Earth Week 1973

by William D. Ruckelshaus
[EPA press release - April 8, 1973]

An annual inventory is an essential undertaking for individuals, communities and corporations. Earth Week 1973 presents an excellent opportunity to take stock of the environmental movement; to look at its strengths and weaknesses, its accomplishments and prospects.

Environmentalism is much more than a hodge-podge of pleas and campaigns to save the Everglades, the tundra, or the snowy egret. Mountains, forests, streams, clear skies, and wildlife are parts of environmentalism because they are essential parts of man's well being.

But environmentalism is also a vital element in dealing with problems of health, economic prosperity, social development, education, justice - indeed, with the full range of human aspirations. It is the basic undertaking if we are to attain the objectives this country subscribed to 200 years ago - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Cleaning the air and water, controlling noise, and restoring ravaged landscapes are all bits of a large mosaic, which is the ideal America we all cherish.

The first Earth Day was but three years ago. Yet in that short time we have made substantial progress, much more than any of us could reasonably have anticipated in 1970. Three years ago environmental activists were but a handful. They were ardent, but not expert; and not really familiar with the methods of reform in a democratic society. Today there are an estimated 3,000 volunteer environmental organizations in the country and quite a few of them have acquired some real expertise.

The public is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of uncontrolled and unthinking exploitation of natural systems. We are in the midst of a period of enacting environmental laws to assure that those who conscientiously work for the common good are not penalized by those who are thoughtless or unscrupulous.

There are critics who are quick to blame environmentalists for a host of today's problems - energy shortages, traffic jams, rising unemployment, livestock losses, high food prices and adverse balance of payments. These critics are often guilty of substantial exaggeration or oversimplification but their complaints are an indication that environmentalism has gone beyond pious rhetoric and is having some real effect in our lives.

In many cases environmental considerations will pinch where it hurts - in the pocketbook. But Americans are becoming aware that if we are to have true prosperity the "free" ride at the expense of the environment must stop.

In coming years we are going to see a lot more action by environmental reform groups in community programs. Local initiative has already scored significant achievements ranging from restored lakes and rivers to setting up environmental curricula in schools, from air pollution monitoring to the creation of parks.

Where some industrialists complain, others go to work. A major chemical company reports its new pollution controls are saving millions of dollars annually and should have been installed long ago as sound business practice. The paper manufacturer doing the most in pollution abatement also leads its industry in earnings per share growth. Wastes once flushed into rivers or hauled to dumps are being turned into commercial products. Not every environmental investment will make a direct return but there are enough positive examples to show that environmental improvements need not be automatically regarded as "costs without benefits."

I am not suggesting that we are anywhere near out of the woods. Far from it. What remains to be done is much greater than what's been accomplished so far. But the trend is unmistakable.

The American people, directly or through their elected officials, will face some difficult choices in the coming years. There isn't any real dispute about the worth of environmental objectives; we all want better living conditions. The question is how much are we willing to pay for them.

Are we so accustomed to installment credit that we are willing to purchase our life style affluence today at the expense of a better tomorrow? If it came to a choice, would we consciously squander our resources and foreclose our children's future? I don't believe we would.

Up to now the average citizen hasn't had the foggiest notion of what choices were available, or indeed that there were any choices at all. Once people understand what is at stake and what's required, they will do what needs to be done.

With persistence we can pay our debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of our air, water and land. With hard work and some sacrifice we can pass on to our children and grandchildren a world of beauty, order and serenity.