For the first Earth Day in 1970 I organized my junior high to clean up the Elizabeth River. We wrote letters to our Congressman, we painted signs that said "Give us Back our River," and we removed six truckloads of garbage and debris. In all the years since we have continued to clean the Elizabeth River, and we have stopped the major pollution sources. But because of overdevelopment this river is still considered one of the most polluted rivers in New Jersey.
Forty years ago environmental threats were obvious. Rivers caught fire, including the Passaic, toxic chemicals were dumped on the ground, and noxious air pollution was choking us. The problems stared us in the face, so we took action.
In 1972 President Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act. Later that year, on Earth Day, a half million people gathered outside the White House in opposition and months later he signed that legislation. The same year hundreds of thousands more people came together to help pass the Clean Air Act. These pieces of legislation moved the country forward by protecting our environment and pushing our economy, but they would not have happened without strong public support.
The environmental battles of 2010 are subtler. They take the form of a governor trying to streamline permitting or eliminate red tape. These terms have become euphemisms for cutting environmental protections. Or, a legislature that passes new programs but doesn't include money for implementation. Or, politicians who cut money for green jobs in the name of economic development. The sum of all these small jabs has resulted in a gradual erosion of environmental protections.
The irony of our times is that as more and more businesses and people "green" their homes and their businesses, the government is doing less and less to protect us. More people support environmental protections and are concerned about their family's health and future. But, in New Jersey we are seeing enormous cuts to clean energy and mass transit that will destroy two of the most successful programs in the United States. Simultaneously, we are privatizing toxic cleanups, rolling back drinking water protections and open spaces. At the federal level it is still easier to put oil rigs off our coast then windmills.
Earth Day has been co-opted, by some, into a holiday with less integrity. Today corporate executives will take off their suits and put on flannel shirts to plant trees around an incinerator that is poisoning a community. Cleaning up streams, planting trees, and talking to our neighbors are good things but we need to do more.
In New Jersey and across the nation we are at the most critical time within the last forty years. The power plants of the 1970s need to be replaced. Our society must invest in the next generation of our energy future. We will choose to continue investing billions in coal plants or instead develop an economy based on renewable and energy efficiency. Those decisions are being made in Washington and Trenton right now and the special interest are winning.
This is why we have to look back to the first Earth Day and take a lesson from history. Environmental victories result from mass movements. People are making personal choices to go green, but we have to move those choices to the political and activist arena. If we want to get strong climate legislation we need to bring together a million people in Washington D.C. In 1970 environmentalists targeted the 12 worst environmental congressmen, the dirty dozen. Seven of them lost, including leaders in the House. This event really proved the muscle for the environment movement at the time. If we want to stop politicians from raiding clean energy or open space money we need to call them until they listen and then hold them accountable for their decisions.
The only way environmental leaders or public health advocates have influence on the inside is by what we can do on the outside. Environmental progress comes from our ability to understand the issues and to rally public support.
Together we can move environmental protections forward through action. Real action means being involved politically, standing up for the public good, engaging our family, and staying vigilant.
Jeff Tittel is the Director of the Sierra Club, New Jersey Chapter.