From the FSJ Archive: Decade of the Environment

There is just one fragile spaceship Earth, and … if we are to survive, we must all take a world view.
–Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R-N.M., 1977-1983)


Eight years ago, America’s virgin environmental movement willingly entered the embrace of big government. One offspring of this union was internationalization. Our president laid down a policy to encourage other nations to fight against pollution. …How has the movement fared since President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 and entitled this the “Decade of the Environment”?

At Home and Abroad

Many battles have been waged domestically between the polluters and the new federal control agency set up on Dec. 2, 1970—the Environmental Protection Agency. Additional laws have been passed, and enforced or tested in the courts. The environmental war zone was widened by the Arab oil embargo and fuel shortage, and the resultant fight to seek relief from strict control measures. Nuclear energy has been considered and rejected as the perfect oil-gas substitute. Nearly 30 billion federal dollars have been earmarked for improving the quality of rivers, lakes and offshore waters. Yet we now discover that our globally renowned safe drinking water is threatened by chlorine, the very substance that is supposed to purify it.

The air we must breathe has improved somewhat with the implementation of the 1970 Clean Air Act, despite some relaxation of the automobile emission regulations. But both air and water and living creatures, including man, are menaced by the entry into the market of hundreds of freshly manufactured and inadequately examined toxic chemicals every month.

So there are wins and losses on the home front as President Carter wipes the packing grease off his new administrative machinery. The incumbents have smoothly grabbed the baton. They have made no major innovations so far, but they are busily building on the already registered gains in clean air and water and grappling bravely with the ever-increasing legions of carcinogens.

Overseas the United States assumed an early leadership starting in 1971 as its fledgling EPA began to meet, plan, negotiate and swap information with dozens of other countries just waking up to the eco-peril. Only Sweden (in 1967) had already formed a national EPA. This country and Great Britain set theirs up in 1970. As of now there are approximately 50 federal pollution agencies to be found on the five continents. Also, a clutch of multinational organizations are busily establishing pollutant measurement criteria and control guidelines among their members.

The magnificent results of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972 are still felt. That autumn the U.N. General Assembly formed another specialized agency and named it the United National Environmental Program. Headquartered in Nairobi, UNEP is largely an environmental monitoring activity but it can and does focus world attention on major pollution problems. …

The conviction that all nations are enmeshed in the planet’s deteriorating atmospheric and oceanic system has also evoked quite a response from other major multinational organizations— NATO, for one. It was Daniel Moynihan’s idea to reorient the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the ecological concerns of its members. This new departure for NATO began slowly. ...

NATO’s environmental projects have included comparative studies of city air pollution and of industrial effluents into a river shared by two countries, experiments in low-powered autos, conservation, earthquakes, and geothermal energy. Its program is known to participants as CCMS—the Committee on Challenges of Modern Society.

On balance I believe these big programs, as well as many others handled routinely by EPA and the State Department, were worth the taxpayers’ investment. These activities have resulted in considerable publicity each step of the way. They directly involved thousands of foreigners. …When American and overseas environmental experts share their know-how on the spot, the effect can be immediate. For example in a 1976 meeting between Japanese and American experts held at the State Department in Washington, our people acquired disposal information on PCBs (polychlorinatedbiphenyls) that could be copied directly and promptly.

An International Movement

Although the Americans are leading in post-Stockholm care of the environment, the movement is prospering in many countries. Indeed, a majority of both developed and developing nations have rapidly established legislative, scientific, political and administrative safeguards over the dwindling supplies of usable air, water and soil. During an almost flash-fire reaction to the “ecology revolution,” nations have come to a growing planetary consensus on the following axioms.

• It is more practical to industrialize with built-in ecological safeguards at the beginning than to install retrofit machinery to clean up the mess later, as we are having to do in the United States.

• Some corrective steps are expensive, such as stack-gas scrubbers to scour the outflows from fossil fuel-fired power plants; sewage treatment works; or devices to purify automobile exhausts. (Expense has already slowed the abatement of pollution in many poorer countries.)

• The chronic fuel shortage may retard advances in environmental control, but the need to conserve energy goes hand in hand with good ecological stewardship. New energy enterprises like offshore drilling, extraction of oil from shale, or strip mining of coal can be done with minimal disruption of natural surroundings.

• Since the earth has but one reservoir of air, water and soil, man must strive to save it in concert with his fellows—through bilateral and multilateral cooperation in research, interchange of technology, and setting mutually satisfactory standards of environmental quality. This last point is a reminder that no nation wants to have another nation’s standards jammed down its throat. This doesn’t rule out the possibility that one nation may voluntarily choose another's criteria. The Japanese, for example, have incorporated word for word the automobile provisions of the United States Clean Air Act of 1970.

• Finally, many countries now embrace the “polluter pays” principle as the fairest way to fund the repair of ravaged environment. This principle has been promoted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes 24 industrialized nations, but not the Soviet Union or China. …

This summarizes the thinking of political leaders supported by the scientists and engineers of EPAs everywhere. The politicians inevitably keep leaving the public stage, but the technical people keep their act going for the duration of their careers; in the brief seven years we have been dealing with foreign EPAs we have found this to be true in all countries. So the relationships that blossom at the professional level are the important ones (not those among the summit types) for they will form the basis for enduring cooperation. Without them, nations would be hobbled in the difficult and complex arrangements that must be made in the years ahead.

LDCs Get on Board

Looked at globally and nationally in this spring of 1978, the environmental movement shows some new color and form, particularly in the less developed countries. The euphoria which followed Stockholm was sadly diminished by the energy shortage which has acted, as World Bank President Robert McNamara predicted, as a dangerous brake on industrial development in the needy nations.

Nevertheless, a solid interest has grown up in the LDCs because they are realizing at last that environmentalism means concern for basic human needs such as potable water, breathable air, livable land space—all of which can be ruined by industrial pollution. This is a big change in attitude since the pre-Stockholm days when many LDCs feared that the fad for pollution reduction was a surreptitious device of the “have” nations to inhibit the growth of the “have-nots.”

UNEP has encouraged this new view of the LDCs by stressing their programs above others in its worldwide budget.

Another cheery note to keep the LDCs in the ranks of enthusiastic environmentalists has been an increased U.N. focus on more sophisticated and broader environmental issues. This has been signalized by the 1976 U.N. conference of human settlements called “Habitat.” Habitat spawned a pledge that member states should somehow provide a glass of clean drinking water for every human being from 1990 on; in turn the U.N. Water Conference of 1977 examined practical schemes to bring this dream to reality. The U.N. Conference on Desertification and increasing studies about deforestation are still further steps in the right direction. Along with the heightened interest of LDCs, USAID is now playing an ever bigger role in the environment. Now all projects with significant environmental effects are evaluated before approval.

In 1971, we in EPA discussed with the State Department how we could make a cabal of the “good guy” agencies, including the Peace Corps, AID and EPA—the agencies whose mission is to help people. At that time we were unable to bring off this group effort, but now the new administration appears to be moving more successfully in this direction.

One of the promising plans is to internationalize the new Toxic Substances Control Act by negotiating agreements on marketing and testing overseas—this is necessary to prevent the growth of pollution havens for these poisons, places where they might be legal once they’re outlawed in the United States.

Another forward motion is the effort to seek conservation of living marine resources to be agreed to under the Antarctic Treaty signed some years ago. Still another plus is the State Department’s own policy of drafting environmental impact-type statements on important treaties such as the Antarctic Convention and the Panama treaties.

Barbara Blum, deputy administrator of EPA, reports proudly that the administration has sent its first “environmental” ambassador, Rodney Kennedy-Minot, to serve in Sweden. He was a noted conservationist, she explains, before he became a diplomat. Mrs. Blum also cited her intention to work with the State Department toward an increased awareness of environmental issues in U.S. embassies abroad. This is a task that began in 1971, and it is encouraging to see it continued. ...

In summary, the “Decade of the Environment” has proved faithful to its name. Environmental issues are still enmeshed in our private and commercial life at home as well as our diplomatic and economic involvements abroad. We can see as a nation and as a species that ultimate, tidy control of our environment and man’s industrial effluvia is still being fought for vigorously, and with increasing effectiveness.

Fitzhugh Green was with Life magazine in New York before coming to Washington to work for the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Information Agency. He then served on the Hill as adviser on foreign affairs and oceanography to Senator Claiborne Pell and ran for Congress in 1970. After serving as associate administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency for six years, Mr. Green authored A Change in the Weather (see the January 1978 FSJ). He also served as a psywar consultant at American University and is now [May 1978] working on a book on propaganda and doing consulting work on the environment.