The start of something green
By Jacqueline Robinson - Staff Reporter
A lot happened in the '70s that set the stage for the political reality of the world, a Highline professor said.
Dr. James Peyton, an economics professor, presented his lecture titled Politics and Environment from the '70s to Today, during the weekly campus History Seminar on Oct. 26.
He talked about events that led to a rise in environmental concern in the '70s, environmental laws and policies, as well as the balance of power between corporations and law.
"One of the big ideas in the 1970s was Earth Day. During the first celebration more than 20 million people observed this in America and in other countries," Dr. Peyton said.
People were starting to see the globe as one unit, not separate countries, he said. Space technologies aided in this shift.
"In 1968 and 1969 we started to get these images from of earth from space. People started appreciating the beauty of earth as a whole," he said. "And realizing that if we don't take care of it, it could really end up a mess."
Disasters in the '60s led to the growing concern that the planet couldn't take the stress people were putting on it, Dr. Peyton said.
"Smog primarily from transportation, factories and pollution emissions was going into the air and just hanging out over the cities," he said. "It was actually physically painful to breathe in big cities in America and in big cities around the world."
Because of water pollution, recorded fish kills were astonishingly high, said Dr. Peyton.
"41 million fish were estimated to have died because of pollution in 1969," he said. "The worst single case was in the Thonotosassa River, where 26 million fish were killed from the discharge from four food processing plants."
Environmental effects were felt harder when more desirable destinations were affected.
"Oil spills have been a thing since the beginning of oil production," said Dr. Peyton. "What was different was the Santa Barbara oil spill put 200,000 gallons of crude oil on a beach that people actually wanted to go to."
Events shocked people into caring about the earth, he said.
"In 1969, in Cleveland, an oily residue leaked into the Cuyahoga River. The actual river caught fire," Dr. Peyton said. "People could not believe everything that was happening."
President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act on Jan. 1, 1970, as a symbol that the '70s would be the "pro-environmental" decade after so many disasters, he said.
"The processes of enforcing environmental procedures were now open for public view and public comment," said Dr. Peyton. "This empowered government and citizens in new ways as a counter balance to traditional power and business practices."
Nixon had won his first presidential election by a very small margin, he said. His political rivals had huge environmental agendas. Nixon adopted a pro-environment attitude to attract voters and to distract people from the Vietnam War backlash.
"Another reason some politicians in the '70s were concerned with the environment is they had lived through things like the 1930s dust bowl drought and the atomic bomb," said Dr. Peyton.
Processes were put in place to research and regulate potentially hazardous chemicals, but business banded together in efforts to avoid the new red tape, said Dr. Peyton.
"In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was established to do research on environmental pollution and oversee environmental pollution statements submitted by business," he said.
In opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency, industries in manufacturing, agriculture, automobile, power and extractive collectively paid for magazine ads to promote the need to protect economic growth, said Dr. Peyton.
Federal laws were also needed to counterbalance powerful industries, like Boeing or automotive companies. Also to assist in local issues that cross state lines, said Dr. Peyton.
"A month before re-election Nixon vetoed the clean water act. He needed business and party backing more than he needed support from environmentalists," said Dr. Peyton.
Despite this, in 1972 a lot of legislation was being passed involving clean water, he said.
"Among all of this, citizens were granted the right to sue in court for clean water. This was huge," said Dr. Peyton.
Laws were passed on paper but in actuality things were not being followed through on, he said.
"In 1969-1977 18 major pieces of legislation are passed," Dr. Peyton said. "Yet 60,000 chemicals were in inventory and only four were regulated."
Public view and public attention have been a major factor in the shift in current day environmental issues, he said.