By Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor
Because we’re concerned about protection of water, the FLOW staff and board make frequent reference to the hydrologic cycle in our conversations. You know, the movement of water from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere and back again. But on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the cycles of politics also come to mind.
Dave Dempsey as a 2-year-old boy (left) together with his brother Jack (right) in 1959 on the shore of Lake Erie, before the tumult of the 1960s and the environmental progress of 1970.
I was 13 and unconcerned about environmental issues on the first Earth Day in 1970—teenage obsessions were foremost on my mind. But because my father was a public servant and spoke to my brothers and me about policy, governance, and elections throughout our youth, I was well aware of the social ferment around the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement. Among my formative memories were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, when I was barely old enough to understand it and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. My generation came of age during a domestic and overseas bloodbath, but also a time of rising activism to make the world better.
But only when I look back at 1970 later in life, as an amateur environmental historian, do I fully appreciate what happened that year. It wasn’t just April 22—the first celebration of Earth Day—it was 12 months of successful citizen work to raise consciousness and pass new federal and state laws that revolutionized America’s treatment of air, water, land, fish, and wildlife. Michigan was a national leader on the environment throughout 1970. Every time I think of Michigan in 1970, I am deeply grateful to the many largely unsung citizens who pressured elected officials to conserve and protect the environment. We owe them a great debt for reforms that persist today.
By the time I dedicated myself professionally to environmental policy, the cycle had moved almost to the opposite side. Michigan’s unemployment hit 17% in 1982, and conservative political forces had chosen environmental laws and rules as one culprit (even though, in reality, an energy crisis and policies to squeeze inflation had induced a national downturn).
Most of my career has taken place in that long swing of the pendulum. For the most part, my contemporaries and I have been playing defense. In a swirling flood of destruction, we’ve been holding on to many of 1970s’ gains like a life raft.
That’s the policy world. In the world of public consciousness, the need for environmental protection has remained steadfast. What seems to have changed, then, is the link between public opinion and public policy.
Opponents—primarily Big Business and Big Agriculture—have changed tactics. Instead of bluntly saying they doubt the need for environmental protection, as they often did in 1970, they acknowledge the need but offer a different route—voluntary, non-enforceable stewardship that has proven to be undependable. It almost makes me long for the days when they were blunt about their belief that environmental protections were a luxury America could not afford. They aren’t so direct now. They exploit Supreme Court decisions about back-door corporate funding of political campaigns and lavish significant sums to install candidates who talk a good environmental game, but won’t deliver.
These changes could lead one to despair, but they shouldn’t. When I first started looking at Michigan’s environmental history, I found evidence of the first lonely citizen voices who sounded alarms about the ravaging of Michigan’s forest, fish, and game in the 1870s. Those voices swelled into a chorus within decades, and a crescendo in 1970. If those earliest conservation pioneers could start from nothing 150 years ago to accomplish so much over generations, we should take heart. We are neither few, nor lonely.
I began this essay by talking about cycles. There are indeed cycles of water and politics, but there is also a kind of renewable energy in the citizenry. What’s needed is a long perspective. If it has been the lot of my generation to fight for what the previous one accomplished, it will likely be the next generation’s accomplishment to make the broad advances needed to assure a high quality of life for humans and the world we inhabit.
One of the slogans of Earth Day 1970 was “think globally, act locally.” Fifty years later, I would frame it in time, rather than scale: Think millennially, act perennially.
Dave Dempsey is the senior policy advisor at FLOW.