[GRRN] History

RecycleWorlds (anderson@msn.fullfeed.com)
Tue, 15 Jun 1999 11:26:41 -0500

This is a transcript lifted (god, I hope I haven't infringed on some BIG
copyrights, but I know that they'll understand) from PBS's web page
about their piece on the environmental movement that is part of their
People's Century series.

In this transcript used in the show Dick Ayres from NRDC talks about
his coming of age in tandem with that of the environmental movement.

As a side note, I'd like to also share a poignant episode in the life
of an old girlfriend of mine from a family of 13 kids. She told me that
when Erlich's Population Bomb came out in 1970, she was 12 years old and
somehow came across the book to have her eyes awakened to something
entirely new. She (the oldest) rounded up four of her younger siblings old
enough to vaguely understand such things, to solomnly explain, as only a 12
year old can so innocently do, that what they're parents were doing (and at
this point there were three more to come) was very wrong.


Interview with Richard Ayres
Q: When you were in college, how much
interest was there in the environmental
Ayres: When I was in college, which was in
the early 60's, I would say there was very
environmental interest., it was pretty much
confined to a few people who liked to
backpack or go to the woods or fish or hunt.
Didn't really start until the end of the 60's.
Q: What are some of the things that influenced you and perhaps
others of your generation to become involved with the environmental
Ayres: I think all of us came of age during the period of the first
space mission and so we were the first kids to see pictures of our
planet taken by another human being and I think that affected
everyone. It made us feel how small the planet was.
Also, I would say that the environmental movements of 1970 clearly
grew out of the social movements of the 60's. During that period,
course, there were anti-war demonstrations, there was a real
attempt to address the civil rights issues in the country, and I
the publication of "Silent Spring" and several other works suddenly
showed people that there was an environmental disaster that needed
to be dealt with as well...and so many of us who felt very unhappy
about the general social trends in our time were drawn to that
Q: What inspired you to help found the Natural Resources Defense
Ayres: Well, I grew up in Oregon which is a beautiful green state
and I spent a lot of time outdoors when I was young. Then I came
East and went to college and law school. I think the sense of
environmental degradation was increasing intellectually at a place
like Yale Law School and some of us were drawn to do something
about it... There was a group of about 6 or 7 of us who, in our
year of law school, sat down one day and began to talk about what
we were going to do when we left law school. We ended the
discussion by deciding we were going to create an environmental law
firm. We then went to a foundation -- the largest one in the
at that time -- and proposed this preposterous idea. Much to our
amazement, they agreed it was a good idea and even agreed that
we were the people that should try to do something about it. So,
NRDC was founded basically based on a discussion by a bunch of
law school students in their last year of law school.
When we formed NRDC there were very few federal laws to protect
the environment, but we knew they were coming. There was little
doubt about that. So our main objective was to try and make sure
those laws were carried out. We felt we could do that through the
courts, by working through the executive branch, and I guess some
of us thought we would eventually end up working in Congress as
well. There wasn't an EPA until after we started, but we realized
one day there would be.
Q: To what extent were environmental issues on the mainstream
political agenda during that time?
Ayres: Well, clearly the environmental issue was not on any
agenda before 1970. There was, of course, the Conservation
Movement that began at the beginning of the century, but that was a
gentlemen's movement concerned mostly with the outdoors, and with
places that most people never went. In the Environmental Movement,
the concern focused on what was happening in our cities and in the
areas where most of us live: the quality in the air we breathe and
water we drink... That really began in 1970. Prior to that it
wasn't on
the political agenda at all. I think there was a sense that many of
industries were totally unaware of it as well. They just didn't
environmental damage into account in their corporate planning and
decision-making. Consequently, the rivers were treated as a place
dump either sewage or waste from industrial plants. The air was a
dumping "ground" as well... That might have worked at a time when
industry was much smaller and the nation was much smaller, but by
the 60's it had become apparent that it was simply too much for the
air or the water to carry. That was our awakening, I guess.
As the 70's and 80's progressed, I think we all began to see that
problems were indeed much worse than we originally thought. When
we started NRDC, we knew about air pollution and water pollution in
the United States of America. We didn't yet understand that human
beings were already beginning to change the ozone layer and the
entire climate of the earth. So as the movement grew and people
began to understand the issues better -- and as science proved that
environmental problems were much worse than we thought -- the
movement grew correspondingly, and the number of laws passed
grew almost exponentially.
Q: What was the response of industry to the environmental
legislation of the early 70's?
Ayres: Well, I think the first response of industry to the new set
environmental laws was to hope they'd go away and to not take
them very seriously. One of the reasons why the Clean Air Act
wasn't a national issue when it was first passed was because many
of the people who were subject to it didn't really believe it meant
anything. Others in industry saw it as a threat to the American Way
of Life. They were outraged to have the government trying to
intervene on these kinds of issues and tell them how to run their
Q: Did you believe at that time that legislation could lead to real
changes in the way society treated the environment?
Ayres: I remember reading the Clean Air Act of 1970 in the subway
in New York City just after NRDC started and I of course had not
read any clean air legislation before that. I was amazed at how
powerful this law could be. It was clear that the authors of the
felt there needed to be some major changes in the way our society
worked in order to deal with this problem. They contemplated
changes in the internal combustion engine. They contemplated
changes in traffic in our major cities. And they clearly meant that
major industries had to clean up. So I read this law as a brand new
lawyer and I thought: "Why is no one saying anything about this
It's so powerful". But of course, I then realized it was my job to
out and make it become something meaningful, and that's what I
worked on for the next 20 years.
Q: What kinds of things did you do to help these laws become
Ayres: One of the things the Clean Air Act required was that every
state government put together a plan of how they would attack the
air pollution problem. What we saw was that the Federal
Government would be likely just to relax and not enforce that
mandate. So we went to Washington and we began to pester the
Federal EPA and pester the States as well, and most of all, we
started to build up a network of citizens across the country who
wanted this law to work. Working together, we sort of forced the
two levels of government to actually take the law seriously.
There were other ways in which we tried to make sure the law
worked, too: The law says that pollution from large power plants
should be cleaned up, not just dispersed, but many in the power
industry were building tall smoke stacks -- a thousand feet tall or
more -- in order to disperse the pollution instead. So we brought a
law suit to enforce the law as it stood and we won. As it turned
it took more than a law suit to change that practice, and
ultimately it
wasn't changed until the Acid Rain Control Law of 1990. But those
law suits forced the issue and kept it alive, leading eventually to
Acid Rain Law.
Q: How has the way in which pollution is perceived as a problem
changed over time?
Ayres: When I first started working on this issue, most people saw
pollution as a local issue. They had steel mills in Pittsburgh,
they had
car pollution in Los Angeles... Within the next 10 years we began
understand it was continental in proportions: acid rain covered
the continent of North America and covered much of Europe. Within
another 5 years we realized the problem was indeed global, that
there were threats to the viability of the atmosphere itself. I
think this
is very much like many environmental problems. The more we study
them, the more we understand how fundamental the threat is to the
entire habitability of the planet.

Q: What effect do you think that Earth Day had on the environmental
Ayres: Earth Day was a turning point. The original Conservation
Movement back in the early 20th Century and late 19th Century was
very much an elitist movement. It was a few wealthy gentlemen who
had been to beautiful places and wanted to protect them. I think
1970 Earth Day marked the first step toward making that movement
a people's movement. It was the beginning of the modern
Environmental Movement. People around the country began to
realize that their local problems were part of a great national
problem and that really began to build citizen networks. Through
70's and into the 80's we saw problems over and over again that had
not been anticipated: Love Canal, Valley of the Drums, et cetera. I
think with each new revelation people became increasingly
concerned that even with the statutes passed in the 70's, we didn't
have the protection of the environment that we needed. So people
became increasingly better organized, more willing to join with
groups, and increasingly became a political force throughout the
Also, I think mainstream politics began to take the environment
account after Earth Day. Senator Muskee, who at that time was
seen as the democratic candidate in 1972... was very strongly
pro-environment. So President Nixon, who was not particularly
pro-environmental, could see which way the wind was blowing. Nixon
began to put up his own bills, put rhetoric into his speeches, and
tried to posture himself as an environmental president...He was the
first one to do that.
Q: What was it like for you to read Rachel Carson's book, "Silent
Ayres: I read Rachel Carson's book a year ago and I found it very
disturbing because so little progress appears to have been made on
the issues that she brought up. I thought it was a very compelling
book and I can see why many of the people that read it were led to
the environmental cause.
Q: How would you respond to critics who say that the environmental
movement has only affected superficial change and not actually
altered the entrenched social and economic systems?
Ayres: I think that those who criticize environmental laws for
just chipped away at the external parts of the problem have a
but I would put it a different way. I would say we've just begun to
solve the problems. We began by recognizing that too much stuff
was coming out of a pipe. The next step was to figure out how to
make a product a different way, and eventually rebuild our
economy... We are only part way into that. Some people in business
have begun to understand it ; most people in the remainder of the
world have not.
I think there's no question that the major task in the next 25
years is
to remake the world economy so that it's an environmentally sound
one. In that sense, we have just begun and we have not yet really
solved many of the problems.
Q: What is the most important thing, in your opinion, to come out
the environmental movement over the last thirty years?
Ayres: I think the greatest achievement so far has been the
developing awareness of environmental problems worldwide...The
laws have only started to work, but the people are now aware of
what's going on and they've begun to organize.

The site is well worth taking the time to visit.
Peter Anderson
RecycleWorlds Consulting
4513 Vernon Blvd. Ste. 15
Madison, WI 53705-4964
Phone:(608) 231-1100/Fax: (608) 233-0011