Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Quiet Crisis

Between last Earth Day and today--in fact, in March, during the final healthcare votes--Stewart Udall died. He was appointed by President Kennedy to serve as Secretary of Interior in 1961, and stayed under President Johnson until 1969, just before the first Earth Day. He was an environmental pioneer, part of the transition from conservation to environmental activism. The first environmental laws were passed, or were proposed (and passed soon after the first Earth Day, in the Nixon administration) on his watch.

Udall also wrote one of the pioneer books on the environment, though The Quiet Crisis is not much remembered. It followed by a year the first environmental classic and best-seller, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Udall's book took a more historical view, chronicling American conservation efforts. But crucially it also took a wider view, beyond chemical pollution to the total environmental effects of the growth-at-any-cost economy: "In a great surge toward 'progress,' our congestion increasingly has befouled water and air and growth has created new problems on every hand. Schools, housing, and roads are inadequate and ill-planned; noise and confusion have mounted with the rising tempo of technology; and as our cities have sprawled outward, new forms of abundance and new forms of blight have oftentimes marched hand in hand."

Although it preserves sign of hasty writing, The Quiet Crisis remains remarkable in the appropriate breadth of its content. He dealt not only with facts but the underlying and overarching philosophy. He elevated the work of Aldo Leopold and his "land ethic", now acknowledged as a central figure in even contemporary environmentalism, into public policy discussion. He went after examples of air, water and soil pollution--and assembled the first official endangered species list--but he also looked to the historical and spiritual sources that support and sustain attention to the natural world. He could be eloquent on this topic. "To pursue his vision more intently, Emerson steeped himself in Plato, Goethe, and fresh air. The easiest wayh to develop Olympian insights was to turn the mind into an aeolian harp and attune it to the winds and sounds and rhythms of nature."

In this book, he also dealt with urban environments as well as wilderness, with needed legislation and individual action. That the book has an introduction by President Kennedy shows that the environment was on the agenda almost a decade before Earth Day.

Stewart Udall was also one of the voices heard throughout this year's American Experience documentary, Earth Days. He was part of the mass movement before and just after Earth Day in 1970 that led to the laws that saved the United States--from erasing more wilderness, from poisoning more water, earth and air and therefore poisoning itself. But as this documentary notes, expanding effective environmental change to the world, and applying it to the most deadly threat human civilization has ever faced, climate change (which, the documentary documents, was talked about in a national news broadcast on the first Earth Day) has failed.

Udall called it the Quiet Crisis in 1963. It became pretty noisy on Earth Day 1970, when 2 million Americans participated, and soon after, when the fledgling movement targeted and defeated anti-environment legislators. But on its 40th anniversary, it has gone quiet again. There is still is no collective, focused action by environmentalists. Too much separate noise can also add up to a quiet crisis.