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Commentary: Earth Day '14: Only 2 cheers, please

by on April 07, 2014 10:20 AM

April 22 is Earth Day and you can look forward to scattered celebrations, warnings about the future and self congratulations. The environmental community regards the first Earth Day as the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

But the real birth of modern environmentalism may have come in 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring.” It was a detonation heard around the world, and it greatly affected the way a whole generation felt about nature. Its central finding was against the use of the powerful pesticide DDT.

The first Earth Day was the brainchild of the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis. He provided leadership for a burgeoning environmental movement fed not just by a love of nature, as had earlier movements, but by a deep anger at the trashing of natural systems.

DDT was killing off wild birds by altering their metabolism in a way that resulted in thin eggshells; West Virginia, and other parts of Appalachia, were being mutilated to extract coal; and the Cuyahoga River in Ohio had caught fire many times because it was so choked with pollutants.

There was an abundance of anger in the 1970s, most of it inflamed in the 1960s. That troubled decade was not just about drugs and flower power, Woodstock and free love. It was about what had become of America and where was it heading. The movements were for civil rights, against the Vietnam War and for women.

An environmental movement in the 1970s fit right in; it was inevitable because it was needed. Some of the anger of the decade that had just finished informed that first Earth Day and all those that followed.

Because the modern environmental movement was born in anger, at times it has been unruly and counterproductive.

Will we quickly forget the hysteria created by the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) 1989 report on the use of the pesticide Alar in apples? Or Greenpeace’s admission in 1995 that it had bullied European governments into disposing the Shell Brent Spar oil platform and reservoir on dry land when it should have been dropped into the deep ocean? Or the uncritical enthusiasm for wind power without regard to the environmental impact of wind turbines on birds and bats, or the noise they generate? In New England there are claims of adverse health effects from wind turbines, to say nothing of the adverse visual impact.

The modern environmental movement differed from previous conservation movements because it knew how to harness the power of the courts. Litigation was the core of this movement, and it remains so. NRDC’s website boasts the availability of 350 lawyers.

The movement that flowed from Rachel Carson’s book and the first Earth Day is global; it is as strong in Europe, if not stronger, than in its birthplace, the United States. It is a large part of the political fabric of Germany, and its policies have played a role in leading that country into a dependence on Russian natural gas.

Opposition to the Keystone Pipeline may be another error of environmental enthusiasm. No pipe means more trains carrying oil; ergo more accidents and environmental degradation.

To my mind the biggest error the environmental community made was the relentless, even pathological, opposition to nuclear power. It has been an act of faith since the first Earth Day and it may be the one most at odds with environmental well-being. The public has been frightened, but the math says it is the safest way to make electricity.

Now a new generation of young idealists is beginning to look past the orthodoxies of the anti-nuclear movement. Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, said last week that many of his students are studying nuclear because of its environmental advantages, and its value in generating electricity without air pollution.

The environmental movement of the 1970s has grown old, but it hasn’t grown thoughtful. I wish it a happy birthday, but I can only muster two cheers. I hope it enters a period of introspection and comes to realize that its rigidities can be as counterproductive as those of its industrial antagonists. It remains needed.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicles" on PBS. His column is written for Hearst Newspapers.
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