Just over 40 years ago, 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day, a groundswell moment that had been simmering for decades in the polluted air and water, the paving of wilderness and impending extinction crisis for wild creatures. That special day in many ways marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement, which had been built brick by synaptic brick laid by conservation leaders like John Muir, Rachel Carson and Teddy Roosevelt and the work of organizations like the Sierra Club, Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife. These pioneers, along with a string of environmental disasters, were midwives to a nascent consciousness that human health and human ethics are inextricably intertwined with environmental health and ethics.
That Earth Day was organized as a teach-in at tens of thousands of high schools and colleges around the nation, and, as with any meaningful historical event, it was couched in a climate of action. Within a decade before and after that first Earth Day, almost all of the United State’s environmental laws were crafted and passed. The year 1964 saw the passage of the Wilderness Act, which defined and codified the intrinsic value of places “where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” In 1970, the U.S. Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires all actions by federal agencies to be governed by a scientific process to minimize environmental impact. In 1963 and 1977, Congress passed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, because industrial society and corporate pollution threatened the very air we breathe and water we drink. Human health and the health of the Earth was at that point a bipartisan value, with groundbreaking bills signed by presidents like Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson alike.
Environmental disasters—including the Santa Barbara oil spill and the burning of the oil-polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969—were bringing the issue to a head and the nation to a common purpose. The disasters were a jolting wake-up call for the United States and ultimately the world. In 1990, 200 million people worldwide participated in Earth Day.
But over the years our tolerance for environmental alarms has increased, and we have again begun to slumber amid the clamor of bulldozers, drills and dynamite. What may be the biggest environmental challenge in the history of the human species, climate change, continues at a rolling boil, but we have been sluggish to react, unable to rouse. A year ago, the nation watched as millions of barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, an event that riveted people everywhere for months, but as yet has resulted in little more than a momentary halt in deep-water oil extraction. And BP, one of history’s biggest environmental polluters, made $5.6 Billion in quarterly profits in the first quarter of 2011, while working to expand its offshore operations.
And most recently, on the very eve of Earth Day, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to allow the most powerful arm of the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security, the authority to ignore environmental laws within 100 miles of any border of the United States. The legislation, H.R.1505, the ironically named National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, would allow DHS to ignore environmental law over about 180 million square miles of land that make up the perimeter of the nation, in effect making the entire states of Hawaii and Rhode Island exempt from environmental protections for any roads, walls, and any other infrastructure or activity that the department conducts.
The bill would remove environmental protections for dozens of national parks, wilderness areas and national wildlife refuges, making the government unaccountable for its environmental impacts on an area of land home to two-thirds of the human population of the country, and hundreds of endangered animals and plants. Species that are barely clinging to existence here, like the whooping crane, jaguar, and wolverine, would be stripped of protections.
In a different world, reason would suggest that this type of regressive legislation, introduced by a member on the fringes of the right wing, stands no chance of enactment. But in reality, the passage of this law and other extreme anti-environmental measures recently circulated by Arizona senators John McCain and Jon Kyl in the Senate stand a reasonable chance of becoming law. Bishop’s legislation is nothing more than a broadening of powers already given to DHS under the Real ID Act of 2005. Real ID allowed Homeland Security to dismiss all laws on the southern border, an unchecked authority which has resulted in widespread destruction of habitat and cultural sites, massive flooding of border towns, the severing of wildlife corridors critical to species like the jaguar, bighorn sheep, and ocelot, and disruption to the ecological dynamics along most of this 2000-mile border.
For the past five years, I have focused much of my work as a journalist on the ecological fallout of the Real ID Act. On a recent expedition to gather photographs for an upcoming book on the borderlands, I encountered a landscape and series of communities that have for several years experienced the impacts of environmental lawlessness. More than 30 federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act and others, were dismissed by one stroke of a pen held by the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in 2008. As a result of this flippant dismissal of law, I saw some of the continent’s last open grasslands and pristine deserts bisected by roads and walls. I saw globally rare forests and wetlands overrun with border patrol agents, National Park land torn up by machines, roadless wilderness areas with newly cut roads spilling silt into waterways and wetlands, helicopters on constant patrol over the last habitat for the shy and nearly extinct Sonoran pronghorn, animals like javelina, cottontail and deer traveling along endless lengths of wall looking for passage south.
Though I was a year shy of existence on that first Earth Day, I consider myself a part of the generation inspired by this new ecological consciousness. Our generation, now in our early 40s and 50s, has seen a change in national awareness regarding our interdependence with the Earth, but some disturbing trends have taken shape over the past decade. In some ways, I understand the difficulty of tackling climate change—it is intangible, complicated. But it is hard to understand how in only 40 years we could elect members of Congress to systematically dismantle the environmental protections that we have through Herculean efforts already won. It is possible to be patient with the slow pace of progress, but regression into the tragic and dangerous mistakes of the past is torturous.
Some in Congress and on the far right side of the political spectrum may have missed it, but in the 1960s and 70s we as a society asked ourselves some critical questions: Do we have a fundamental right to clean air, clean water, open spaces and a healthy environment? And do we have a right to destroy these things for other species? Given the laws we enacted around that first Earth Day, it seems clear that we answered those questions unequivocally—yes, we all have a right to a healthy environment, and we won’t tolerate a government or corporations who pollute the world we all share.
Rep. Bishop would be wise to remember that we as a nation value the health of our children, our water, and our air above politics, and that national security is as intrinsically linked to environmental health and protection as it is to any other enemy or threat we may perceive. We established environmental regulation for a sound reason: to keep ourselves from becoming our own worst enemy.
For more information about the borderlands visit E-pic.