EARTH DAY 1990 // The many faces of global concern

Published April 22, 1990|Updated July 6, 2006

He was raised in Clear Lake, a village in northwestern Wisconsin with a bandstand now shaded by trees he helped plant 60 years ago. From a boyhood rooted in rural scenery and progressive politics, he came to champion the cause of conservation as a U.S. senator. Battling pollution with laws, traveling with presidents, he helped create a mass movement to protect Earth from the excesses of human industry. She was "a Navy brat," born in England, raised everywhere. On a date in Hawaii, she met a group dedicated to stopping the international slaughter of whales. She decided to join them. In the cause of conservation she has since been arrested by three countries, including her own, and detained by the Soviet army for sneaking into Siberia.

In different ways, they have become veterans of a movement unified in believing we inhabit an endangered planet, but divided over strategies for rescuing it. Today, in different ways, they will join as many as 200-million people around the world in celebrating the Earth.

Gaylord Nelson will play a prominent part: father of Earth Day. It was his idea of a national "teach-in" on pollution that inspired the original event 20 years ago, and he has prepared for this anniversary for a year, crisscrossing the country for speeches and interviews. He plans to be on television today and address a huge rally on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, then leave on a speaking tour from Hartford, Conn., to Albuquerque, N.M.

Nancy Foote hasn't paid much attention to the event. She plans to plant a wild plum or dogwood tree in her father's yard and to attend the Earth Day rally _ "it'll be good just to be around people," she said _ but she hopes to be far from the Washington crowd soon, on a Greenpeace boat to Antarctica.

Both have seen the American environmental movement grow phenomenally. He remembers when he couldn't find one House member who would co-sponsor his bill to ban DDT. She remembers occupying a tiny office in San Francisco as the sole employee of Greenpeace USA.

Both say that despite the movement's successes, our planet is more polluted now than it was 20 years ago, and both expect its degradation to continue.

They differ on what people must do now for the sake of Earth's future.

Nelson is in the mainstream of the environmental movement. As a senator for 18 years, and now as counsel to the Wilderness Society, he has tried to protect the environment through legislation, regulation and public education. Foote belongs to a fast-growing radical current of the movement that thrives on publicity, confrontation and daredevil tactics.

He is delighted that corporations are getting involved in environmental causes. She distrusts them. He wrote laws. She defied laws.

Visit the Wilderness Society office in Washington, and the first thing you see is a striking exhibit of 68 nature photographs donated by the late Ansel Adams. Go to Greenpeace, and you find people in corduroy shirts and jeans, and a bulletin board notice seeking a director of door-to-door canvassing for the Raleigh, N.C., office, which "has pingpong, a hammock, a beautiful rainbow, high energy, a loving staff, a co-op two doors down . . ."

The movement matures

For some in the mainstream, Earth Day 1990 has brought a painful reassessment of their mission.

Twenty years after 20-million people poured out to celebrate the first Earth Day, after California students ceremonially buried a car and Indiana coeds dressed as witches pelted people with birth control pills, there are millions more cars and billions more people on the planet.

Two decades after Congress passed clean air and clean water acts, the air and water are not clean. Breathing may be easier in Pittsburgh, and the Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire, but pollution problems that once seemed local have become global. Acid rain from American coal plants is killing fish in Canada. Chlorofluorocarbons used in everything from aerosols to air conditioners have punctured the ozone shield over Antarctica, exposing life on the last wild continent to harmful ultraviolet rays. The plumes of exhaust rising from auto tailpipes and industrial smokestacks threaten to raise Earth's temperature and change its climate.

In Washington, federal agencies created to protect the environment are being sued by environmental groups. George Bush, after pledging to be an "environmental president," cut money to clean up the polluted Boston Harbor he used as a backdrop in campaign ads.

The environmental movement has been troubled internally by its failure to appeal to black Americans, by accusations of racial discrimination in hiring and by the growing appeal of groups that prefer direct action to legislative action. Greenpeace, in its 19th year of existence, has outgrown such venerable organizations as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society, and now ranks second to the National Wildlife Federation in money and members.

Michael McCloskey, chairman of the Sierra Club, sees an environmental movement split into three factions _ mainstream lobbying groups, radical direct-action groups and accommodators, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and World Wildlife Fund, who would reduce pollution by offering tax incentives and cooperation with industry instead of passing new laws.

Today, "the dilemma of the mainstream groups is how to make government work when those running it don't care any more," McCloskey said. "You look at EPA. In 20 years, they've issued regulations on 5 percent of the toxic (compounds). They've been on a 20-year sit-down strike on toxics. They've never met a deadline imposed by Congress."

Federal inaction and indifference have led environmental groups to debate the value of their legislative efforts and brought "a general radicalization of most of the movement," he said. "The sense that institutions have failed us is prevalent."

It also has led mainstream environmentalists to plan their own direct action campaign.

Alar provided a model. The EPA had spent a decade considering whether to withdraw Alar from the market when the Natural Resources Defense Council caught the nation's attention last year with a report asserting Alar-treated apple products pose an unacceptable cancer risk to children. Americans stopped buying apples, prices fell, and that was the end of Alar.

The lesson, for environmentalists, was that consumers can change industrial behavior much faster than the federal government. Some decided to try applying this idea throughout the marketplace by putting "green" labels on consumer products.

Heading this effort will be Denis Hayes, an environmentalist who has matured with the movement.

In 1970, when he served as national coordinator of the first Earth Day, Hayes was a law school dropout who had hitchhiked around the world and didn't own a car. This year, as a 45-year-old lawyer, he came back to head Earth Day 1990, an organization with a logo, a pollster, an ad campaign handled by the creator of the Miller Lite slogan "everything you always wanted in a beer _ and less" and an advisory board that includes members of Congress and corporate executives. Once Earth Day is over, he will chair Green Seal, a coalition formed to take on the daunting task of deciding which industrial products deserve an environmental stamp of approval and which ones don't.

Earth Day and Reagan

The year was 1963. Towns were killing mosquitoes with DDT, and highway crews were defoliating roadsides with the herbicide later used in Agent Orange. Scientists were arguing the merits of Rachel Carson's best seller, Silent Spring, and the health risks of atomic fallout in food. Gaylord Nelson, as governor of Wisconsin, had raised the cigarette tax to acquire parks and wildlife habitats. Now, as a new member of the U.S. Senate, he wanted to promote conservation on a national scale. He had an idea.

"If I could get President Kennedy to do a national conservation tour," he thought, "it would get lots of attention."

Kennedy liked the idea. The president flew through 11 states in five days, dedicating dams and talking to college students about conservation. In Salt Lake City, "he made some remark about foreign policy that grabbed headlines all over the country," Nelson recalled. "And that was the end of the conservation tour."

In the next six years, Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, the Vietnam War escalated, ghettoes erupted, students rioted, Lady Bird Johnson planted flowers, fish died in Lake Erie, bald eagles laid eggs without shells, an offshore rig belched oil onto Southern California beaches, and sometime in those years, pollution got people's attention.

Sen. Nelson went to Santa Barbara in 1969 to look at the oil spill and speak at a water conference. Afterward he picked up a copy of Ramparts, a radical magazine, and came across the term "teach-in" in an article about Vietnam War protests. And "I thought, holy cow, why not a national teach-in on the environment?"

He announced the idea in a speech in Seattle, and "by the time I got back to Washington, the phone was simply ringing off the hook."

By April 22, 1970, Earth Day had been endorsed by everyone but a few right-wing politicians who suspected a communist plot because it was on Lenin's birthday. That day, New York City closed Fifth Avenue to cars, and smog-weary pedestrians filled the street. Students cleaned up beaches, bureaucrats planted trees, and a House subcommittee unanimously approved legislation to lessen air pollution.

The clean air bill breezed through Congress that year, forcing the auto industry to reduce harmful exhaust, and environmentalists scored impressively against a "dirty dozen" congressmen in 1970 elections. By 1973 Congress had passed bills to cleanse the nation's waters, regulate pesticides and save endangered species. President Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency, and its administrator had banned DDT.

After Earth Day, "there were 28 major legislative enactments in the next 10 years," Nelson said. "It was a big leap forward."

But 1973 also was the year Arab nations declared an oil embargo, and domestic oil companies reaped windfall profits. As people waited in long lines to buy gas at a dollar a gallon, the nation's thirst for energy grew and fears of pollution faded. A political backlash against environmentalists also grew, climaxing in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan and the arrival of James Watt, an Interior secretary who wanted to stop buying national parks and start drilling wilderness areas for oil.

Nelson, the senator who led congressional efforts to ban DDT and reduce auto emissions, was defeated in 1980. As counsel to the Wilderness Society, he watched the Reagan administration attack the environmental laws he helped create and invade public lands he had tried to preserve.

"The Reagan legacy will be with us for years and years to come," he said. "Every place he turned he did environmental damage.

"Hazardous waste dumps for example _ he made it impossible for them to enforce the laws respecting hazardous waste dumps. He attempted to destroy the land and water conservation fund.

"They destroyed morale at the EPA. They lost many of their best scientists. They emphasized exploitation of environmental lands . . . It was a disaster across the board."

An environmental soldier

The year was 1983. Nancy Foote, a small woman wearing jeans, boots, a cap, two sweaters and a parka in July, stood on the bow of a 150-foot trawler and gazed at a strange, cold land. With 22 companions, she had come north from Vancouver aboard the Rainbow Warrior and crossed the Bering Sea. Ahead lay Siberia.

She hadn't really planned to invade the Soviet Union. Like so many Greenpeace adventures, this one began as a publicity seeking mission. The International Whaling Commission was meeting to set annual quotas, and Greenpeace members, who wanted them set as low as possible, had heard the Soviets were feeding whale meat to mink in a Siberian town called Lorino.

So they sailed for Lorino, fully expecting to be halted by the Soviet navy.

But no ships appeared. In the Bering Strait, the narrow, patrolled corridor separating the superpowers, "We were in Soviet international waters probably for 12 hours, and nobody saw us," she said.

They edged along an inlet to Lorino, where they saw a pebble beach and no signs of Soviet military power. There they reached a decision, Foote said: "Let's go for it."

Armed with cameras and leaflets printed in Russian announcing their mission, they climbed into motorized rubber dinghies and went ashore to investigate Soviet whaling practices. About 10 minutes later two army trucks barreled down a hill, and soldiers jumped out with their rifles drawn.

"I stopped absolutely still, smiled, raised my arms," Foote said, and surrendered a camera, after deliberately exposing the film. The Rainbow Warrior escaped in the fog, eluding ships that pursued but didn't fire upon it, and reached Alaska to report that the Soviets had arrested seven members of Greenpeace.

Foote didn't know that. All she knew was their ship was gone, and they were prisoners in Siberia.

Five days later they were freed. The Soviets had threatened them with prison terms but treated them well, serving them coffee, corned beef, bread and fresh vegetables. When they left Lorino, a small crowd came out to wave goodbye and gave the women daisies.

The invaders never saw whale meat on a mink farm, but they succeeded in drawing more attention to the whaling industry.

Today, the Soviets comply with an international whaling moratorium, but Japan still hunts whales, Foote said.

She works in Washington now, managing Greenpeace's campaign to prevent mineral exploration in Antarctica by making it a world park. The idea has been endorsed by France _ the same government that in 1985 bombed the Rainbow Warrior, killing a Greenpeace photographer, to stop interference with its nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific.

When Foote joined Greenpeace 13 years ago, it employed a few dozen people worldwide who worked long hours for minimal wages. Now it has offices in 24 countries, including one in Moscow, worldwide contributions of about $100-million a year, a catalog that sells stuffed penguins and Rainbow Warrior T-shirts, a video of Greenpeace's "greatest hits," an international satellite communications system and, in Washington, a few people who wear ties and work as lobbyists.

Its list of issues has evolved, too, from whale and seal hunts to ocean dumping and hazardous waste exports.

"When you're saving whales, it's important, but it's fairly simple," Foote said. When it comes to lobbying, and setting quotas, and taking part in scientific arguments "about what we're doing to the oceans in which the whales live, that gets far more complex."

She is 42, restless in her office job, and she misses life on the front lines of environmental action. In a few months she hopes to board a Greenpeace ship to Antarctica, to patrol the edges of a frozen continent for evidence of pollution.

Even there, scientists are looking for signs of a global warming trend, she said. "If we wait for scientific proof, I don't think we're going to make it. Earth will right itself _ but it may not be a world we can live in."

Which path to take?

What does it mean to be an environmentalist in 1990?

Many things. An environmentalist may be a hunter who belongs to the National Wildlife Federation and the Republican Party, or an Earth First! saboteur who drives spikes into trees to protect them from loggers and stalks bighorn-sheep hunters with an air horn to scare off their prey.

It can mean supporting the Environmental Defense Fund, which favors letting clean industries sell "pollution credits" to dirty ones, or the National Toxics Campaign Fund, which calls that a formula for poisoning people in Louisiana if you clean up your act in Ohio.

It can mean accepting the compromise clean air bill endorsed by the White House and passed by the Senate, which contains pollution credits and a plan to reduce acid rain, or fighting it in the House, as many environmental groups plan to do.

It can mean being part of Earth Day 1990, a star-studded celebration with "major crowd events" in every state except North Dakota, or Earth Day 20, a smaller event billing itself as the grass-roots alternative.

We are accustomed to hearing what "environmentalists say" about an issue. Often they say different things. Ask what America should do with its garbage, and some environmental groups say incinerate it. Others, calling incineration a hazard, insist manufacturers must stop producing it. Ask what you can do to save the planet, and some environmental groups will tell you to recycle bottles and plant a tree. Others will tell you to blame corporate polluters.

In Washington, a council of 10 environmental groups meets to decide where the movement should stand on legislative issues. It excludes Greenpeace, a group whose civil disobedience tactics trouble mainstream environmentalists.

"The Sierra Club spends a lot of time and resources trying to get polluting corporations to obey the law. It would be inconsistent for us to encourage people to break laws they disagree with," said Daniel Weiss, director of the group's pollution program in Washington.

Peter Bahouth, executive director of Greenpeace USA, says he wouldn't join the council if they invited him. "Inside-the-beltway environmentalists," he calls them.

Further clouding the politics of Earth Day is the corporate advertising campaign that preceded it. In glossy magazine ads, the companies that brought us the Bhopal disaster, the Alaska oil spill and the ozone hole are promising to handle Earth with care. General Motors is touting the achievements of its solar-powered Sunraycer, a vehicle that now sits in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. McDonald's is passing out leaflets that cite the environmental benefits of polystyrene packaging.

The Environmental Protection Agency enlisted Gaylord Nelson, among others, in an aborted plan to hold a corporate-supported Earth Day rally in Washington. The corporate support, it turned out, was to come from the National Association of Manufacturers, said Anthony Podesta, Washington coordinator of Earth Day 1990. "It'd be like the attorney general going to the Mafia to ask for money to host Law Day."

Politically, the environmental movement enjoys unprecedented support today. Membership lists and contributions are growing. Six of seven Americans consider pollution a serious and growing threat, a New York Times poll found, and most favor stricter environmental standards even if that means higher taxes.

But how will its aims be pursued? After the sun sets on Earth Day, will it remain a movement that calls on the government to protect natural resources? Will it become a consumer movement that rewards non-polluting businesses in the marketplace? Will it declare war on polluters and confront them with placards and monkey wrenches?

Nelson, now 73 years old, treasures the letters schoolchildren sent him after the first Earth Day. He hopes today's celebration will spread the spirit that blossomed 20 years ago, that public schools everywhere will teach environmental education classes to a new generation of Americans, that our conquering culture will develop an environmental ethic.

He welcomes industries to climb aboard the Earth Day bandwagon and help create an environmentally sustainable economy.

"Even if it's for public relations, I'm glad to see them involved," he said. "Ultimately you've got to reach some kind of social compact among all the players: business, academia, environmentalism, religion. We've got to join together to protect the integrity of the environment."

Foote fears too much energy is being expended on Earth Day itself.

"I think it's good that people get a chance to celebrate the Earth," she said, "but I worry about it getting commercialized, and I'm afraid people will miss the point.

"A little like the hunger concerts. People think world hunger is solved."

Major United States environmental organizations

National Wildlife Federation

Federation of state conservation organizations that gives advice and money to local projects.

Founded: 1936

Members: 5.6-million

Address: 1400 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036


Initiates active, though non-violent, measures to aid endangered species.

Founded: 1971

Members: 1.4-million

Address: 1436 U St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009

Sierra Club

Studies the environment and campaigns to save threatened areas.

Founded: 1892

Members: 553,246

Address: 730 Polk St., San Francisco, Calif. 94109

National Audubon Society

Conducts research and educates the public on ecology, energy and restoration of natural resources.

Founded: 1905

Members: 516,220

Address: 950 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022

The Wilderness Society

Works to establish a land ethic and encourages Congress to designate wilderness areas.

Founded: 1935

Members: 330,000

Address: 1400 Eye St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005