The First Earth Day and Current Political Gridlock

by Sidney Shapiro

April 22, 2015

Forty-five years ago I joined hundreds of people in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia for the first Earth Day.  The sad state of the environment on that day was all too apparent.  The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it caught on fire the year before.   The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill is still the third largest oil spill in American history. The air pollution in America’s cities – palpable air – had reached epidemic proportions.  Rachael Carson’s book, Silent Spring, detailing the adverse impact of toxic chemicals on the environment was eight years old, having been read by hundreds of thousands of people. 

In today’s gridlocked political environment, it is worth asking whether Earth Day still provides any lessons for the continuing struggle to protect the environment.

Political scientists teach us that the history of the United States indicates that conservative and corporate interests are able to maintain the status quo for long periods of time fending off progressive efforts to address pressing environmental and other problems. They do this by exercising their considerable power to block efforts to address issues such as global climate change or the amendment of environmental statutes that are long overdue for improvement.  Forces supporting environmental protection can usually block corporate efforts to deregulate protection of the environment, but we lack the political muscle to overcome opposition to improve on the status quo. 

At times, however, this equilibrium is punctured when enough citizens become agitated and active that they press for change.  The environmental movement and Earth Day offer one such example, as do the civil rights and women’s rights movement of the same eras.  Once citizens become aware and active concerning pressing problems, legislators no longer feel free to ignore the issues that these mass movements are addressing. 

What will it take to build the political momentum to address global climate change and other pressing issues?

Unfortunately, in an era when Citizens United has unleashed unlimited corporate political donations, the battle is more uphill than it has ever been. Moreover, because of the success of government regulation, the country does not face the immediately visible environmental crisis that was so evident as I walked around Fairmont Park in 1970 on the first Earth Day.  The extraordinarily challenge of responding to global climate change demands immediate action, but the consequences are far enough off in the future that it is difficult to get voters to pay attention.

Grassroots environmental activism is not dead, far from it.  But, as Joe Tomain and I argue in a recent book, Achieving Democracy: The Future of Progressive Regulation, we also need to fight the corporations on their own turf – their rhetoric that denigrates government and extol the virtues of capitalism.  We must constantly remind our fellow Americans that government, of, by and for the people, has been a positive force in this country, protecting the environment, addressing corporate fraud and corruption, rooting out discrimination, and protecting the poor. These campaigns are incomplete, but the fact remains that government is not the unalloyed evil that our opponents constantly claim.  They never tire of spouting this claim, and we must likewise consistently and constantly defend government.  For me, this is the lesson of Earth Day.   



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Sidney A. Shapiro holds the Fletcher Chair in Administrative Law at the Wake Forest University School of Law and is the Associate Dean for Research and Development. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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