The function of the first Earth Day was both educational and inspirational. The 1970 version of Earth Day was a teach-in, designed to be practical, participatory and interdisciplinary with the output designed to be action. And it was a phenomenal success. In the years that followed, President Richard Nixon signed off on the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee the states, which had failed in large measure to protect human health or the ecosystems which support it. Shortly thereafter, President Nixon signed into law amendments to the federal programs for clean air and water which also gave the United States government the duty to protect our lands and waters.
But it was not to last. Less than one year after the first Earth Day, a corporate defense lawyer with the Richmond firm of Hunton and Williams drafted a memorandum addressed to the United States Chamber of Commerce. While the first decade following Earth Day was marked by successful implementation of new controls, there was a determined resistance which built over time. The fledgling apparatus constructed by those visionaries who took Powell's advice to heart quickly went to work dismantling the accomplishments of Earth Day. And they are not done yet.
By the time that he marked the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson had seen the rollbacks enacted by the Reagan years come fully into force. EPA had many of its teeth pulled. Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" was taking aim at what remained. Senator Nelson's response was not melancholy, or defeated, but did take aim at the central question. Which is the support structure and which is the dependent structure: the Earth or human civilization?
“I have a friend whose guiding theology for all political matters is the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. He could never quite understand that there is a direct and beneficial connection between a healthy environment and a prosperous economy until I described the connection in the jargon of his business world. I said to him, ‘Look at it this way and the connection becomes obvious. It is this: the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. All economic activity is dependent upon that environment with its underlying resource base. When the environment is finally forced to file under Chapter 11 because its resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, irretrievably compromised, then, the economy goes down into bankruptcy with it because the economy is just a subset within the ecological system.’"—Gaylord Nelson on Earth Day XXV
I think we need to go ahead and give Justice Powell's ideas the fame which they so richly deserve. We need to go ahead and proclaim August 23 as Anti-Earth Day. Rather than teach-ins, Anti-Earth Day will use billboards and negative ads to get its messages across. Rather than experts, the spokespeople will be political leaders who ridicule science. Rather than sustainability, this day will preach take, make and waste as the keys to prosperity.