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1970: Planet Earth Takes Center Stage

Anger at the nation's increasingly polluted air and water helped fuel an environmental movement and efforts to protect America's natural resources

By Patricia Smith

Back in the 1960s, the oily, brown water of Cleveland's Cuyahoga River was so toxic and filled with garbage, residents joked that if anyone fell in, they wouldn't drown, they'd decay.

So it wasn't a total surprise to locals when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in June 1969 after some oil-soaked debris was ignited, most likely by sparks from a passing train. But to the rest of the nation, the idea of a flaming river was shocking.

Six months earlier, a thick oil slick had washed over the beaches of Santa Barbara, California. The disaster, which went on to blacken 40 miles of scenic coastline, was the result of a blowout on an offshore oil rig.

"The Cuyahoga River fire, in combination with the Santa Barbara oil spill, had a very powerful motivating force on the environmental movement," says Jonathan Adler, an environmental historian at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

So powerful, in fact, that 1970 became the year the environmental movement really took off and began to have an impact on our national policy and our daily lives. Forty years later, we're still reaping the benefits—and facing new challenges.

The Tumultuous '60s

The 1960s were a decade of protests and social movements that changed America, including the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement (against the Vietnam War), and the women's movement. It was in this social and political context that the environmental movement developed.

It wasn't just high-profile environmental disasters like the Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River fire that got people angry and spurred them to act. On the coasts, beaches were often closed because of the raw sewage being dumped into the oceans. And across the country, it was common for factories to dump their waste directly into rivers: In western Massachusetts, people remember the Housatonic River changing color from one day to the next, depending on what color paper the Crane mills were making.

Dense smog hung over the nation's cities. In Los Angeles, some businessmen changed their shirts during the day because the soot in the air had soiled them by lunchtime. In New York, the air was sometimes so dirty that tourists couldn't see the city below from the Empire State Building's observation deck.

No one really thought much about pollution back then. The U.S. was still in the midst of the post-World War II boom: Factories across the country produced everything from cars to washing machines. And as millions of people moved to the suburbs, car sales—and the pollution they produced—soared.

"There was no consciousness of the environment at all in the 1950s and '60s—nobody even knew what the word 'ecology' was," says Rich Borden, an environmental studies professor at College of the Atlantic in Maine.

"At that time, smoke coming out of smokestacks was seen as a sign of progress. A few years later, it was seen as something we had to regulate and be careful of."

That change began in 1970. On April 22, nearly 20 million people, many of them young, participated in rallies and teach-ins around the country to celebrate the first Earth Day. The event was intended to alert the public to the environment's poor condition and encourage Americans to get involved in fixing it. It remains, to this day, one of the largest political actions in the nation's history.

'Environmental Magna Carta'

As interest in the environment grew, the government began to respond. In 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act—sometimes referred to as the "environmental Magna Carta"—required the federal government to consider the environmental consequences of all major policy decisions: Whenever there are plans to widen a highway, build an airport, or dredge a river, you're likely to hear talk about an "environmental impact statement." This is required under NEPA to consider what effects the project will have on the environment and how to minimize them.

In July 1970, President Richard Nixon issued an executive order creating the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) to enforce laws that protect the environment and public health.

Later that year, Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, a landmark law designed to reduce air pollution. At the time, cars used leaded gasoline, so the exhaust contained lead—a toxin that stunts brain development. One of the most important provisions of the Clean Air Act mandated the gradual elimination of lead from gasoline. It also required factories to install filters on their smokestacks to remove the most-toxic chemicals.

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, requiring factories to stop dumping their waste into waterways, and communities to stop dumping raw sewage into rivers and oceans. The following year, the Endangered Species Act created a list of plants and animals on the brink of extinction and provided extra protections for them.

"What you saw happen in the 1970s was Congress laying the foundation for the modern environmental regulatory state," says Jay Turner, a professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

By the end of the decade, more than 8,000 pieces of environmental legislation were introduced in Congress (though not all passed), according to John Adams, founder of the National Resources Defense Council. "It was a revolution that took place," he says.

Bipartisan Support

One reason so much was accomplished in the 1970s is that many of the steps taken were embraced across the political spectrum. President Nixon was a Republican, and Democratic and Republican support in Congress made passage of some very sweeping legislation possible.

The new environmental regulations had a significant impact. Sewage treatment plants were built. Factories stopped using rivers as waste-disposal systems and began filtering their emissions.

Over time, much of the smog disappeared and many rivers returned to health. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, which after the 1969 fire became the national symbol of environmental disaster, is now a place where residents fish for smallmouth bass.

Animals such as the bald eagle and the grizzly bear, which were close to extinction in the early '70s, have rebounded and have since been removed from the endangered species list. By the time lead was entirely eliminated from gasoline in the mid-1980s, doctors in the U.S. reported a significant drop in the amount of lead found in the blood of their patients.

"The great triumph of what we did in 1970 is on the whole much cleaner air and much cleaner water," says Jim Tripp of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Beyond that, many environmentalists point to a much less tangible—but also critical—achievement: a widespread public awareness about the importance of environmental protection.

Today's Issue: Climate Change

In the early 1970s, the U.S. was a global leader on environmental protection. In the next decade, many countries followed the American example and created environmental ministries and environmental-protection laws similar to those in the U.S.

Today, most scientists point to climate change as the most significant environmental challenge. But it's a much tougher issue for Washington to address for several reasons: A segment of the American population remains skeptical about climate-change science. Even some of those who believe it is a serious problem are leery of the cost of proposed solutions—and their impact on the economy and employment at a time when the nation is struggling to emerge from recession.

Environmental issues also don't have the wide bipartisan support they enjoyed 40 years ago. All these factors help explain why the U.S. has been slower than many other industrialized countries to take steps to address climate change.

"Today, the challenges are much more long-term and much less visible," says Turner, the Wellesley professor. "It doesn't foster the same climate of crisis politics, but the stakes are even higher."

Nevertheless, it's clear that the environmental movement has had an impact on the way Americans think.

"Environmental issues today have a prominence that they didn't have before," says Adler, the environmental historian at Case Western. "There is not a major American institution, governmental or nongovernmental, that doesn't have to consider environmental values in the way it conducts itself. That's as true of Walmart as the U.S. military."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, October 25, 2010)