4. 1970 to 2000: The Environmental Machine
Earth Day came early to Port Washington, Long Island. On April 22, 1969, a small group of students from Paul Schreiber High School put on rubber boots, picked up garbage bags, and waded into a dirty creek that ran through the village. Picking through the muck, they cleaned out several hundred pounds of beer cans, food wrappers, and old tires. "We were eager to get the lead out of gasoline, expunge all pollutants, and leave the world a better place than we found it," says Robin Weston, a member of the schools 1969 Earth Day Committee. In small ways, they did.
Looking beyond their neighborhoods, New Yorkers saw a United States that seemed to be coming apart. The invasion of Cambodia by American troops sparked violent protests across the country in the spring of 1970. At Kent State University, one demonstration horrified the nation when National Guard soldiers fired into the crowd, killing four students. After the shootings, some anti-war activists began calling for a violent revolution. And then, on April 22 of that year -- a crisp, sunny day that also happened to be Lenins birthday 20 million Americans gathered peacefully across the country. People picked up litter, planted trees, danced to rock bands, and held street theater. The purpose of this huge, happy party was to show public support for a cleaner environment.
Earth Day started small in Port Washington and a few other places, but the time was right for it. Just one year later, it became the largest planned demonstration in US history. The size of the 1970 turnout shocked even the organizers. Politicians noted that Earth Day participants seemed willing to work within the system instead of tearing it down. In White Plains, junior high school students painted and cleaned up the local railroad station. In New York City, crowded Fifth Avenue sidewalks parted when demonstrators held up dead fish from the contaminated Hudson River and shouted, "Youre next, people!" In one extraordinary day, the environmental movement entered the mainstream.
Some observers were troubled by the change. "Just as the Caesars once used bread and circuses, so ours were at last learning to use rock-and-roll, idealism and non-inflammatory social issues to turn the youth off from more urgent concerns which might really threaten the power structure," wrote journalist I.F. Stone. If the war was not ended and nuclear weapons controlled, said Stone, "we may wake up one morning and find there is nothing left on Earth to pollute."
But something really had happened. Earth Day embodied the fear that human activities were destroying the planet, and it showed that millions of Americans were determined to clean up the mess. It also uncorked a steady stream of major environmental legislation that did not slow down for ten years. The most astute politicians were first on the bandwagon. On January 1, 1970, President Nixon signed the landmark National Environmental Policy Act, which required the federal government to analyze the environmental impact of its activities. On Earth Day 1970, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the law that created a new "super-agency," the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). By the end of the year, the US Environmental Protection Agency was on the books. During the 1970s, court decisions and federal laws placed hundreds of new requirements on state and local governments. By 1980, environmental affairs had become a major focus of government at the local, state, and national level.
TABLE 2: Partial List of Federal Environmental Laws Passed Between 1970 and 1980
1970: National Environmental Policy Act requires federal government to analyze the environmental impact of its activities, ensuring citizen participation in decisions involving federal funds.
1970: Occupational Safety and Health Administration established, regulating toxic substances and hazardous conditions in the workplace.
1970: Environmental Protection Agency created, coordinating federal activities concerned with pollution control.
1970: Clean Air Act allows federal regulation of industrial and auto emissions. Much of the enforcement is left to states.
1972: Water Pollution Control Act mandates federal standards for sewage treatment and industrial discharges into waterways. Much of the enforcement is left to states.
1972: Insecticide, Rodenticide, and Fungicide Act sets basic regulations for these chemicals.
1972: Noise Control Act allows regulation and litigation of "noise pollution."
1972: Coastal Zone Management Act regulates building and dredging on coastlines.
1972: Marine Mammals Protection Act bans US whaling and encourages global ban.
1973: Endangered Species Act protects habitat of rare plants and animals.
1974: Safe Drinking Water Act federalizes drinking water regulations.
1976: Toxic Substances Control Act begins assessment and clean-up of toxic dumps.
1976: Resource Conservation and Recovery Act sets federal standards for landfills.
1976: Federal Land Management Act updates regulations on western lands.
1976: National Forest Management Act encourages designation of wilderness areas.
1977: Clean Air Act amended with stricter emission standards.
1977: Clean Water Act amended and strengthened.
1980: Alaska National Interest Lands Act sets aside 100 million acres as wilderness.
1980: Superfund (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) finances program to identify and clean up abandoned toxic waste sites.
Source: Shabecoff, Philip, A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement
The new laws and regulations did get results. Many measures of water quality stabilized or improved during the 1970s, for example, and control of pesticides such as DDT had a positive effect on wildlife. But the new rules also frustrated farmers, business people, and others whose normal activities had suddenly become illegal. In 1980, the anti-environmental movement helped elect a President who said that the new laws had gone too far. But when Ronald Reagan tried to dismantle the environmental bureaucracy, the effort backfired. Massive public opposition caused most of his proposals to fail, and environmental organizations saw their biggest membership increases ever. Environmental affairs went through a federal trial in the 1980s, and they emerged stronger than before.
The backlash never really took root in the Empire State. Despite revenue shortages and intense budget fights in the 1980s, grassroots support for environmental causes in New York was consistently too strong for politicians to ignore. Responding to the pressure, Democratic governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo preserved and expanded the DEC and its regulatory structure during the 1970s and 1980s. Among the states major advances were the first regulations on private land in the Adirondacks, in 1973; a state Superfund to clean up toxic waste sites, in 1982; and the first of several bond acts in 1986. In 1994, Republican George Pataki was elected after promising continued leadership on clean air, clean water, and open space. In 1996, he campaigned successfully for another bond act devoted to these causes.
As the state strengthened its commitments, environmentalism began mingling with other issues. During the 1990s, the number of land trusts operating in New York increased from a handful to more than 80, and hundreds of privately-owned nature preserves and conservation easements were established. City planners and transportation experts often turned to these groups when looking for ways to manage "urban sprawl" without resorting to government action. From skyscrapers in Manhattan to dairy farms in Delaware County, executives found that "green business" practices could deliver dramatic reductions in waste and energy use while increasing profits. African-American and Latino neighborhoods became centers for the "environmental justice" movement, which challenged plans to locate toxic waste dumps and other high-impact sites near low-income neighborhoods.
In the 1990s, the vast majority of New Yorkers said they were "environmentalists", and New Yorks delegation to the US Congress received consistently high rankings from the League of Conservation Voters. Yet environmental issues continued to be difficult and contentious. Beginning in the 1970s, opposition to environmental objectives became "persistent, profound, and effective," according to historian Samuel P. Hays. Businesses moved aggressively to control the terms of the environmental debate by controlling information about environmental problems. The pattern was clear: as soon as a new law was passed, pro- and anti-environmental forces shifted their focus to regulatory agencies and courts, where they fought through the same controversies at least once more. In this arena, decisions were often based on the conflicting testimonies of scientists hired by the opposing sides.
Although environmental causes were consistently popular, government efforts to improve environmental quality were not usually met with public acclaim. More often, the changes were slow in coming and difficult to achieve.
- Courts, Citizens, and Cash
- Energy and Economics
- The DEC Empire
- Solid Waste
- Toxic Waste
- Clean Water
- Clean Air
- Wildlife and open space