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Commentary: Muskie's view of Earth Day

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 22, 2010 - Earth Day serves as an annual reminder of the precious yet precarious state of the environment that sustains human life. Although that theme deserves its own trumpet, 40 years ago Edmund S. Muskie demonstrated, as only he could, how its message links to other existential values.

The occasion was the first Earth Day, and Muskie, the nation's leading environmentalist, was the featured speaker at a teach-in at Harvard University and at a large rally at Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.

Muskie's topic, in both addresses, was the environmental crisis and the need to adopt an "environmental conscience" to stop depleting the limited natural resources on which life depends. Americans, he said, were engaged in "an undeclared war on our future." Humans had destroyed, rather than used, the environment and that orientation jeopardized the sustainability of life.

Yet the environmental crisis, Muskie suggested, was rooted in deeper failures, of perception and of morality. Americans had failed to recognize that "the old frontier ethic," the "belief in infinite expansion and unlimited growth," mischaracterized life in the 20th century. Natural resources were finite and destructible. Yet man had acted "as if another Creation were just around the corner, as if we could somehow manufacture more land, more air, and more water when we have destroyed what we have." Humans needed to adjust their behavior to accommodate this reality.

The failure to appreciate that resources were scarce presented "a moral frontier, defined by our willingness to cut back our selfish exploitation in favor of selfless conservation." Future generations deserved an inheritance of resources but contemporary society seemed headed to "pass on to them a physical and moral wasteland."

Muskie suggested that self-interest and morality compelled Americans to forgo "some luxuries" to preserve the requisites of life. America needed to choose cleaner, not faster, cars and parks, not highways.

The indifference to the environment reflected not simply an abuse of the rights of future generations. Muskie also saw it as symptomatic of a society in which humans pursued individual comforts rather than higher societal goals. Just as Americans needed to recognize the claims of future generations to sustainable life, they needed to embrace the rights of their contemporaries to "an opportunity to fulfill [their] greatest potential." For "man's environment" included "the shape of ... communities" as well as natural resources and the condition of others "who share this planet and this land."

Earth Day, as Muskie saw it, was not simply a long overdue occasion to defend Spaceship Earth from destruction by its passengers. It was an occasion to teach "that our relationships with each other are just as intricate and just as delicate as those with our natural environment."

Muskie's speeches on Earth Day 1970 reflected a political approach that seems unfamiliar in modern times. Muskie did not pander to his audiences or promise that easy fixes existed for difficult problems. On the contrary, Muskie delivered a candid message that put his listeners on notice that the remedies were not pain-free.

Creating the "whole society" of which he spoke would "cost heavily," he said. The costs would come "in forgone luxuries, in restricted choices, in higher prices for certain goods and services, in taxes, and in hard decisions about our national priorities." (Yes, he did promise higher taxes among other costs.)

Yet Muskie had no doubt that the benefits of living in a sustainable and just society outweighed those costs. Long-term gain, both spiritual and societal, would more than redeem the material sacrifices.

The implicit optimism in Muskie's message that inaugural Earth Day went well beyond the substantive exchange he proposed. Muskie also had faith that the American political and legal system could deliver the goods he identified.

The ballot box could produce public officials committed to "a whole society." The legal system could make polluters pay. Proxy fights could foster corporate responsibility. Consumers could encourage environmental responsibility by withholding their business from those who abused natural resources. And civil discourse could foster better understanding of the problems, thereby producing an engaged citizenry committed to working through the system to save the Earth.

Forty years later, the Earth still needs saving. But Muskie's speeches from the first Earth Day remind us that the environmental crisis is part of a larger failure to recognize that the frontier model of human consumption is not sustainable, that morality compels us to restrain our consumptive behavior and that environmental degradation is part of a larger failure in which human resources are squandered through community indifference. Muskie believed that a course correction could come if politicians leveled with their constituents and if citizens assumed responsibility to use the political and legal system to press for change.

Those remain the challenges on Earth Day 2010.

(Muskie's speeches were placed in the Congressional Record on May 15, 1970, by Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, D-Mo. They can be read at the website of the Edmund S. Muskie Archives at Bates College.)

Joel K. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law, is writing a political biography of Edmund S. Muskie.