November 15, 2017

1970. President Nixon on the State of the Environment

Nixon's Special Message to Congress
"President Richard Nixon displays his trademark victory wave to a crowd during his 1970 campaign on behalf of Republican congressional candidates" (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

August 11, 1970

For a while there last spring—during April's "Earth Day" and the nationwide Environmental Teach-ins by the flower children and the so-called New Left, and with Democratic senators making most of the noises about our biosphere—it looked like the liberal Democrats and their left-leaning friends might be able to put a headlock on the antipollution issue which the Republicans might be unable to break, come election time.

Such GOP fears were groundless, however, because the environmental crisis has no one head that is lockable. It has a million heads that are as difficult to hold on to as a handful of liquid mercury, if you'll pardon the expression, since mercury has become the latest villain threatening wholesale poisoning of the environment.

President Nixon in his election campaign gave warning he knew the political potency of the environmental crisis. In January, he established the three-man Environmental Quality Council, which will serve as a kind of overseer of the national ecological struggle. Then in July the White House announced the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, which will be a kind of Pentagon directing the war against pollution.

Yesterday the president released the first of what is to be an annual report on the state of the US environment. A historic document, as Mr. Nixon noted, because it is "the first time in the history of nations that a people has paused, consciously and systematically, to take comprehensive stock of the quality of its surroundings..."

As we all know by now, the record of man's ecological sins is pretty frightening.

The interesting thing about the environmental council's report to Congress and President Nixon's special message that accompanies it is the Republican administration's approach to ecological salvation.

"Unless we arrest the depredations that have been inflicted so carelessly on our natural systems," says the president, "We face the prospect of ecological disaster."

Anyone who reads the council report, he goes on to say, cannot "remain complacent;" that we must concentrate on qualitative growth, not just quantitative; we must consider the social costs of pollution.

I've been hearing the same things at hippie rallies for over a year, and could imagine phantom cries of "Right on, Dick Nixon, right on!"

But just three paragraphs from the end of the president's special message to Congress, as the flower children say, he blew the whole bit.

After alluding to the possibility of ecological disaster, President Nixon ended his message saying that although our environmental problems are urgent, "they do not justify either panic or hysteria." That's correct. But then he added: "There must be a national commitment and a rational commitment." There's the loophole.

The Democrats and other critics of the Nixon administration most certainly will try to slap down the first official report of the president's Environmental Quality Council as proposing too little, too late to correct—or even save—our polluted environment.

Already the opposition Congressional leaders have attacked the White House approach for talking in tens of billions of dollars instead of the hundreds of billions that the environmental crisis requires.

The increasingly vocal ecological and Environmental Action groups around the country are demanding the federal government move now to cut back the number of automobiles on the streets and highways. They are demanding that major polluters be fined or shut down, and responsible company and corporation officials jailed if the offenders do not stop poisoning the air, land, and water.

President Nixon and his environmental council have not ruled out industrial fines or even jail sentences in the future. But Mr. Nixon correctly asserts that decades of depredation by the Industrial Revolution cannot be put right overnight.

The administration report proposes "incentives" to industry to stop their harmful emissions, or perhaps a "pollution tax" which, naturally, would be passed along to the consumer.

The eco-action groups say this would be like paying an arsonist for not striking matches, or rewarding Lucrezia Borgia for not dropping her poison in the table wine.

However, the environmental council's report does seem to contradict some of the administration's favorite projects. It raises the possibility that the proposed hot oil pipeline across Alaska may do more ecological damage than it's worth. It seems to come down on the side of the alligators of the Everglades rather than backing the wealthy land developers in Florida. It openly urges a go-slow policy on supersonic transport at a time when the Nixon administration has given the green light.

Hailing 1970 as the "Year of the Environment," the report credits a number of conservation pioneers for making the nation aware of the ecology problem, including John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau is probably America's most abiding, long-haired, anti-establishment symbolic hippie.

In his environment message to the Congress, President Nixon recognized the newly aroused concern for the ecology cuts across all walks of life, embracing the young and the old.

Both Republicans and Democrats are particularly interested in the young and the 1972 elections. 18-year-olds will have the vote for the first time, and the environment is and probably will continue to be their bag.

This is Bill Downs in Washington.