elected officials and executive branch regulators be willing to lean into the political winds, as we did, and act on the basis of objective information?

Whitaker was President Nixon's Cabinet Secretary (1969); associate director of the White House Domestic Council for environment, energy, and natural resources policy (1969-1972); and Undersecretary of the Department of the Interior (1973-1975). He is now Vice President, Public Affairs, for Union Camp Corporation.