By Dave Dempsey
On the first Earth Day in 1970, I was 13 years old and barely aware of the event.
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 in 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).
Much 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 of environmental laws and programs have changed tactics. Instead of bluntly disputing 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. 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.
The Long Perspective
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.
What’s needed is a long perspective. If it has been the lot of my generation to defend 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.