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  • Writer's pictureChristen & Bernadette

When It Comes to the Environment, WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?

We live in an age of extreme political views on everything from immigration to the environment.

It wasn’t always that way.

Fifty years ago, the environment was a pressing concern for people of every political stripe.

This may come as a surprise to many, but Republican President Richard Nixon oversaw the enactment of many of our Nation’s major environmental laws. And he worked with a Democrat-led congress to establish them.

On January 1, 1970, in response to a series of environmental catastrophes, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law, which established a national environmental policy. It requires all federal agencies to prepare a first-of-its-kind environmental impact statement (EIS) before undertaking a federal project.

The stated purposes of NEPA are:

To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.

Those are ambitious goals for legislation!

NEPA, as noted, established Nixon’s Environmental Quality Council and a related citizen’s advisory group. These groups were designed to coordinate efforts to address America’s growing environmental problems.

On July 9, 1970, Nixon gave a groundbreaking 37-point speech on the environment, asking Congress to create an agency to consolidate our nation’s environmental responses, thus creating the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Several ground-breaking laws or amendments followed, including the 1970 Amendments to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973).

You can hear Nixon’s call for bi-partisan support with respect to the environment here.

According to one recent article, in 1965 only about a third of Americans surveyed agreed that local air and water pollution were serious problems; by 1967 the figures passed 50%, and in 1970 they reached roughly 70%. The American people were suddenly energized when it came to environmental issues. No wonder these laws or amendments were all passed with support from both sides of the aisle.

The bipartisan cooperation continued: In 1974, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Safe Drinking Water Act, the first piece of legislation to provide a comprehensive regulatory framework for overseeing America’s drinking water supply.

This idea of bipartisanship was important to Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day. Nelson, a United States Senator and Democrat, had already earned a reputation as a “conservation governor.” As governor of Wisconsin, Nelson secured money to purchase public parks and wilderness recreation areas. He revamped the state's natural resource program. People really liked these measures. His popularity led to his election to the national scene in 1962.

Nelson arrived in Washington and campaigned to bring environmental issues to the forefront. In 1969 he conceived of the idea for a "national day for the environment.” He recruited Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair. Together they created a network of volunteers to promote conservation events across the United States. On April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans took part in rallies in parks and campuses all over the country. The protests brought together environmentalists of all backgrounds. Some were concerned about conservation. Others about oil spills, dangerous pesticides, or leaking landfills. Lots of people were focused on animal extinction awareness.

The environmental movement also helped instill in Americans a sense of moral accountability for the use of resources. It didn’t matter if you were a Republican, Democrat, or Independent. It didn’t matter if you were educated. Or rich or poor. What mattered is that people took a stand because they cared about the air they breathed and the water they drank. The care of creation mattered because it affected all people, everywhere, all the time.

Environmentalism is not a conservative or liberal issue. It’s not just about saving a whale or recycling waste. It’s everything. And everyone.

Nelson knew this. He once said “Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit."

But somewhere along the line, this eco-conscious perspective devolved into the divisive, political morass that is modern-day environmental politics.

Maybe it is time to strip off the labels and focus on what unites us. It's no longer acceptable to stereotype liberals as out-of-work tree huggers who would close down an industry over a butterfly, or conservatives as narrow-minded capitalists who would cut down the last remaining tree in the forest. People of every background are starting to realize (again) that environmental matters are complex and interrelated. They implicate issues that we don’t traditionally see side by side: business and biodiversity, or energy and conservation.

People are beginning to understand that environmental degradation affects all systems and all people—regardless of race, religion, or nationality. It affects all living things, from the lowliest patch of moss to the mightiest lion in Kenya. When these living things are harmed, when environmental disasters or pandemics strike, all of the natural world is impacted.

If we value the natural world – as a result of our faith, our work, or our sense of self-preservation—then we care. And we act.

So how about you? Are you willing to push for environmental reform, no matter your political views? Will you lean on your representatives — conservative or liberal ---- to protect our natural resources? Does it matter whose side you’re on when it comes to something upon which we all depend?

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