Within the past month, two men who had an impact on the American environment died. They were both in their ninth decades. Their lives and work are important examples of the direction we should be pursuing today.
Russell E. Train was 92; Barry Commoner was 95. They came from disparate places on the political spectrum and very different backgrounds. Yet they both grasped the vital consequences of protecting the earth’s resources and the fact that people need to work together to achieve these goals.
When did protecting the environment become so polarizing? Ironically, it was Richard Nixon who was prescient about the importance of environmental concerns. He worked in tandem with Train—who in a New York Times obituary was referenced as being “considered the father of modern federal environmental policy.”
Train was a Republican from an insider D.C. family. The Washington Post stated that he was “widely regarded as one of the most important American conservationists in the past half-century.” He served as the Chairperson of the Council on Environmental Quality for three years before becoming the second administrator of the EPA (1973-1977) under Nixon and Ford. Armed with degrees from Princeton and Columbia Law School, his path was geared toward public service. A trip to Africa in the 1950s was a turning point. Shortly afterwards, he founded the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation.
I found an oral history with Train on the EPA website that was eye opening. He related that he had a good working relationship with the Nixon White House and the Congress—enjoying “bipartisan support.” In 1970, the Senate passed the Clean Air Act by a unanimous vote. He noted, “Nixon made a decision early in his administration that the environment was important politically.”
Train spoke clearly about the connectivity between “developmental planning” and “international economic growth,” and believed that the environment concerned every “geographic region of the country” and could be “used to help unify the nation and bring people together.” He wanted to involve American citizens.
Forthcoming about the pressure he received from the agricultural, automobile, chemical, and energy industries, Train openly admitted that those supporting health and environmental concerns had also called him to task. Still, he wasn’t afraid to be tough. He didn’t hesitate to close down a U.S. Steel plant in Birmingham during a fight over emissions. He saw a clear relationship between poverty and environmental factors, and named his biggest achievement as “holding the environmental line” during the 1970s energy crisis and oil embargoes.
Train wanted to educate Americans about the importance of environmental issues and “engage” government in the process. The Washington Post reported that in 2009, he personally told EPA head Lisa Jackson that she was “well within her authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.” Train protected the sanctity of the Everglades and spoke about climate change.
So why are people half Train’s age so unwillingly to embrace the need of the environment to be defended?
An answer may be found in the career and observations of Barry Commoner, who died thirteen days after Train. His philosophy was simple. He believed the problem was the “thoughtless way we produce [via industrialized agriculture and manufacturing] without thinking about how it’s done and how it impacts lives, health, and poor people.”
Commoner trained as a biologist at Columbia and Harvard, came from an immigrant family, and had decidedly leftist politics. He always linked environmental concerns with social justice. On the 1970 February issue of Time Magazine, Commoner’s image graced the cover with the title, “The Emerging Science of Survival.” A diagonal banner announced the environment as “Nixon’s New Issue.”
In a 2006 video interview with the New York Times, Commoner discussed how his studies yielded the research at the root of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He warned of radioactive fallout, the greenhouse effect, and the need to recycle. By example, he spoke about how lead emissions in gasoline had affected the brains of children, as evidenced in diminished IQs. In 1970, through means of reformatting production, lead was removed from gasoline. Currently, the percentage of lead in children’s blood is minimal.
Commoner’s point was embodied in the National Environmental Policy Act, which proposed, “Man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” Unfortunately, it is a concept too many are willing to ignore as they try to solve economic problems with short-term solutions.
Russell Train and Barry Commoner left this country important legacies. They left us with a vision for protecting the environment as a health issue, not a political one. When did protecting the environment become a partisan issue? It’s time we learned from these two environmental leaders and move forward–together.