Environmental Political Action

We have seen how new laws passed over the past thirty years have led to major improvements in our environment. But we are still left with the question—how did all these laws get passed? How did the climate (political and social this time, not the actual climate) change to allow for the relatively smooth passage of laws that would have been considered antiprogress, anti-technology, and anticapitalist a decade earlier? The force to pass these laws, as with the majority of new legislation in any democracy, came from public political pressure. The pressure in turn came from a growing and spreading environmental movement spearheaded by some radical thinkers and then joined by others—scientists, journalists, conservationists, hunters, and fishermen.

One of the most effective advertisements I have ever seen (I believe it won some awards) was an antipollution ad that featured a silent Native American shedding a single tear as the camera in the background pans over a terrible scene of garbage and waste defiling what was once a beautiful landscape. For years people had noticed that their local fishing streams were lined with tires and had a bad smell. Dead fish were popping up in lakes, and there seemed to be a lot fewer birds singing in the suburban springs. The smog in Los Angeles was getting so bad that it wasn't even a funny subject for comedians any more. And yet it took a strong and forceful campaign to put environmental quality in the forefront of the public consciousness. Among other things, raising public consciousness was left to the volunteer nongovernment agencies.

Environmental organizations began to flourish in the 1960s and 1970s. From 1961 through 1982, the following organizations were founded: World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, Lake Michigan Federation, Greenpeace, Worldwatch Institute, and the World Resources Institute. Older, established organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society also became strongly involved in many causes related to environmental protection. In 1965 the Sierra Club, one of the oldest and most effective environmental organizations in the United

States, became involved in a controversy related to the development of a natural preserve in New York State called Storm King Mountain. After a protracted legal battle, the Sierra Club was effectively able to prevent the building of a power plant at the pristine, heavily wooded, and treasured site.

At the same time, the Sierra Club began a struggle to protect the Grand Canyon from a dam project that would have devastated one of the country's most treasured natural areas. The club also sued the Department of the Interior to prevent development of a ski resort in Sequoia National Park. At this time, the Sierra Club had no legal standing for such lawsuits, and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the suit. The legal theory at the time was that conservationists had no right to sue the federal government, because they had no direct economic or legal interest in the matter. This theory was later overturned, allowing many environmental and policy groups to sue various branches of the government including (especially) the EPA on behalf of the citizenry in general. The Environmental History website (www.enviro-nmentalhistory.org) includes an extract from the dissent of the great liberal Justice William O. Douglas:

Before these priceless bits of Americana (such as a valley, an alpine meadow, a river, or a lake) are forever lost or are so transformed as to be reduced to the eventual rubble of our urban environment, the voice of the existing beneficiaries of these environmental wonders should be heard. Perhaps they will not win. Perhaps the bulldozers of "progress" will plow under all the aesthetic wonders of this beautiful land. That is not the present question. The sole question is, who has standing to be heard? Those who hike the Appalachian Trail into Sunfish Pond, New Jersey, and camp or sleep there, or run the Alla-gash in Maine, or climb the Guadalupes in West Texas, or who canoe and portage the Quetico-Superior in Minnesota, certainly should have standing to defend those natural wonders before courts or agencies, though they live 3,000 miles away. Those who merely are caught up in environmental news or propaganda and flock to defend these water or areas may be treated differently. That is why these environmental issues should be tendered by the inanimate object itself. Then there will be assurances that all of the forms of life which it represents will stand before the court—the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams . . .

Three years after the fight began, the Sierra Club prevailed in the highest court and the proposed developer (Walt Disney Enterprises, Inc.), was prohibited from going forward with its development.

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