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Two views on Earth Day.

Founding Father: Gaylord Nelson on Earth Day's Past, Present and Future

Every day at least since 1970 - has been Earth Day for former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin Democrat who founded the annual event 25 years ago. Nelson, now counselor to the Wilderness Society in Washington, hasn't missed an Earth Day since, and is still active as an environmental educator and speaker. Nelson, who served in the Senate from 1963-1981, is the author of the Environmental Education Act (1970) and winner of such honors as Conservationist of the Year (National Wildlife Federation) and the Environmental Leadership Award (UN Environmental Program). He was interviewed at his Washington office.

E: Did Earth Day 1970 leave its mark on American society?

NELSON: What it did was focus tremendous attention on environmental issues. We told ABC, CBS and NBC we were having a huge event, but they didn't really notice until they saw what was actually happening under their noses in New York: Every school was having an event; Mayor Lindsay was cutting off Fifth Avenue; there were 100,000 people in the streets. All kinds of news started appearing about what was going on. It became front-page in every newspaper, and on the radio and TV. The demonstrations showed the press and the political establishment that this was a big deal. Congress voted to adjourn because so many members had Earth Day speaking engagements in their districts. Back then, I was the only person in the Senate with an environmental staff person. Now all 535 have somebody responsible for the environment.

The 1970 event got a lot of attention, but I've pointed out many times to people that Earth Day 1985, 1989 and 1991 are all more important than the big anniversaries. The important thing is what's happening at the grassroots, and particularly what goes on in the school system. Wisconsin was the first state in the country to have K-12 mandated environmental education. Teachers can't get certified unless they've taken a certain number of courses, and the material is infused into the curriculum every day. The result is that I can go to any grade school and hold up a can of tuna, and the kids know it should be dolphin-safe. How many adults know that?

This new Congress is determined to roll back environmental legislation, and to cut back environmental spending. Will this be a significant setback in the fairly optimistic future vision you've presented?

In the short term, yes, and in the long term, no. A great deal of damage was done on the population side by Reagan and Bush. The U.S. even took the position, at the Mexico conference, of opposing family planning, and not allowing any money to go to countries with controls like China. Doctors could not explain that there was any alternative to having a baby. Clinton reversed that immediately. The new Congress will slow down and reverse some things, but it's a short-term result. The relentless progress of the public toward environmentalism will not be rolled back by any administration.

What about their plans to lift environmental controls on business?

Under Reagan and Bush, the strategy was that there'd be non-enforcement, perverse enforcement or weak enforcement of the laws. They had a policy of "getting government off our backs," which was a signal to the regulatory agencies not to be vigorous in pursuing cases. At the EPA, they just slashed the budget, cutting it by a third. The Superfund law passed in 1978, but by the time Bush left, office in 1992, only seven or eight sites had been cleaned up. Environmental groups brought lawsuits to require enforcement and won almost every one, but that's a very expensive business, especially when the Solicitor General and Attorney General are funded by the taxpayers. We'll probably see an effort now to cut funding for the EPA and reduce enforcement of the existing laws that way.

I doubt the right would actually have the votes to roll back laws, but there's always room to improve administration. There can be an incredible amount of paperwork, bureacracy and red tape in getting people to comply with the law.

Is this a bad period for environmental groups, which say their fundraising and membership are suffering?

It started when the recession set in under Bush, or whenever there's a downturn in the economy. They're seeing the same thing in the churches. People who otherwise give a good deal of money reduce the size of their contribution. Also, when Reagan and [former Interior Secretary James] Watt came in, environmental group membership jumped to beat the band because the administration was making assaults on every important program. Clinton came in, presumably an environmentalist, so people think they don't have to worry so much.

How are you involved in Earth Day 25?

I'm involved in events here in Washington, but not too deeply. I'm working with Concerts for the Environment, trying to find speakers, and plan events on the Mall. I'll be doing a lot of traveling, with many speaking engagements. My basic message is that we should try to build a sustainable country and achieve population control. Thousands of grade schools, middle schools and high schools will be running their own Earth Day events, and they all will select their own issues, whether it be restoring the river that runs through town or cleaning up the beach.

Are you worried that this Earth Day event will be coopted by corporations?

No. One problem with the 1970 event was that corporations didn't get involved. We won't achieve our goals unless every political and economic interest is on board, and that includes the corporate community, farmers, religious people, academia, the general public. I run into a lot of this, and it goes all the way from organizations that want some kind of screening process to the little Snow Whites who wouldn't even accept a contribution from Ben and Jerry's. I say, "What's wrong with Ben and Jerry's? They have a great reputation for helping environmental causes." They tell me about non-point source pollution, and the runoff from dairy agriculture, and that Earth Day can't be seen as supporting it. You get all of that and gradations in between.

My view is that if a business or corporation has an internal program based on improving environmental performance and are complying with it, or seeking conscientiously to comply with it and believe in sustainability, they ought to be able to participate. Some people worry more about greenwashing than they do about global warming. We have 8,500 lakes and trout streams in Wisconsin and each of them is more important than all the greenwashing in the world.

There's no such thing as a corporation that doesn't do any polluting. They can reduce it, and they are reducing it a hell of a lot. In a perverse sort of a way, greenwashing is a blessing, because if there were no greenwashers, it would mean we'd failed the course. Even the frauds want to be green, because they think it's important. I think it's wonderful. Nobody was sending out stuff in 1970 saying, "We're green, support us." Those that are fraudulent will get exposed, and that's fine too.

I know that you were involved in a little-known effort to get President Kennedy into a leadership position on conservation. What were the details?

Back in 1962, I decided that if I could persuade President Kennedy to go on a national conservation tour, it would get the issue on the national agenda. No president had done anything like it before; Kennedy would make major speeches, and it would be front-page news all over the country. I went to see [then-Attorney General] Bobby Kennedy and talked about the public's interest in the matter, and convinced him to talk to the president. I later sent a five-page memo on what issues the tour should cover.

When Kennedy finally made the decision to do the tour, it was August of 1963, and I flew out to Andrews Air Force Base to join a group that included Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Senator Joe Clark of Pennsylvania. There were 80 reporters along, so I thought we'd finally acheived our goal of getting this issue in front of the American people. But it didn't work out that way. I was pretty naive. This was 31 years ago, and nobody in the press was interested; certainly, their editors didn't give a damn.

So far as I know, the only environmental reporter on any major newspaper then was Gladwin Hill of The New York Times. When newspapers covered the big buildup for Earth Day in 1970, they sent the architecture reporters.

RELATED ARTICLE: Cutting Through the Fog: Denis Hayes on Earth Day Strategy

Denis Hayes doesn't do things halfway. After helping to organize the first Earth Day as executive director in 1970, he took full charge as International Chairman of the 20th anniversary event in 1990, enlisting 200 million participants in 141 countries. Hayes now serves as president of the Bullitt Foundation, administering an $85 million environmental philanthropy. He is also chairman of the board of Green Seal, which educates consumers about marketplace products, and is the co-chair of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsive Economics (CERES), which convinces corporations to adhere to environmental principles. E caught up with Hayes in Seattle, where he lives.

E: What's your take on Earth Day this year - the 25th anniversary?

HAYES: These events are enormously useful to do every so often; they can help change the public mindset in a broad way. I will be involved with Earth Day this year by helping with events in the Pacific Northwest, working with friends and serving as an informal advisor to local and national groups.

In 1990, we focused on the mistakes of government, but also what individuals could do - how many kids you have, how much energy you use. We used bumper-sticker-type slogans - 30 simple things to save the Earth, make every day Earth Day - to frame it and convince large numbers of people about the importance of the environment. We used appeals to major religious denominations, rock concerts - if it was a vehicle of communication, we went after it. And I think it left a lasting residue. People now behave differently. In 1990, there were 3,000 new curbside recycling programs, and a 100 percent increase in recycling of post-consumer waste.

Earth Day happens every year. There are events in thousands of areas. Mayors support it in small towns; it's part of their annual calendar. This year, Earth Day can become a news story if it's totally provocative. Otherwise, it disappears from the radar screen in five minutes. When something is there for a long time - like the O.J. Simpson case - at some point it penetrates the public consciousness. And you can sometimes manufacture that, every now and then, like we did in 1970 and 1990. Earth Day can't be just a day - it's more like a week, a campaign. People have to get the message pounded into their heads so that they internalize it.

Do you think we'll see a big rollback of environmental legislation under the new Republican-controlled Congress?

I think the broad anti-environmental attitudes of some of the newly prominent figures in Washington will serve as a lightning rod for organizing environmental groups. Maybe we'll see a repeat of 1980. A lot of bad stuff got stopped under Reagan and Bush, partly because [former Secretary of the Interior] James Watt made a caricature of himself. If a James Watt emerges in the House, that could happen again. But it's more likely the Congress will focus on welfare reform, crime and term limits. Nobody got elected this year because they were anti-environment. But because the environment was almost irrelevant to the debate, politicians couldn't deliver votes based on good environmental records.

There may be some opportunities in the anti-regulatory mood. I feel that environmental legislation has sometimes suffered from too much complexity, trying to find the perfect solution to every nuance of every problem. I have a very strong preference for simple rules that are close approximations of perfection. We should take this new development and not have it be an unmitigated disaster; we need to spin something positive out of it.

I'm tired of faceless bureaucrats mucking up the place in ways that are totally unresponsive. If you say "bureaucracy" to people, they say "the EPA," and that's not a healthy situation to be in. We'll always need regulations, but we don't need thousands of pages of mutually contradictory rules, written by rooms full of attorneys. That shouldn't be the way we function.

How has environmentalism been removed from the political discourse?

There are big, profound, global answers to that, but I don't have them. The simplistic answer is that five years ago, the environment was an enormous issue. We got saturation coverage and began organizing the 1992 Earth Summit. But in some sense political issues are a function of news coverage. Without a crisis like the Exxon Valdez, the media moves on to other issues.

The early Newt Gingrich was saying some fairly positive things about the environment, but he moved in the direction he did because it was politically opportune. I'm not sure "left" and "right" have much to do with this current debate about governmental mandates and free market constraints. The real issue is between people who believe that humans are a part of nature and have to act as a biological system, and people who stand apart from nature as its master, believing in the development of material resources without constraint. The left has been favoring the state over the individual and the market; the right has been favoring individual companies over community and social interests.

Since we're talking about corporate America, what do you think about corporate sponsorship of Earth Day, which has bean hotly debated this year?

If a company wanted to be a sponsor of Earth Day 1990, the principal criterion we used was the giggle test, which meant that everybody in the room couldn't break out laughing when the company was mentioned. The main thing we didn't want to do was diminish Earth Day by taking money from a corporate villain. In the end, we didn't get any money at all. Either they wouldn't give it or we couldn't take it. But if the company wanted to sponsor its own event, we encouraged it. Every company has different departments and agendas, and even the worst company has good elements and people. But if a company wanted to be a sponsor, it had to be promoting a sustainable future.

Tell me about the consumer watch organization you founded, Green Seal.

In 1990, people seemed to want to take more control of their lives and to buy responsibly. We have an independent certification process giving our Green Seal to products that are manufactured in a superior fashion and perform in a better way. We're trying to use the power of the marketplace to make better products.

What's been the corporate response to that?

It varies from product to product and company to company. Some care about getting publicity for their environmental attributes, but others can't be convinced that the publicity helps.

What do you think of so-called "Third Stream" environmentalism, which seems to be wholly based on economic incentives for corporations?

For certain kinds of purposes, it makes sense, and where it works, I say use it. Many of the things that go wrong today are a function of price tags that don't reflect all the prices of the commodity. Right now, we're not internalizing the cost of pollution.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; interviews with Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes
Author:Motavalli, Jim
Publication:E
Article Type:Interview
Date:Apr 1, 1995
Words:2610
Previous Article:Don't beat the retreat.
Next Article:Wolves fight the odds in Wisconsin.
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