Mohondas Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Man has been a student to change over the course of his existence. As we come to understand ourselves as a unique species on this planet, our ideas change and then our ways of living. Some changes have come about subtly, but change has also been fought for and come about violently. There have been so many moments in history when a group of people have recognized the prevailing structures to be wrong or unjust, and then acted collectively. Power in numbers has always been understood as a determining factor in conflict. Traditionally though, it has been the militaristic threat of greater numbers. In this last century we have come to see that with some guidance the collective voices and actions of a people can carry a different kind of power without violent action; it is the power of righteousness.
Also in this last century, we have come to understand in great detail, the physical properties of the world we are born into. It has become clear that this industrial chapter of human existence coupled with a population explosion (so to speak) has strained our planet and continues to do so. We now realize (on a large scale) that our atmosphere is damaged. The planet is gradually warming, sea level is rising and fragile ecosystems are suffering. So, like many times before people have risen to the occasion to try and set things right. But environmental activists have always had their work cut out for them. The numbers have not always been on the activists’ side, nor have the politics.
The U.S. Government has a history of environmental regulation followed shortly thereafter by unannounced deregulation. The early 20th Century seemed promising for the future of America’s ecosystems. Areas of dense population were forced to face the consequences of aggressive industrial activity and high rates of consumption because it was literally right in their backyard. The Rivers and Harbors act of 1899 prevented the dumping of waste into “navigable” waters, and was a precursor to a solid twenty years of legislation aimed to conserve, preserve and protect our land. However since the Rivers and Harbors act of 1899, there has been a Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, Clean Water Act of 1977 and a Water Quality Act of 1987. If you check the track record of the Clean Air Act you will see roughly the same number of amendments and re-attempts. After all of that, the air and water within so many cities and small communities is far from clean and in some cases it is poisonous or lethal. This indicates a severe neglect to enforce these regulations, but perhaps “ignore” is a better word, as business interests become political interests and visa versa.
It was in the 1960’s, a time of changing culture and changing attitudes towards the powers that be, when grassroots environmentalists decided they must take matters into their own hands. A Boston College article on American environmentalism describes this movement, “The approach of modern environmentalism transformed from top-down control by technical and managerial leaders into bottom-up grassroots demands from citizens and citizen groups.” Among other environmental disasters of the time, it was a burning river in Cleveland that sparked a series of nationwide campaigns and protests. The heart of this grassroots movement lay with the youth, in a number of universities across nation. The very same demographic that caused such a stir in their relentless uprising for social justice in Vietnam and on the civil rights front, was simultaneously fighting for environmental responsibility. It was a very unique generation that seemed to embody the equality of all mankind and a connectedness to the natural world. It was also a generation that refused to be ignored. A youthful foundation of activists and environmental NGO’s were the spark that encouraged another string of federal regulation throughout the 1960’s aimed to protect and clean up our air, water and wilderness. In fact, activists were involved in the drafting of the renewed legislation.
The modern environmental movement went from grassroots to mainstream when on April 22, 1970 an estimated 20 million people across the nation took to the streets to celebrate the environment and demand its preservation on the first ever Earth Day. The movement was commended by political affiliations of all kinds (at least publicly), and brought a somewhat underground issue to the forefront of discussion. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was the one to initiate and organize this massive celebration. He would later receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton for his memorable efforts. It is said that Earth Day of 1970 was the reason that the Nixon Administration created the Environmental Protection Agency the very same year.
An environmental activist’s work is never done though. Even after tightened regulation and the creation of the EPA, under the radar violations have gone unnoticed or ignored. Reagan himself dismissed the science tying acid rain in Canadian territory to heavy pollution from Midwestern industrial areas; subsequently denying the EPA funding for further research into its effects or possible prevention. New York Times published an article in 2009 on severe neglect of clean water laws and the lack of consequence, “In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times…However the vast majority of those polluters have escaped punishment.” Lobbyists and large political action contributions buy a free pass form congress members allowing corporations to act as they please. On the political front there is a polarization of belief in the extent of global warming. Even though scientists everywhere have verified the effects of global warming, conservative ideals that have a large stake in congress continue to dismiss the issue. The government is now forced to cut funding to agencies of lower priority; the Republican Party believes the EPA to be on that list.
As long as democracy is the prevailing force in this country, it is the people who yield the greatest power. We are becoming much more environmentally conscious both in culture and in industry. Our collective actions to reduce a disproportionately large carbon footprint will make a difference simply because we are trying. Yet if hybrid cars and solar panels replace that grassroots spirit of activism, how much change will we really see for our future. We must remain vigilant of the activities of big business and the politics that support it. If anti-environmentalism is confronted in a unified manner then, as history shows, changes will be made for the better.
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