Earth Daddy

Denis Hayes organized the first Earth Day, and all he got was this lousy planet

If he wasn't an environmentalist, he was a hell of a politician, and the two things that caught his attention were that our biggest event was in New York City and the prime politician helping was Mayor John Lindsey, who was Nixon's biggest challenge on the left in the Republican Party, while the other major player was Ed Muskie, who was Nixon's presumptive Democratic opponent for the next election. Muskie was running the air- and water-pollution subcommittee of the Senate Public Works Committee, so he would have been the author of any clean air or water act.

Nixon looks out the White House window and sees the mall full of people, turns on his television and sees gigantic crowds in cities across the country, and reads the Associated Press report that more than 20 million people are involved. He had barely won in 1968 and figured he had to be a player in this.

That afternoon, Ehrlichman brought him the Ash Commission report [on government reorganization] that had been gathering dust and said, "We're already working on air pollution at Health, Education and Welfare; we're doing some water-pollution stuff at Interior, radioactive wastes at the Atomic Energy Commission, pesticides at the Department of Agriculture. You can take all that, put them in one place, tie a bow around it and call it the Environmental Protection Agency, and you're a player."

As Ehrlichman told it to me, it was straight cause and effect: if there had been no Earth Day, there would be no EPA.

Will George W. Bush's place in history be as the man who made Nixon look good by comparison?

I think he's so far beyond that now that the question is if he'll be the man who makes Attila the Hun look good. Compared to anyone, the damage this man and his minions have done is just beyond belief. The reason isn't Bush being more anti-environment; it's that the greatest contribution of our nation's founders is not working well at the moment. When you have a divided government, it slows things down but it stops craziness from happening. But when you have the House of Representatives under the thumb of Tom Delay, the Senate is Republican, the judiciary's Republican, and then you've got the White House in the hands of folks who are at the right extreme wing of the Republican Party, there are no checks and balances. Bush has been able to get away with things that none of his predecessors could have even if they'd wanted to.

I'm most concerned about the administration's corruption of science—the fact that you have first-rate reports done by independent scientists, but if they're in any kind of opposition to either the dominant ideology or the economic interests of any prominent supporters, then they are either distorted or buried. A little bit of that has probably gone on forever, but there has never been this kind of wholesale disregard of fact-based decision-making before. It's so bad that bipartisan groups of prominent scientists and policy analysts have all called upon the administration to stop. People who have been prominent in other Republican administrations—Nixon, Reagan and Bush I—have all said that you cannot operate at this kind of disconnect.

The second concern would be that the United States is by far the strongest force in the world against intelligent energy and climate policies today. It's embarrassing for much of the world that while they are trying to figure out how to develop protocols, we're busy trying to figure how to get oil out of Iraq.

Then there's the whole "Clear Skies," "Healthy Forests" misuse of the language, where you call something by a really cheery-sounding name while the actual policies are rapacious.

So little of that even gets traction in the media.

What's fascinating to me is that, in this election, we have the worst environmental president in history running against the strongest environmental contender in history. Kerry's got a 96 percent lifetime voting average from the League of Conservation Voters, way higher than Al Gore. There's no one else out there like him on the environment. He makes it one of the top things he talks about it in every goddamn speech I've heard him do, and nobody ever picks that up in the news.

What are the biggest environmental concerns in the years ahead?

The things that worry me most are climate extinction and what we don't know. Look at [UC Irvine professor] Sherry Rowland's work on CFCs and the ozone layer: to go from everybody thinking this is a compound that's completely inert, with marvelous uses, to being a threat to all life on the planet—that makes you think maybe we don't fully understand what we're doing, and we're producing a hell of a lot of substances that are not going through sufficient testing. What's disturbing most thoughtful people now are endocrine disrupters, things that are basically synthetic hormones that, in very trace amounts, interfere with particular points of a living being's lifecycle, and they may be producing all kinds of effects that we just think of as the deterioration of society: short attention spans, learning disabilities and the like. The simple fact is we don't know. Hopefully, we'll deal with them appropriately before they cause calamities.

What things can individuals do to help the environment?
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