In a world where so much power is concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few, it?s always tempting to pin the blame for whatever goes wrong on the moral failings of the powerful. Earth Day, coming up this Sunday, offers a useful reminder that the problem?as leftists used to say?is not bad people, but a bad system. The first Earth Day was made necessary forty-two years ago not by the polluters? evil intentions, but by a political philosophy that was as sincerely held as it was destructive. That ideology has returned today, and it threatens to wreak environmental damage on a scale even greater than half a century ago.
The chemical industry was led, for the most part, by men who wanted to protect the air they breathed and the water they drank. There were, to be sure, business leaders?among them manufacturers of lead, asbestos, and cigarettes?who consciously profited from disease and suffering. But their influence was not decisive. What stymied the effort to control chemical pollution in the half-century before Earth Day, as I wrote about in The Polluters, was the industry?s political beliefs. A deep-seated hostility to government interference in the conduct of business led it to fiercely resist government regulation of its pollution.
Lammot du Pont, whose firm then dominated the chemical business, told his executives in 1938 to give air and water pollution the same attention as fire safety. This was a clear and strong directive at DuPont, a company that had grown up making explosives. But at the same time the du Ponts were financing the American Liberty League, the center of far-right opposition to the New Deal. Their conviction that government had no right to tell businesses what to do inspired uncompromising opposition to federal control of water pollution. They won that battle in 1940, when the Senate killed a House-passed bill requiring federal licenses for new pollution sources.
But then the du Ponts found themselves unable to control their own subordinates. Only by decentralizing, their company had found, was it possible for such a large and diverse organization to run efficiently. The corporate headquarters could offer advice about how to pollute less. But, fearful of engaging in micromanagement, it let each division of the company make the final decisions about how to run its factories.
The division managers were judged by their ability to earn profits and conquer new markets. In a marketplace where competitors were free to cut corners, this gave them every incentive to join the race to the bottom. After three decades, the company’s chief of engineering asked himself whether the goal DuPont had set for itself in 1938 had been attained. ?I do not believe that we have met the challenge,? he confessed.
The legislation of the 1970s, propelled by a wave of activism that peaked on Earth Day, brought federal pollution controls into being at last. But since then progress has been slow and uneven. And today the ideology of the Liberty League has come back, dominating the House of Representatives and a major political party.
The entire earth is now at risk from new pollutants?drugs, hormones, globe-warming gases?whose effects are more subtle than the poisons of the 1930s and 1960s but no less alarming. For these dangers to be brought under control, a central lesson of the first Earth Day must be relearned. The greatest threat to our environment does not come from intentional misdeeds, but from the unthinking hatred of government that has come to pervade our political discourse.
Photo of Cuyahoga River fire in 1952, by James Thomas, Cleveland State University Library, Cleveland Press Collection