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EARTH DAY ANNIVERSARY 2005 - A WAKE UP CALL

By Former Senator Gaylord Nelson

Founder of Earth Day and Chairman Emeritus of Earth Day Network

The 35th anniversary of Earth Day is a sobering occasion. On previous anniversaries we have hailed this "new awakening" as millions around the world suddenly rose up and pledged their support for a new campaign to save the natural environment.

In 1993 American Heritage magazine called Earth Day "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy." There has been progress, of course, particularly in public awareness of the critical role environment plays in our lives and in the education and training of new environmental leaders. Environment has become a major political issue. The public is prepared to support those measures necessary to forge a sustainable society, if the President and the Congress have the vision to lead us to that goal.

Unfortunately, the President and the Congress have not stepped up to the challenge of providing national and world leadership on the environmental crisis.

In fact, on some key issues, they are actually resisting or reversing progress made in the past 30 to 40 years. And without strong, sustained leadership from the President and Congress the urgent challenge to protect the environment and create a sustainable society cannot succeed. Theodore Roosevelt made conservation a top priority for the Republican party, and many members of his party carried that torch over the years. Recently, however, the GOP leadership has abandoned this cause.

There are many serious environmental problems confronting us. But two current environmental issues dramatize this failure of leadership -- energy conservation, and population control. Both are critical to the sustainability of our society. In each case, there is not only a lack of wise national leadership but an apparent determination to turn back the clock. The surrender to special interests on these two issues makes a mockery of any claim to environmental awareness.

Egged on by the President, the Senate on March 16 sneaked into the annual budget resolution a scheme to allow drilling for oil in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, protected in 1960 at the urging of great environmentalists such as Sigurd Olson, Justice William O. Douglas, and Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser. The bill was signed by President Eisenhower.

This is not just a sabotage of environmental policy. It also undermines any hope for a wise energy policy. When all the evidence calls for bold steps to conserve energy and develop alternative sources, this cynical action implies that we can burn all the oil we want and just move on to the next untapped source, no matter where it might be.

We are told it may be 10 years before a very modest amount of oil could be produced from this pristine refuge. And what would it cost in real terms?

For the President to call for oil drilling in the Artic Wildlife Refuge is like burning the furniture in the White House to keep the First Family comfortable.

Equally critical is the failure of the President and Congress to confront the issue of population control, in our own rapidly growing country and the rest of the world.

A "Rockefeller Report" in 1972, issued by the President's commission on population growth, urged the U.S. to move vigorously to stabilize our population at about 200 million as rapidly as possible. Since then our population has ballooned to 282 million, and is expected to reach 500 million between 2060 and 2070. We are heading into a century in which we will double and triple our population in a short time.

World-wide population projections are equally chilling. A series of international conferences have called for bold action to control population growth.

Yet the United States in recent years has become an aggressive opponent of family planning programs in other countries, and we are now facing efforts by some "new conservatives" to impose similar restrictions at home.

On previous Earth Days we have offered a solution: The President should set the standard by delivering a message to the Congress on the state of the environment, citing priorities that need to be addressed. Congress then should hold hearings on these issues. This would produce a "national dialogue" on the sustainability of our environment, and provide a roadmap to the future.

Without Presidential leadership and Congressional hearings, we cannot claim to be taking seriously the most compelling threats facing our society.

On environmental issues, our intelligence is reliable. Our scientists have the facts, if we will only listen. It is a "slam dunk" that we cannot continue on our present course. But without Presidential and Congressional leadership, even an enlightened public cannot cope with the greatest challenge of our time.


For more information about Earth Day or this author please contact:

Mary Nemick

Director of Communications

Earth Day Network

202-518-0044


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