Earth Day: From Communist Plot to Elementary-School Bulletin Boards, it Continues

I remember the first Earth Day. I was sitting in a college classroom in 1970 and my Western civ professor walked to one of the large windows in our ancient building and pointed down at the amphitheater in the center of campus.

"There, ladies and gentlemen, is the vanguard of Soviet Communism."

We looked out the window at about a half dozen hippies wearing T-shirts with peace symbols and holding crudely lettered signs about saving the Earth. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I remember thinking we had little to fear from the Soviets if these guys were the best they could do.

As the years went by, Earth Day moved from the counterculture to the mainstream, with people like Wisconsin's Sen. Gaylord Nelson leading the way, establishing a national holiday on April 22, between spring break and finals on college campuses. In case you didn't notice, we had Earth Day this week. According to my desk calendar, it was Tuesday. It is now the stuff of elementary-school bulletin boards. It's about as controversial as Arbor Day.

And about as relevant.

I wonder what would have happened if talk radio, Fox News, and the Internet had been around back in the early 1970s. Under President Richard Nixon, the Environmental Protection Agency was established to enforce the new versions of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, passed by Congress. Nobody went screaming into the streets. Who could be against clean air and water?

But of course there were people, like my Western civ professor, who noted that April 22 was Lenin's birthday. There were attacks on the holiday as a communist plot to weaken America. Given today's cable news, blogs, and conservative journals, the environmental movement might have been strangled in its crib.

But the air and water in this country has gotten better. Cars pollute less. Scrubbers help with power plants. Natural gas is replacing burning coal in many places. Our rivers and streams are not open sewers. This Earth Day week, perhaps we should pause and consider how far we have come since the days when Copperhill was a wasteland and yellow boy lay everywhere in some rural East Tennessee counties.

And Lenin is still dead and the Soviet Union is no more.

I share the skepticism of many conservatives about whether man-made pollution is changing the climate. I also worry that we will hamstring the economies of the developed world, allowing China to continue to pollute the world and also further make inroads on our economy.

But it also worries me that, in arguing against climate change, it appears that some people seem to be coming out in favor of pollution.

Can't we all agree that pollution is bad and we ought to prevent it? Whether you believe in climate change or not, can't we all support efforts to limit pollution? You can be for saving the planet and still hate Al Gore. You can urge Congress to bring pressure to bear on China to clean up its act. It's good for the climate and it's good for our economy to level the playing field with the world's worst polluter.

What many of us find irksome is that, no matter what energy source we devise, there will be an environmental group opposed to using it. Can we agree that even if you don't like the production of natural gas, it's better to use it than a coal-fired steam plant? I hate ridiculously expensive nuclear power plants but they are better for the environment than burning fossil fuels. We've had pipelines up and down Louisiana and Texas for 50 years—why is a new one to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil so terrible?

Yes, wind power is great. But when we build the windmill farm in West Texas, who is going to be for running massive transmission lines to where the people are?

Battle lines have been drawn over environmental issues. The how is the center of the controversy. But can't we all agree that reducing pollution is a good idea?

Just a thought for Earth Day.