Unmasking America

by Leon G. Billings
President of the Clean Air Trust

Recently, the new president of a major American corporation thanked me for my role in developing the nation's major environmental laws. He said that he had worked in cities all over the world and, in too many, especially former Communist countries, it was virtually impossible to breathe the air without a mask.

Often over the past two decades I have wondered if the American people understood how bad it would have been to try to breathe the air or drink the water but for what Ed Muskie and his colleagues accomplished in the two years following the first Earth Day.

Every American who, for even a moment, might think our national investment in pollution control cost was too expensive need only visit Mexico City or Krakow, Poland, or the Black Sea to understand the alternative. No one event caused Americans to take these initiatives. No one person can take sole credit for our national foresight, but there were catalysts (to use a term which is synonymous with reducing transportation-related pollution).

The Genesis of Earth Day

One catalyst was Earth Day and the vision of Senators Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes, who found a way to popularize a crisis and focus a nation. The other was a group of United States Senators led by Senators like Edmund S. Muskie of Maine (who died three years ago) and Howard Baker, who lives to tell the story, and others who, during the 91st and 92nd Congresses, in a series of secret meetings, molded the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. In one of the first instances that Congress did the right thing behind closed doors, this small group of Senators knew they were doing the public's will.

Earth Day gave political viability to creative public policy. Senator Edmund Muskie often said that any politician who didn't take maximum advantage of a publicly perceived crisis was no more than an incrementalist. Muskie, Baker, Cooper, Randolph, Eagleton, Bayh, Buckley, Spong and others understood the power of popular support. They rejected incrementalism. And a pair of pervasive self-perpetuating environmental policies was born.

Earth Day was not just for one day. Earth Day was, too, a symbol of the national media attention focused on destruction of our planet.

Walter Cronkite, a young Peter Jennings, Ned Kenworthy at the New York Times, Spencer Rich at The Washington Post and other journalists were given "front page" space to focus on environmental depredations. Major American corporate managers created news by insisting that no pollution problems existed and, if they did, cleaning them up would destroy the economy.

Earth Day Sparks Reform

Major oil spills in the English Channel, off Santa Barbara and in Florida forced Richard Nixon to sign into law 19 days before Earth Day the statute that codified the "Polluter Pays Principle" and now forces polluters to clean up their toxic legacy or face unlimited financial liability. The father of Superfund was enacted on April 3, 1970.

The force of public opinion unleashed by Earth Day and the concomitant attention of the national media led to the 1970 unanimous passage of the Clean Air Act in the United States Senate. This was an act so bold and far-reaching that to this date it has survived billions of dollars of lobbying attacks from pollution interests. The Clean Water Act, too, passed the United States Senate unanimously and was the first of President Nixon's myriad vetoes to be overridden by the Congress; so great was the perception of the politics of the environment unleashed by this day.

This boldness was not a phenomenon observed only in the nation's capital. State after state enacted their own Clean Air and Clean Water acts. So national policy had a basis on which to build, consistent with Senator Muskie's view that effective environmental protection was a function of popular demand and required policy to be made at the level closest to the people.

Muskie's Concept of "Creative Federalism"

To Edmund Muskie, the federal government was the gorilla in the closet. The federal government was to use its enormous resources to define the nature of pollution problems, set uniform national standards to be achieved and force technology to achieve desired objectives. He knew that states and localities couldn't resist the economic pressures of national industries or entrenched economic forces. At the same time, he understood that there was no way that the federal government could occupy the field of environmental regulation and implementation. As much as anything, it was Muskie's concept of "creative federalism" written into each of the nation's early environmental laws which has made so much more difficult the constant effort to roll back that which was accomplished as a result of Earth Day 30 years ago.

Too many of the giants that "grasped the nettle" to achieve a radical change in the way we deal with the space in which we live have passed from the scene. But there are still among us former Senators Howard Baker, Jim Buckley, Birch Bayh, Tom Eagleton, Bob Dole, Gaylord Nelson and former Congressmen Paul Rogers of Florida and Jim Wright of Texas and others of whom I've lost track, to whom every American should say thank you. But for their courage and their foresight -- but for the legacy of Earth Day -- we too would wear masks!

Leon G. Billings, President of the Clean Air Trust, was Chief of Staff to Muskie as Senator and as Secretary of State. This article was originally published in the Spring 2000 edition of Ecostates, The Journal of the Environmental Council of the States.