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The Environmentalists’ Challenge: A Look Back on America’s Stuttering Environmental Policy

in Environment by
President Carter in front of the White House solar panels in 1979 (left) and taking stock of the near-disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in the same year (right). The TMI incident, as it came to be known, would signal the end of nuclear energy as a viable alternative energy in the United States for over two generations.

Wednesday, June 20, 1979, Washington, DC

President Carter was flashing his signature toothy grin as the Washington press corps followed him to a unique early-afternoon press availability on the roof of the White House. For today, the president was announcing the completion of a massive project to install the most modern solar cells of the day on the roof of the executive mansion.

It was sunny and bright that early summer day as the president reviewed the massive and impressive solar panels. And with a little folksy charm (“This afternoon I’ve arranged for this ceremony to be illuminated by solar power!”) the president announced his government’s new and bold commitment to the development of renewable sources of energy.

America was not built on timidity or panic or uncertainty about the future or a lack of confidence in our own technology or our own will or ability. America was built with vision, with faith, and also with hard work. It’s time for us to recognize once again, with the surest degree of confidence, the great natural resources which God has given us and to seize the opportunities that we have to build a more prosperous, self-reliant, enjoyable, confident future in which all Americans can share.

Today, in directly harnessing the power of the sun, we’re taking the energy that God gave us, the most renewable energy that we will ever see, and using it to replace our dwindling supplies of fossil fuels.

With these remarks President Carter broke with longstanding American policy of supporting fossil fuel development both on the continental United States and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (colloquially known as ANWR). In his remarks the president also outlined the feasibility of using existing solar technology (which has greatly improved over the years) and regaled his audience of a future day unencumbered by the high price of gasoline, long lines at the pump, or high energy bills.

This solar strategy will not be easy to accomplish. It will be a tremendous, exciting challenge to the American people, a challenge as important as exploring our first frontiers or building the greatest industrial society on Earth. By the end of this century I want our nation to derive 20 percent of all the energy we use from the sun—direct solar energy in radiation and also renewable forms of energy derived more indirectly from the sun. This is a bold proposal, and it’s an ambitious goal. But it is attainable if we have the will to achieve it.

Government action alone cannot make this goal come true. It will require a concerted effort of all of us—government at all levels, industry, labor, business, inventors, entrepreneurs, architects, builders, homeowners, concerned citizens, all working together.

President Carter inspecting the newly installed solar panels on the rooftop of the White House at their unveiling in June of 1979. They were ignominiously removed soon after by the Reagan administration, only to be reinstalled without much fanfare by President Obama in 2011. The White House now has a zero carbon footprint.

Sadly, this dream was not to be. Soon after his inauguration in 1981 the Reagan administration quickly and with fanfare bordering on giddiness removed the solar panels from the White House, never to return. Daily Oil Importation, against President Carter’s wishes and objections, would rise to a record 12.5 million barrels a day in 2005 (oil imports today stand at roughly 7 million barrels a day), and the price of gas would spiral upward to an obscene $4 a gallon during the harrowing summer of 2008. Today solar energy accounts for roughly 1 to 8 percent of current US electric capacity.

It would be President George W. Bush, during an annual message to Congress in 2006, who would state the obvious that the United States had “become addicted to oil.” To some it was a surprise that a president with a background such as Mr. Bush (former CEO and contractor for several west Texas oil drilling companies) would utter such startling words, but to those who had seen the nascent environmental movement from the beginning, the words must have rung with quite a sting of irony.

Wednesday, April 22, 1970, Cleveland, Ohio

The sun would not make its regular, sunny appearance as it would at the White House some nine years later in the large manufacturing hub of northeast Ohio, for already the sun was obscured by a ring of clouds emanating from Cleveland’s many smoke stack factories lining the Cuyahoga River. Just ten months earlier the mighty Cuyahoga had erupted in mammoth flames, choking off the city for several days and killing what remained of the river’s wildlife that had survived the incredible pollution of the river by toxic—and highly flammable—chemical sludge, forever giving the city by the lake a bad reputation it has yet to live down.

Scenes from the great battle to defeat the infamous Cuyahoga River Fire of ’69 (courtesy of Life magazine). It would leave a bad impression on the city of Cleveland that would be hard to live down. The river would subsequently become one the nation’s largest Superfund River sites, taking millions of dollars to restore it to its former glory.

Yet for all this devastation, a large group of dedicated citizens, students, and children began assembling in areas all over the city—and in cities all over the United States—to begin in community clean-ups and rehabilitation projects. For this was the first Earth Day in the United States.

The burgeoning environmental movement in the United States was a surprising new phenomenon. America already had a rather robust and influential conservation movement, leading to the preservation of over 30 million acres of virgin wildlife and territory from development and speculation, thanks in no small part to the efforts of activists such as John Muir (1838–1914) and President Theodore Roosevelt (1857–1919). This, however, was different.

Environmentalists now no longer saw conservation (or preservation) but rather environmental restoration and stewardship as the prime task and responsibility of civic leaders and citizens alike to act upon. Natural man-made disasters such as the Cuyahoga River Fire (1969), Love Canal (1980), the Centralia Mine Fire (1962–today), and the Three Mile Island mishap (1979). All presented clear and ominous reminders of how much an imposing and sometime awkward force humankind had become on the landscape, and how crucial it was for us as a species to control our influence on the world.

The New York Times made the nationwide observance of the first Earth Day a front-page story. Millions participated in the event, signaling the birth of the new environmentalist movement.

Within months President Richard Nixon would sign into existence the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), a cabinet-level position with the mandate to clean up toxic sites (known as superfunds) and to hold major polluters accountable. The agency was so successful in its mission (or so equally dire was the need) that within a decade it would quadruple its workforce and operating budget, cleaning polluted sites in every region of every state of the nation. Americans approved of the agency to such an extent that even President Reagan could do nothing but freeze the agency’s budget and workforce throughout the entirety of the 1980s.

A rather happy President Nixon, seen here after signing the formation of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in early 1970, an early precursor to the EPA. Nixon would be known as one of the most environmentally friendly presidents of the twentieth century, behind fellow Republican Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (center) pictured here with fellow naturalist John Muir (right) in 1904.

Meanwhile the environmental movement began burgeoning into newer fields, such as the growing antinuclear and moratorium movements, animal cruelty groups and endangered species protection, recycling and energy conservation, and urban renewal and mass-transit investments. Throughout the world the calls for humans to be more mindful of our outsized influence on the world’s ever-weakening climate became ever louder and clearer.

Last month President Trump walked back nearly a half-century of growing scientific and public consensus about the need to rein in our out-of-control energy consumption by walking away from the most sweeping world climate compact that has been attempted up to this time.

Beyond the callous and cruel imagery of the world’s most powerful nation and greatest polluter forsaking its role from a climate agreement that it itself had written, something has been missing from the coverage of the White House’s important decision. In typical fashion the press has casually overlooked the millions of people who collectively make up the environmental movement and their struggle to preserve our collective home from the onslaught of polluters, climate deniers, and fossil fuel industries such as the Koch Industries, Shell Oil, and Exxon Mobile, the last two of which ironically lobbied the president hard to stay in the Accord after all!

Environmental extremists . . . wouldn’t let you build a house unless it looked like a bird’s nest.

—Conservative icon Ronald W. Reagan

Caption: The last known photograph taken by a human being of Planet Earth, late in 1972 from the successful Apollo 17 lunar mission. All told, only twenty-four people have ever witnessed this image for what it is, our collective home as a small, delicate oasis of life in “the big vastness of space.”

I consider the environment my most prized and irrepressible voting issue above all others. I may have given more money to protect Planned Parenthood and knocked on more doors for the issue of universal healthcare than for the Sierra Club, but to me there is nothing more urgent and pressing for all humans than to safeguard this precious home we ALL call Earth.

Whenever I have seen images from satellites in space of our fragile planet, I am always struck by its peaceful and serene appearance, a shimmering ball of blue, brown, green, and white hanging in the cold and lifeless backdrop of the infinite frontier. I sometimes need to remind myself that somewhere on this speck of rock floating out there is everything I know, love, and cherish. I’m sure that seeing this view in person is quite a humbling and awe-inspiring experience.

It truly makes me wonder how we would all treat our priceless planet if people could see for themselves this invaluable image with our own eyes rather than through an ordinary photograph. It’s sometimes hard to believe that we all live on it, but we really do. There is nowhere else for us to go to just yet, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to do our part, as President Carter said, in ensuring a safe, hospitable, secure, and peaceful place to live for our ancestors and for all living beings. We will have setbacks, as last month’s decision certainly was, but if images like the one below continue to hold our imagination, then I’m certain humanity will more than rise to meet the challenge. I am ready! Are you?

 

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