Interview with Senator Gaylord Nelson

April 22, 1990 is Earth Day -- the 20th Earth Day since the first one was proclaimed in 1970. The idea of Earth Day was conceived by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. On that day in 1970, millions of college students and other Americans attended teach-ins, collected litter, and began to realize that our planet's health was the most important issue of all.  Today, former Senator Nelson is head of the Wilderness Society.  Here's what he had to say about how far we've come, and how much further we need to go.

Relix: What are the most important environment issues today?

Nelson: The threat of global warming; acid rain; air pollution in general; pollution of the ocean, lakes, and rivers; soil erosion; population pressures. The most important environmental issue is one that is rarely mentioned, and that is the lack of a conservation ethic in our culture. That has to start with a lot of education early on, grade school. Unless you have a constituency -- people who vote -- unless they understand the issue, you aren't going to have the political support that is necessary to make the hard decisions we're going to have to make. In the state of Wisconsin it's mandated that teachers in the social sciences and hard sciences have to start giving environmental education by the first grade, through high school.

Relix: In your 1970 Earth Day speech you said we need to take the view that "man is not more important" than other animal species. Does that lead you to a position in favor of animal rights?

Nelson: We must recognize that we're all part of a web of life around the world. Anytime you extinguish a species, the consequences are serious.  If we continue to address the issue of the environment where we live as though we're the only species that lives here, we'll create a disaster for ourselves.

Relix: What made the two Roosevelts [Theodore and Franklin] have a conservation ethic that none of our other Presidents have developed?

Nelson: Teddy Roosevelt of course was a great outdoorsman all his life. He hunted all his life in the West. He was a real outdoor activist. He was living close to nature and he loved it. Franklin Roosevelt was very concerned about environmental issues.

    The issues are by some geometric number -- 100 or 200 or 500 -- times more complicated today than we appreciated them to be when Franklin Roosevelt was around.

    In the last half century we haven't had Presidential leadership that addressed this question in the broadest and most important aspect. President Bush calls himself an environmentalist. I think his heart's in the right place, but he hasn't demonstrated any leadership. He hasn't even bothered to come before Congress and lay down an agenda for the country to support, and to start addressing this issue which in the long run is the most important one. The threat of nuclear war isn't nearly as important as the threat of the destruction of our resource base which sustains us. Nuclear war is not inevitable, but major degradation of our environment with grave consequences is inevitable unless we reverse the trend.

Relix: On Earth Day 1970, you said we should outlaw the internal combustion engine unless pollution from it could be reduced to near zero. Would you still favor that?

Nelson: As of that time I was trying to make a point that we couldn't continue consuming oil the way we were. I think the internal combustion engine will disappear from the streets of our cities in the next thirty years because transportation will be mass transportation, or probably electrical power -- if we develop a method of combusting the coal that doesn't put sulfur dioxide in the air.

Relix: You first entered politics in 1948. We've made great strides since 1948 in raising environmental consciousness, but do you think the country is better off environmentally than it was in 1948?

Nelson: No. Loads of chemicals and hazardous wastes have been introduced into the atmosphere that didn't even exist in 1948. The environmental condition of the planet is far worse than it was 42 years ago.

    The reason I organized Earth Day in 1970 was in recognition of the fact that the politicians were ignoring a very serious issue. They were overlooking the fact that we were polluting the oceans and the rivers and the air and eroding the soil -- and these are the capital assets that determine our wealth. We were dissipating them, and counting it on the profit side of the ledger.

    The degradation continues around the world and in the United States. The best that can be said is we've slowed down the rate of degradation. We're going to have to do a whole lot more, and give nature at least a chance to repair some of the damage we've done.

Relix: We've had 28 major federal environmental laws since the first Earth Day. Do we need more laws, or is the solution elsewhere?

Nelson: A lot of people argue we ought to be using the marketplace more. I'm for that.  Any device that's practical, and the most economical, and the most effective I'm for it. Obviously there will be additional laws that need to be passed. We haven't made as much use of the marketplace as we should. One reason I suppose we didn't was that every effort to set limits on air pollution was vigorously opposed by every segment of the economy that was affected by it -- the automobile industry, the steel industry, the paper industry. Now most enlightened businesspeople in this country recognize that we have an environmental problem.  The fights in future will not be over whether we ought to do something, but over how we ought to do it, and that's a reasonable debate.

Relix: This year's Earth Day is probably going to be the biggest one since we've had Earth Day. Why is it picking up so much momentum again?

Nelson: I just organized a nationwide event in 1970. This year it's going to be a worldwide event. The Soviet Union will participate, all of the Iron Curtain countries, all of Western Europe, Canada, Mexico, India, Japan, lots of other countries. The Green Parties grew up in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union under very tough dictatorships. It's much greater pollution, say in Leningrad, than there is anywhere in this United States. 

Relix: All participants in Earth Day will be urged to plant at least one tree, and care for it until it can grow on its own. Are there other steps people can take right now?

Nelson: I would hope a lot of people would start early on teaching their children about the importance of the environment. We've got to raise a conservation. Also, join an organization, whether it's the Wilderness Society, or the National Wildlife Federation, or the Sierra Club, or the Audubon Society.  There also are local organizations.  There are now an estimated to 10 to 12 thousand local environmental groups around the country.  People can also insist that their elected officials be concerned about the environment. They can all write letters to their Congressman, Governor, Senator; it only takes five minutes.

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