The Democracy Journal
Search Site
Get Involved
This form does not yet contain any fields.
    Support the PJRC

    Support the PJRC for continued original analysis on ending the wars, funding domestic priorities and preserving civil liberties.

    Make a contribution to benefit the PJRC now! 

    Conferences & Events

    Tom Hayden speaks in Port Huron, MI, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement.

    Invite Tom Hayden to speak in your town! 



    Follow Tom


    Contact Us
    This form does not yet contain any fields.

      On Environmentalism

      The Port Huron Statement says little about the environmental crisis; the environmental movement accelerated in the late 60s, propelled by earlier movements and stirrings.

      Why so little mention in? First, the word “environment” itself is based on the premise of an “environs” out there, a false distinction between ourselves and the natural world/universe. For example, the concept of wilderness (see Stegner in readings) assumes that there is no wilderness within ourselves – we are exempt – but only out there, in the mountains and forests.

      This was not simply an optical illusion, but the distinction served a purpose. In religious traditions, human beings were made into “stewards” -- in Islam, “regents” -- having “dominion” over the natural world. Thus humans were inserted into the natural world as overseers. For more, please read see Marge Piercy’s poem in Hayden’s, Lost Gospel of the Earth, pp. 13-15. “Dirt, we say, you’re dirt.”

      The Old Testament story was about a war between monotheists and polytheists over where the sacred was located, in God above or earth below. The “pagans” were the first “tree huggers.” Nature came to have a strictly utilitarian use. Nature was nothing more than a vast storehouse of raw materials for human development and use. The traditions of Left and Right shared this “storehouse” assumption about the earth and nature. Both sides believed in the exploitation of the storehouse for use, and only disagreed about the distribution of the wealth made from the storehouse.

      Of course there were dissenting voices along the way. Many indigenous people believed the cosmos and earth were sacred, thus the term “mother earth”. In the Christian tradition there was Francis of Assisi who was condemned for relating to birds and animals. In America, there were the transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau) and John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, all of them nature mystics.

      In the early Sixties (1963) a UN Report said, “natural resources cannot develop themselves. It is only through the application of human knowledge and skill that anything can be made from them.” The continuing assumption was that nature itself has no intrinsic worth.

      When I was in the Legislature, Sec. 1600 of the Fish and Game code said that fish and wildlife were “the property of the state,” “important to the economy,” and “provide a significant food supply.” Nothing about intrinsic worth or spiritual/cultural importance. Similarly, the state Forest Practices Act said the policy goal was “maximum sustained production of high quality timber products.” Nothing about the “right” of a 3,000-year-old redwood forest to protection. That came later.

      Rachel Carson was a scientist whose 1960-62 reports were revolutionary in their implications. Her Silent Spring, published after the PHS, and her studies of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing, described a “chain of evil” (see reading), a toxic feedback loop between human civilization and the natural world.

      The new concept which became popularized in the Sixties was relatedness. The environmentalists either came to believe in a kinship relatedness with nature, or an organic relatedness based on environmental science (Aldo Leopold) or a stewardship relationship (liberals and conservatives). Those who believed in a right to exploit and pollute nature were being reduced to a powerful minority -- interior secretaries in some Republican administrations, like James Watt, combined with certain evangelical factions.

      In the early Sixties, Carson represented a viewpoint very much at the margins. She was accused of being a hysterical woman, even pro-communist. But the attempts to marginalize her failed because of strong support from her readership. She single-handedly brought modern environmentalism into the mainstream. She believed in public disclosure and democratic participation by the people in the world of science, which was then left to the “experts.” Like the early SNCC and SDS, she believed the experts had failed and in the principle of “let the people decide.”

      The issues of pesticides, herbicides and radioactive fallout brought environmental science into close association with emerging social movements. For example:

      • findings of excess cancers, liver disease and birth defects among farm worker families sprayed by chemical “crop dusters” expanded the popular base of the UFW and especially its huge boycott network;
      • Revelations of the birth defects and environmental poisoning caused by chemical defoliation of Vietnam’s jungle habitat shocked the public and led to protests of Dow Chemical recruiters on campus (Madison, 1967);

      • Strontium 90, found in mothers’ milk after nuclear testing, led to formation of Women’s Strike for Peace, the core of the early peace movement calling for the end of testing.

      In the late 60s, the environmental crisis came to a head because of the convergence of several crises:

      • The Cuyahoga River burst into flames (1969);

      • Lake Erie was pronounced biologically dead (1969);

      • an oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel covered 800 sq. miles;

      • One person was killed and hundreds wounded as police stormed “People’s Park” in Berkeley, which was a community organic garden created by occupiers of vacant University land.

      “Flower Power”, as branded by the media, was a term which meant that the new environmental movement demanded a participatory power of its own in the decision-making process consistent with the early PHS vision (now there was a poly-participatory spectrum of movements demanding power, not just influence – black power, brown power, yellow power, red power, women’s power, student power and, later, queer power, all these pointing to a profound and widespread distrust of delegating power to experts or elected representative government.

      The movement spread from the campuses and counter-culture to the realm of organized labor (workplace safety) and communities of color (where incinerators and waste dumps were sited, and health impacts of pollution the greatest).

      One other amazing event transformed consciousness – the views of earth taken from outer space, just before Woodstock. We had never seen our planet before, and it was impossible not to think of it as a beautiful, mysterious home of life. It was equally impossible to think that Man was the Center of the Universe.

      By this time, at the Sixties’ end, many of the original movements had become radicalized and faced serious police and government repression. SDS Weathermen were going underground. This left a huge space for new popular movements which, in their very nature, would be more moderate and welcoming to so-called Middle America. The environmental movement was the foremost of these.

      It was decided by a few people in early 1969 that there should be a teach-in on the environment, based on the first teach-in on Vietnam (which of course was modeled on the sit-in). The call came from two US senators, Gaylord Nelson and Edmund Muskie. The idea just took off, and turned into Earth Day, April 22, 1970, involving an estimated 20 million participants. Like the anti-Vietnam Moratorium the same year, Earth Day was led by a new generation of students less revolutionary that SDS, who typically wanted to work “within the system” and reach out to the whole society.

      Muskie was running for president in 1972 and looking for an issue and a constituency – Earth Day was perfect for him. The 18-year-old vote was signed by Nixon in June 1970, and finally ratified in 1971 as the 26th amendment. This was the fastest ratification of a constitutional amendment in history, of a proposal, which had been around for 25 years in Congress, showing the potential power and threat that young people were representing to the establishment at the moment. Nixon was aware of Muskie and the 18-year-old vote, and chose to get behind the environmental cause (see Gottlieb reading). So did much of corporate America, including Dow Chemical, the big utilities in New York and Chicago, etc…

      The new popularity and constituency of the environmental cause led to the creation of several new environmental organizations, all positioned to lobby and advocate within the system (Environmental Defense Fund 1967, the Natural Resources Defense Council 1970, the League of Conservation Voters 1970, and the networks built by consumer advocate Ralph Nader). In the model used in our class, these constituted the new moderate wing of the social movement, converging in their interests with the new moderate wing of the Machiavellians.) According to Roderick Nash (in readings), environmentalism would begin to change from a religion to a profession. “The blue-jeans-and-granola style of conservation evident at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970 gave way two decades later to pin-striped suits and brief cases full of sophisticated data.”

      Nixon devoted his 1969 State of the Union message to the environment, signing the National Environmental Policy Act while saying that “the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debts to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and its living environment. It is literally now or never.” (Rick Perlstein, p. 460) Notice the similarity between Nixon’s statement and that of Johnson in signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act - “we shall overcome.” Nixon’s “now or never” statement would become a blurb on the next edition of Carson’s Silent Spring. Like his later trip to China, Nixon co-opted the program of his liberal critics and made channeled reform in an institutional direction to his benefit. According the Perlstein, Nixon later said he didn’t even think the environmental issue was that important. Nevertheless, he signed the most significant package of environmental policy initiatives ever passed in US history:

      • Environmental Protection Agency, 1970;

      • Council on Environmental Quality, 1970;

      • Clean Air Act amendments, 1970;

      • Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1970.

      • Water Pollution Control Act, 1972;

      • Marine Mammal Protection Act, 1972;

      • Pesticide Control Act, 1972;

      • Coastal Zone Management Act, 1972;

      • Endangered Species Act, 1973.

      These new policies were as significant in reforming capitalism as were the New Deal labor and social security laws. The business community has been trying to hollow out, defund, or entirely eliminate the Nixon-era environmental laws ever since. The most extreme examples have been the religiously motivated and corporate-funded zealots like Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt (who didn’t believe environmental protections mattered if the Second Coming was at hand) and recent Tea Party representatives like Sarah Palin (“drill baby, drill”). One element of globalization is the relocation of investments and production in countries with few if any environmental safeguards. Persistent efforts to globalize environmental standards, including global warming protocols) have largely failed so far.

      On the other hand, the Nixon environmental reforms were not enough to satisfy the more principled or radical elements of the environmental community and, in time, would spur a new wave of environmentalism, with examples ranging from the Clamshell Alliance to Greenpeace. The new wave included a heavy emphasis on blocking nuclear power and investing in solar energy, renewable resources and conservation. As the documentary I showed on Judi Bari indicates, the effort to save the California redwoods through “Redwood Summer” was opposed by vigilante violence from the timber industry combined with FBI and law enforcement conspiracies to crush the grass-roots movement.

      The new environmentalism was broad enough to reach the center of national politics at least two times, first in the governorship of Jerry Brown who shifted California’s energy future away from plans for some 60 nuclear power plants to maximum energy efficiency and renewables. Brown was ridiculed as “Governor Moonbeam” for his efforts, probably ending his presidential potential. Al Gore, who would have become America’s first environmentalist president elected on an environmental platform in 2000, took up the cause. Gore won the popular vote by 500,000 but was defeated in the Electoral College by a combination of Republican counter-movement and a partisan Supreme Court. Ralph Nader also ran in 2000 on an environmental anti-corporate third party ticket, winning 6 percent of the vote, and perhaps causing sufficient defections from Gore in a few states to make an Electoral College difference. In any event, the counter-movement once again proved stronger and more unified as a minority than the center-progressive forces on the verge of taking power. As a result, we do not know, and can only guess, what the environmental possibilities would have been under President Gore versus what limitations might have been imposed on him by industry, the Congress, the courts and the media. All we know is that under the second President Bush the environmental cause was set back, the federal courts became more conservative, and the Iraq War was unleashed partly as an effort to secure more oil.

      The cycle will repeat. Hopefully your generation will succeed in building movements and politics that result in a more sustainable environment and energy policies.

      PrintView Printer Friendly Version

      EmailEmail Article to Friend