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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

April 16, 2010

Air Date: April 16, 2010



Senator Earth Day

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April 22nd marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, a national event that was started by the late Senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson captured the fervor and national sense of social activism of the 1960s to push an environmental agenda in Congress and around the country. Bill Christofferson wrote a biography of Gaylord Nelson called The Man From Clear Lake. He talks with host Steve Curwood about Nelson’s life and legacy as an environmentalist before his time. (12:00)

Visions of the EPA, Past, Present, Future

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To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day we look at the EPA’s past, present and future. Host Steve Curwood speaks with the first administrator of the environmental agency, William Ruckelshaus, and the current administrator, Lisa Jackson. (18:10)

Operation Green

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American soldiers returning from war often struggle to readjust to civilian life. Today, many veterans are turning to environmental work and activism to make the transition. Host Jeff Young talks with veterans working for clean energy, creating green jobs, and healing their own wounds by restoring habitats. (18:10)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOSTS: Steve Curwood and Jeff Young
GUESTS: Bill Christofferson, William Ruckelshaus, Lisa Jackson


CURWOOD: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young. Earth Day at 40, and the vision of its founder Senator Gaylord Nelson.

NELSON: An environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without poverty, without discrimination, without hunger, and without war...our goal is a decent environment in its broadest and deepest sense.

CURWOOD: Also – the EPA turns 40 – its leaders then and now.

RUCKELSHAUS: I had not been an environmentalist. I mean there weren't many people who were known as environmentalists back in 1970.

JACKSON: You can't look back at 40 years of EPA and a leader like Bill and not see that he did many of the things he set out to do. And yet the mission has changed because the problems have become a little more complex and a little harder to solve.

CURWOOD: William Ruckelshaus and Lisa Jackson and much more this week on Living on Earth. Stick Around!


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.


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Senator Earth Day

The late Senator Gaylord Nelson. (Photo: Fritz Albert)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts—this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young. This week a special program commemorating Earth Day at 40: Past, present and future visions of the modern environmental movement. Coming up, a conversation with the first and current Administrators of the EPA. But first, the year 1970.

[MUSIC: The Beatles “Let It Be” from Let It Be (EMI Records 2009 Reissue)]

CURWOOD: Topping the billboard chart on April 22, 1970—The Beatles. Paul McCartney announces he’s leaving the group.

YOUNG: It was a chaotic, contradictory era. Other hits that year: “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family—and “War” by Edwin Starr.

CURWOOD: In 1970 the minimum wage was a dollar sixty. A first class stamp was six cents.

YOUNG: Americans first started pumping their own gas in 1970. Regular cost 36 cents a gallon.

CURWOD: And the average car got—well, there were no federal standards for miles per gallon back in 1970. American Motors came out with the Gremlin.

YOUNG: A popular bumper sticker read “War is not healthy for children and other living things”. And President Nixon reduced the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam to 280 thousand.

CURWOOD: On April 22nd 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, one of only three senators to vote against the Vietnam War early on—and founder of Earth Day, delivers this speech:

Bill Christofferson, Gaylord Nelson’s biographer.

NELSON: The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical, and financial commitment far beyond any commitment ever made by any society in the history of man. Are we able? Yes…are we willing? That is the unanswered question.

CURWOOD: It’s been 40 years since Gaylord Nelson posed that challenge at the first Earth Day. Now, for some understanding of the man who helped launch the modern environmental movement, we turn to his biographer. Bill Christofferson, who wrote “The Man from Clear Lake”.

CHRISTOFFERSON: It’s a little town of – at the time – about 700 people up near the Minnesota border, and the way he described it his childhood was idyllic. He spent all of his time in the outdoors, hunting and fishing and catching animals. He was just thoroughly an outdoor kid who grew up with appreciation for the environment. And it wasn’t anything he consciously cultivated or made it a decision at some point—I’m going to be an environmentalist, he said he always was one.

CURWOOD: As I understand it, he grew up, well, with a lot of privilege in his little town, he’s probably one of the richest families, his dad was a doctor?

CHRISTOFFERSON: Well, to the extent that there was any wealth in Clear Lake, I guess, his father was a country doctor, his mother was a nurse. He grew during the Depression—it was the days when his doctor wasn’t someone who was particularly concerned about money as much as he was about his patients.

And he often got paid in kind with a chicken or firewood or some times nothing. But, yeah, they were more or less the first family of Clear Lake—they’re very politically active they were Progressives back in the days of “Fighting Bob” La Follette one of Wisconsin’s famous Progressives. He grew up kind of steeped in politics.

And Gaylord would say he learned a lot of things growing up in a small town and to him he would say the most important one was civility—that when you live in a village of 700 people you really have to get along with everybody and you have to treat them with some respect, the way that you would like them to treat you because you’re going to see them again the next day, and the day after that. It was something that he carried over into his political life and he really tried to get along with everybody and not personalize political disagreements.

CURWOOD: Let’s fast forward now in young Gaylord Nelson’s career to the point that he’s governor of the state of Wisconsin and decides to put together this humongous program to protect a lot of open space, to increase the state parks and recreation areas.

CHRISTOFFERSON: It was a visionary plan that he was trying to pass that would protect open space and recreation land and wildlife habitat in the state. And at the time set the standard for the country once it became law, but although it was popular, there was resistance from the Republicans in the legislature and it all came down to a single vote in the state senate where there was a Republican who admired what he was doing and when the time came for the role call, the senator in question voted to pass the bill and the Republicans were stunned—had no idea it was coming.

The bill passed and went on to become kind of the centerpiece of his record as governor. It really stamped him nationally as a leading conservationist and started his national reputation.

CURWOOD: Gaylord Nelson goes to Washington, a freshman senator, that’s the bottom of the heap. There’s not much you can get done as a freshman on Capitol Hill.

CHRISTOFFERSON: Right. In fact, he was number 100 in seniority. He adapted to the system, began to find his way along and befriend people. He really embodied this whole idea about reaching across the aisle and working with Republicans.

His whole career, it was the carry over of that small town thing about being civil to people. He was really curious about what made people tick, and would get to know people on a personal basis. He began immediately, even before he was sworn in to try to push an environmental agenda. His main goal in life at that point was to try to get the environment on the nation’s political agenda and make it part of the debate.

CURWOOD: So here it is, 1962, 1963, Gaylord Nelson is pushing for the environment in this time of most conspicuous consumption. I was a kid back then, I remember cars got bigger and bigger fins—of course there was also this counterculture movement and the concern about civil rights, the war in Vietnam. How does Nelson fit into this context of time and culture? And how did it affect how he went about his work of promoting the environment?

CHRISTOFFERSON: I think a lot of those things you mentioned are inter-related or at least helped lay the groundwork for the environmental movement that he launched. The ‘60s people we’re becoming politically active on those other issues—on the war, women’s issues, civil rights—he could sense that there was a growing awareness that we were also getting ourselves in trouble, environmentally with pollution.

And it was one of those cases where the people were way out in front of the politicians. Everywhere he went and talked local people would tell him about some issue, usually a local issue—that landfill was leaching into the drinking water, all those sort of local stories that people were aware of, that people were beginning to figure out something was going on. And so Gaylord tapped that kind of underlying current of awareness about the environment and the urge to do something and couple it with the kind of activism that the ‘60s had produced.

CURWOOD: Gaylord Nelson has a lot of credibility with the counterculture movement, the protest movement, when calls for a teach-in April 22nd, 1970, and people start to organize.

CHRISTOFFERSON: Basically, he was reading a magazine article about teach-ins on college campuses about Vietnam and the light came on, and he said why don’t we have a teach in about the environment? And so, in September 1969 in Seattle he announced that there would be a teach-in next spring.

And eventually his office was inundated with calls and letters and contacts from people who wanted to be involved, and not just college campuses, but people from all walks of life and all levels of school and community groups. And it was only seven months after his speech that Earth Day came around and 20 million people, at the time that was ten percent of the population in the country, did something on Earth Day.

He never could have dreamed when he suggested the teach-in that that was going to be the result. Or that it would end up in this on-going institutionalized thing where now people in hundreds of countries do it. Last year the Earth Day Network said a billion people did something on Earth Day. Gaylord never could have conceived of that when he thought it up.

CURWOOD: You recount in your book how the FBI monitored the Earth Day events around the country. What kind of criticism and opposition did he face in setting up Earth Day? I mean this is an event that—what, Barry Goldwater, the ultraconservative Republican spoke at one university, and how many Democratic senators spoke?

CHRISTOFFERSON: It was interesting; they had to shut down congress that day because so many members had been invited to speak on Earth Day back in their home districts. Most of them had to come to Gaylord’s office to get some material because they’d never giving an environmental speech in their lives at the time.

And although it was wildly popular, it’s not like there were no critics of Earth Day. The John Birch Society claimed that April 22nd, 1970 was nothing but a thinly disguised plot by Gaylord Nelson to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin. This is all a communist plot.

It sounds crazy, but enough people took it seriously enough that he decided he had to have an answer. Finally, he said April 22nd was the birth of Saint Francis of Assisi who some people think is the world’s first environmentalist. And it was the birthday of Queen Isabella. And most importantly, it was the birthday of my aunt Tilley. So he could use humor to diffuse things.

CURWOOD: How much do you think people working on Earth Day back in 1970—how much to you think they ever envisioned a 40th Earth Day? Or do you think they thought that the problem would be solved by then?

CHRISTOFFERSON: [LAUGHS] I think Gaylord envisioned Earth Day as a onetime, one-of-a-kind thing, but part of the genius of it is that it became institutionalized, but mainly in the schools, but also in a lot of community groups and environmental organizations and others around the country who keep Earth Day alive. It happens really at the grassroots level. It has a life of its own now.

CURWOOD: Gaylord Nelson died in 2005. How satisfied do you think he was with what he had accomplished?

CHRISTOFFERSON: I think he accomplished more than he ever imagined he could when he was growing up as this kid in Clearlake, Wisconsin. And in terms of his legacy, I think his most important legacy is what he called an environmental ethic.

Kids and young people on every level now grow up with some environmental education and awareness, and they understand that they have some responsibility for the environment. That’s an environmental ethic, that is something that instilled in at least a couple generations now that was never there before Earth Day, certainly wasn’t there when I was growing up and I think we owe a lot of that to Gaylord Nelson.

CURWOOD: Bill Christofferson is a historian and political consultant. Thanks so much.

CHRISTOFFERSON: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Steve, I am always happy to talk about Gaylord.

CURWOOD Back on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, I marched, but not with a lot of enthusiasm. I was more concerned about the War, and the campaigns for civil and women’s rights. But this huge demo, as we called them, promised to be peaceful, and a lot of my friends would be there.

The late Senator Gaylord Nelson. (Photo: Fritz Albert)

YOUNG: My first Earth Day event was in 1990. That 20th Earth Day saw a resurgence of interest in all things green. But our campus environmental group was dismayed by the level of corporate “greenwashing” that came along with it—we ended up protesting an oil refinery’s involvement in Earth Day.

CURWOOD: One other thing about Earth Day 1990—it’s also when I started this program. Living on Earth’s first broadcasts included a debate over the use of nuclear power to combat global warming, famed diver Sylvia Earle on the state of the oceans, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson talking about environmental justice. More than 100 NPR stations carried those first four programs, but pollsters told us 86 percent of the public had little interest in hearing about climate change…it’s been a short 20 years.

[MUSIC: Jefferson Airplane: “Wooden Ships” from Volunteers (BMG Records 2004 Reissue)]

CURWOOD: Keep listening to Living on Earth!

Related link:
Click here to learn more about Gaylord Nelson and his legacy.

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Visions of the EPA, Past, Present, Future

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. (Courtesy of the EPA)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young. Today we’re noting the 40th Anniversary of the first Earth Day: April 22nd 1970. Many consider that date a turning point in the modern environmental movement—and the tipping point, later that same year, for the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

CURWOOD: There have been just 18 EPA Administrators. The first, and the only one to serve two presidents, was Republican William Ruckelshaus. The current Administrator is Democrat Lisa Jackson. We spoke to both about how politics and policies have shaped the agency over the years. Mr. Ruckelshaus surprised us when he said that he didn’t consider himself—then or now—to be an environmentalist.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. (Courtesy of the EPA)

RUCKELSHAUS: I had not been an environmentalist. I mean there weren’t many people who were known as environmentalists back in 1970. I had been in charge of a representing the state board of health when I was in the Indiana Attorney General’s office and in most state offices in those days the board of health was where environmental issues were dealt with. The environment—both air and water, in particular, were primarily seen as health related issues.

CURWOOD: So, let’s go back to 1970. What—you’re 38-years-old, you’re an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice in D.C. and you get a call from the White House to head up the new EPA? As I understand it you were number three on that White House list, that their two other people had passed it up. What do you think they knew that you didn’t?

RUCKELSHAUS: [LAUGHS] I don’t know. Nobody ever told me that officially, I have read that but at any rate I enjoyed it very much. I’m sure they subsequently felt sorry not to have accepted.

CURWOOD: So the first Earth Day happened in April 1970. What—eight months later the Senate unanimously confirms you. Richard Nixon is your boss. What role do you think Earth Day had in the creation in the EPA?

RUCKELSHAUS: This was a new issue, certainly a new issue nationally, and new in the sense of its intensity and its breadth. And Earth Day was simply a manifestation of that public support, and it was that support, that public demand really that the president was responding to.

NIXON: Because there are no local or state boundaries to the problems of our environment the federal government must play an active, positive role. We can and will set standards; we can and will exercise leadership.

RUCKELSHAUS: To centralize that enforcement and regulatory responsibility at the national level made it much more difficult for industry to escape reasonable rules guiding their emissions into the air and water by running to a safe haven—to some state that did not as strictly enforce the standards. So, I felt that we had to initially show the American people we were serious about this by strictly—not only setting the standards—but strictly enforcing them to let people know that we meant business.

CURWOOD: The White House was pretty friendly with big business at this point though?

RUCKELSHAUS: Yes, that’s true. President Nixon, he admired the captains of industry, particularly those that had kind of beat their way to the top from rather modest beginnings, in many respects modeled on his own political rise. And I think he had a great deal of respect for American industry.

CURWOOD: And so, your busting some of his buddies, then?

RUCKELSHAUS: Well, that’s true. And some of them didn’t like it, but I also felt that if my responsibility was to show that not only the EPA but the administration was serious about reducing the impacts of pollution on public health and the environment, we had to take a strong stand. But I never felt that the president was in any way intervening in what I was doing and trying to stop the enforcement of these laws.

CURWOOD: Of course by the time you really got going, president Nixon had other things on his mind.

RUCKELSHAUS: And you’re right; he had other things on his plate. There was the initiative to China, there were all kinds of things going on with the administration—there was an election in 1972, and afterwards, of course, he got snarled up in the Watergate. So that the irritation associated with EPA’s aggressiveness probably wasn’t the number one problem that he was concerned about.

CURWOOD: Now, you come back for a second bite of the apple of the EPA when you become administrator again—what, it’s 1983, it’s during the Reagan administration. Tell me, why did you come back and what changed for you in terms of your sense of the agency’s mission?

RUCKELSHAUS: I came back because the agency was in trouble and Berford who had been appointed by President Reagan had gotten herself in a whole lot of trouble, as did other appointees. They sort of bought the line that often is taken by Republicans in the administration that a lot of this social regulation—regulation to protect health, safety, and the environment—is an overreaction and the result of a sort of nanny state. She got in a lot of trouble as a result and president Reagan asked me to come back and help straighten the agency out.

CURWOOD: Now, wait a second—you’re a Republican.

RUCKELSHAUS: Right, well, I guess I still am. Barely.

CURWOOD: I believe you did support Barack Obama for president.

EPA administrator Ruckelshaus earned a reputation for bold action that was not politically popular.

RUCKELSHAUS: Yeah, that’s right. I haven’t changed my mind all that much in the last 40 years, but the Republican Party certainly has moved. What I think the Republican Party has done recently is sort of give up on the environment. They rarely talk about it. I don’t think many of the candidates, or even their constituents think about it that all that often. And I think that’s a shame because these problems many of them are real and need to be addressed in an aggressive way, or we’ll get in real trouble.

CURWOOD: I’m talking with William Ruckelshaus, he was the first administrator of the EPA when it was founded back in 1970, and then headed that agency once again from 1983 to ’85. Mr. Ruckelshaus please wait a moment now because joining us from her hometown in New Orleans is the current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson. Ms. Jackson, welcome to Living on Earth!

JACKSON: Thanks for having me, Steve. Hi, Bill, how are you?

RUCKELSHAUS: Fine, Lisa, how are you?

JACKSON: I’m fine, thanks.

CURWOOD: I was just talking with Mr. Ruckelshaus about the early days of the EPA. You were, what, eight when it started?

JACKSON: [LAUGHS] That’s right. I was eight-years-old in 1970. Long, long ago.

CURWOOD: And you go your masters’ degrees in chemical engineering from Princeton and your first career job was at the EPA in, what, 1986?

JACKSON: That’s right. I started in EPA in ’86, and I missed Bill, unfortunately.

CURWOOD: So, maybe you hired her, Bill, but you weren’t there when she actually came to work?

RUCKELSHAUS: Yeah, but she’s grown a lot since!


CURWOOD: So you’ve been at the EPA for much of your professional life. What—you worked there 16 years before you ran the equivalent of the EPA in New Jersey, now you’re back as a top administrator. How do you think the mission has changed there, Lisa Jackson?

JACKSON: Well, I think the issues have changed because in many ways we were successful. I think you can’t look back at 40 years of EPA and a leader like Bill and not see that he did many of the things he set out to do. He said let’s attack pollution. So probably the most visible thing to most Americans is what happened to water quality, visibly and what you could smell of water quality in this country has changed.

And yet, there are still pervasive water pollution problems in many areas. There are new contaminants that we didn’t know anything about, they don’t enter our lakes or rivers from pipes, they come from runoff every time it rains. And so the mission has changed because the problems in some ways have become more complex and a little harder to solve.

CURWOOD: I want to play for you both a recording of Senator Gaylord Nelson. Now, he’s considered that founder of Earth Day. And this is a speech, part of a speech, that he gave that very first Earth Day, April 22nd 1970:

NELSON: Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty—well forget it! About the worst environments in America in the ghettos, in the Appalachians, and elsewhere—our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures. An environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without poverty, without discrimination, without hunger, and without war...our goal is a decent environment in its broadest and deepest sense.

RUCKELSHAUS: Obviously, Gaylord Nelson was a real prescient figure in the evolution of the environmental movement. He was considerably ahead of his time when he made that speech.

Former EPA administrator Bill Ruckelshaus.

JACKSON: Mr. Nelson talked about ghettos and poverty—that’s one aspect of a broader understanding that I think everyone should have a clean environment. And the whole concept of environmental justice…I don’t think, though correct me if I’m wrong, was really much of the lexicon back in 1970s. What happened over time was that people said listen, as we work to address pollution we have to make sure we’re not transferring it. Not transferring our problem to those communities that are disadvantaged or don’t have a voice.

And what’s also happened, quite frankly, is that as this country’s moved away from manufacturing, in many ways communities are left behind. Where once you had a thriving industry center, you now have a community that’s just left with pollution and no jobs. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws—there’s nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it. Much of what EPA has done in that field, and certainly we can do more, has been using the laws we have in a way to ensure social justice.

RUCKELSHAUS: Lisa is right that when EPA started the concept of environmental justice was not part of the lexicon of the environment at all. In fact that I had a meeting with a civil rights leader shortly after EPA was created—they were quite antagonistic to what we were trying to do because they saw it taking people’s energy and attention away from civil rights issues. There are elements of environmental justice the environmental movement, which frankly we weren’t paying much attention to when we started, which do need to be addressed.

JACKSON: I do think Bill’s point is a really interesting one, and it’s one I’ve heard before. It’s worth a whole show, really. This idea that somehow the environmental movement’s origins coincided with a lot of the work on civil rights. And I think people felt that they had to choose which one they were going to give their heart and soul to.

And it became a competition to some degree. Those times are actually long since passed, I have a 14-year-old and a 13-year-old—they don’t think of the environment as a purview of only the wealthy, or only those people who happen to be fortunate enough to live in beautiful places. Kind of the Theodore Roosevelt approach to conservation. They see pollution, they see rights, they see international issues.

And when you hear me talking about expanding the conversation on environmentalism, I don’t care what we call it, if I can get people to make the connection to clean air, and clean water, and clean land, and less toxic chemicals in our environment, then if they then call it whatever they want they’ve made that connection I know they’ll fight for environmental protection.

CURWOOD: Bill Ruckelshaus I want to ask you for some more advice for Lisa Jackson. And this is around the question of climate change, and it looks like Ms. Jackson’s agency, now the EPA’s going to get involved with administrating how to deal with carbon dioxide because Congress doesn’t seem to be there. What’s your advice as to how to handle this issue?

RUCKELSHAUS: She—I think she’s handled it very well so far, she’s indicated her willingness to follow Supreme Court’s lead and recognize that CO2 is a pollutant or methane, other trace gases that contribute to global warming, and indicated her willingness to regulate them if the Congress doesn’t act.

Correct me, Lisa, if I’m misquoting you, but that the best way to control climate change, or control the carbon that is associated with climate change, is not through the use of the Clean Air Act as currently constructed, it’s better to deal with it in the context of a more comprehensive program from the Congress. But if the Congress isn’t willing to do it, she in turn, is willing to step forward and exercise her responsibilities.

JACKSON: That’s absolutely right, Bill, that’s what I’ve said. I’ve gone a little bit further, and I’ve said that my belief is that you can use the Clean Air Act in very smart ways. You know, there’s always going to be this whole doom and gloom element, and when the economy’s bad they get a bit louder—this idea that just pervades our country and our culture that you have to choose between having environmental protection and having a strong economy. It’s never been true. There’s not one shred of evidence out there that shows that most of the major environmental laws that people swore were going to destroy our country ever did.

And in fact, they’ve been engines of innovation and creativity—everything from fight smog to cleaning up our waste water treatment plants, we’ve been state of the art on environmental protection and the environmental industry for a long time. But we’re going to have to fight through that, and what I tell people is that the Clean Air Act, though not perfect, allows us lots of ways to begin to address greenhouse gases in a way that’s great for our economy.

The Clean Cars Rule is a great example of that. Although the price of a car goes up slightly, about 900 dollars, the savings from fuel for more efficient cars for an average American is over $3,000. It actually is a positive for our economy and it puts our auto industry back in a position to be competitive internationally.

RUCKELSHAUS: I think that Lisa’s right in dealing with a problem like climate change instead of looking at it as an all or nothing proposition, couching it as an insurance policy even if you have some doubts about its ultimate impact, couching it as an insurance policy makes sense, and in that way you can get at a lot of these issues associated with reducing carbon that are really economically very sound—it makes sense economically as well as environmentally to take them on, and plus the fact that getting away from reliance on foreign oil from places like Venezuela and the Middle East, and Russia, and Nigeria, makes great sense for the security, not only in this country, but in the world.

And if we can lead the way in developing clean energy and weaning ourselves from reliance on that oil, we would be doing a great service for peace in addition to public health.

CURWOOD: Lisa Jackson, let me ask you—you’re trained as a chemical engineer, how do you think your work would be different if you’d been trained as a lawyer, the way that Bill Ruckelshaus was trained.


RUCKELSHAUS: It would have been a lot worse than a lawyer!

JACKSON: I’m going to resist telling any lawyer jokes, but I think that actually first to give credit where credit’s due, the environmental movement much of the progress has come from the sophistication that come through environmental law, that field has really grown because those first laws were so tremendously powerful and in some ways so tremendously broad that there’s been a lot of time and effort spent, first I think by industry trying to use the courts as a weapon and now by advocates who’ve learned how to fight back and be progressive.

I think, you know, you play to your strengths, as an engineer my belief is that there is an unheralded connection between our society’s insistence on clean air, clean water and all the things that have come about as a result of that. So the fact that we’ve grown, our GDP has grown in 30 years by 126 percent, and yet the six major air pollutants have gone down by 54 percent is all about innovation—whether it’s catalytic converters, or diesel particulate filters, or any number of industries that simply wouldn’t exist if EPA hadn’t been there through it’s regulations, through its leadership.

So although I never thought about going to law school I think at each and every time, whether it’s on the legal side or the technical side, both have been critical to the success of moving forward on the environment in this country.

CURWOOD: And Bill Ruckelshaus, what would you have done differently if you’d been a chemical engineer rather than a lawyer?

RUCKELSHAUS: Well, I probably wouldn’t have sued as many people as I did, when I was first there! [LAUGHS] On the other hand, both Lisa and I have discovered using one discipline to address the environment is not going to work—you have to use them all. You have to use what legal tools you have, you have to use the innovation associated with engineering, you have to use science.

And that was something I didn’t fully appreciate when I was first at EPA, I thought the problem, frankly, was legal and that since we had laws that were pretty weak and mainly administered by the states, that centralizing the authority and administering at the national level was all you needed to do. Well, it wasn’t long before I discovered it was a lot more complex than that and that I’d better learn some other disciplines if I was going to be effective.

CURWOOD: Bill Ruckelshaus, anything more you’d like to say before we go?

RUCKELSHAUS: No, I think that that’s enough. I wish Lisa well, I think she’s doing a wonderful job and I’m delighted she’s there.

CURWOOD: William Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the EPA in 1970 and served again in the Reagan administration. He joins us from Seattle. And Lisa Jackson is that current administrator of the EPA and she joined us from her hometown of New Orleans. Thank you both and happy Earth Day!


JACKSON: Thanks. Happy Earth Day.

[MUSIC: Joni Mitchell “The Arrangement” from Ladies Of The Canyon (Warner Bros 1970)]

YOUNG: Coming up: veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan find a new mission in environmental battles. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from The Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI – Public Radio International.

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Operation Green

Former cavalry scout Michael Farnum pulls up invasive plants. (Photo: George Cavallo)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young. We continue our observation of Earth Day at 40 with the connections between the environment and war. At the time of the first Earth Day, U.S. combat troops had been in Vietnam five years. The nation was growing weary of a war with no clear purpose, no clear exit and escalating costs. Senator Gaylord Nelson tapped into that sentiment in a speech the evening of April 21st 1970, with an appeal to put anywhere from 25 to 50 billion dollars toward the environment instead of war.

NELSON: People say that’s a lot of money, I say yes it is; the first figure is about the amount we’re wasting in Vietnam now, annually. And the second figure is half the national defense budget.

CURWOOD: The parallels with Earth Day 2010 are striking. As in 1970, young Americans returning from war sometimes struggle to readjust to civilian life. And a growing number of those coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are making that transition via the environment. We’ll hear from young warriors working for cleaner energy, protecting our landscape, and healing their own wounds through contact with the natural world.

YOUNG: We start in Washington State, with an innovative program called the Veterans Conservation Corps. Counselor Mark Fischer helped create the program five years ago, inspired by a Vietnam vet from Seattle named John Beal.

Dan Leary visits a Nexamp solar installation project. (Photo: Jeff Young)

FISCHER: John had a couple of tours in Vietnam and he came back and he had a number of medical problems, cancer, diabetes—a variety of things—and his doctors gave him six months to live. So he went down to a little creek that runs by his house, Ham Creek, and saw all the crap and junk, and invasive weeds in that creek.

And he said well, if I’ve only got six months to live, I might as well do something with my time. He started pulling out old refrigerators and starting to remove invasive vegetation and replant things. And 26 years later, John died.

YOUNG: So, he threw himself into restoring a little stream, that’s what he wanted to do in what he thought was the waning months of his life?

FISCHER: Right. And John during the next 26 years spent a lot of time recruiting other veterans to do habitat restoration and got a lot of people involved, a lot of folks around the Seattle area involved, and that’s kind of how that all came to pass.

YOUNG: Well, what do you think Mr. Beal gained from that work? He was given just a few months to live and ended up living two decades. Was that related to the work her threw himself into?

FISCHER: It’s something we talk about a lot—it’s creating a new mission or purpose in life. The original mission of most military folks is fairly clean to them, and then when they come back into civilian life they don’t really always connect up with another mission and so we try to in our work try to help people find a new mission or purpose that gives them that energy to continue on in life and be productive. And usually if they find it, they’re gangbusters; it’s hard to stop them, it’s hard to keep them from going forward.

YOUNG: So now, it’s veterans returning from Iraq, from Afghanistan, and what kind of work are they doing now with your program?

FISCHER: Well, some of them are engaged in volunteer work, but we are really looking at job creation in green fields, as well as other kinds of work. A lot of them are attracted to green jobs, they understand that purpose and that mission is pretty clear to them. So, we have a number of folks who’ve entered colleges in natural resources programs, energy auditing, weatherization, alternative energy—a variety of things that speaks to them in terms of providing a new mission in their life.

The Vet Corps program, it’s really just another example of vets helping other vets, and that’s really what this is about. All my field coordinators who work out in the community are veterans and they just love both the nature but also helping other veterans. So that’s big part of the mission, too.

YOUNG: Just getting outside and working and being surrounded by the smell and the feel of that place. It must just help them come home?

FISCHER: Absolutely. A lot of them talk about that. They’re really happy to be out of the desert, and really happy to be around green and trees and water, and things that smell and taste a whole lot different than they experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan. So that in itself is welcoming and healing for them.

YOUNG: Mark Fischer of the Veterans Conservation Corps. He says about a thousand veterans in Washington have participated in ecological restoration work so far.


YOUNG: Producer Tom Banse caught up with three of them hacking away at brambles outside of Tacoma.

FARNUM: My name is Michael Farnum. I’m retired from the United States
Army 22 years, I was a cavalry scout, reconnaissance soldier. We’re doing some invasive species removal in an area in the Nisqually Indian tribe lands. It is just a giant blackberry patch. We’re really close to the highway as you probably can hear.

[SOUNDS OF CUTTING, HACKING “There’s a few salmonberries in there, so be careful...”]

FARNUM: Over 22 years, I got beat up, banged up, blown up several times. Things just don’t work as well as they used to. It kind of hurts to get up in the morning. I eat Motrin like it’s going out of style and try to get through the day. This helps loosen me up, keeps me somewhat fresh, works my muscles. I’m not stuck behind a computer just yet.


FARNUM: Another kind of piece that went along with this, they call it eco-therapy. I think a good majority of veterans, combat veterans and non-combat veterans, when they get out, they want some solace, some peace.

Former Army truck driver Robin Eckstein. (Courtesy of Operation Free)

GRISHAM: My name is Jeremy Grisham. And I served in the Navy for 12 years as a hospital corpsman. Eight of those years I served with the Marine Corps. I was medically retired in 2005 after my deployment to Iraq.


GRISHAM: I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. I guess they’re intertwined. You know, before I was working with the VCC, I would stay at home all the time. I was in a pattern of kind of self-hate and stuff like that. So I was in self-destructive behavior I guess.

Doing this sort of thing, like this sort of labor, gives me a chance to get exercise, a little workout, and kind of let some aggression go, let some steam off or whatever. It just—it’s helpful because when I’m having a bad day, instead of cutting myself or thinking about suicide or something, I have an outlet. Maybe I’ll go chop blackberries and vent some frustration, you know, or maybe just go for a walk. But, it helps me think about other options.


HANSEN: My name is Phil Hansen. I served in the U.S. Army for ten years. I was in the airborne infantry and then the infantry for about ten years. I got medically discharged in 2006. Finding a support group like the Veterans Conservation Corps with Mark
Fischer has probably been immensely helpful.

Creating a bond with the group of people here now, is kind of going to be a life long bond like I had with the brothers that I had, that I served with in Iraq. Being in a third world country and seeing how they live and then coming back and worrying about your Starbucks in the morning. Then you kind of realize how petty and insignificant that is to living. That’s been a big hurdle for me and a lot of people I know. Yeah, it just puts life into a different context for you.


HANSEN: Coming through, removing invasives, planting natural shrubs and wildflowers and trees and things like that that belong here in the first place, and having that there’s kind of an instant gratification you get from knowing that you’re creating something that has pretty much been neglected and probably destroyed by us in the past. It’s therapeutical.

MAN: Lunch?

MAN 2: Now on to important business!


YOUNG: Members of the Veterans Conservation Corps in Washington. Other veterans are coming home with strong views about the energy we use and the wars we wage.


YOUNG: Workers with the company Nexamp install solar panels on a rooftop in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Company president and co-founder Dan Leary looks on.

LEARY: We only put you on the steepest roofs.

YOUNG: It’s a far cry from Dan Leary’s last job—he was an Army captain stationed in Kuwait. Leary says what he saw in the desert left him determined to start a clean energy company back home.

LEARY: Nexamp is a full service clean energy integration company and we do everything from construction to life cycle maintenance of these systems and what we’re specifically building a lot of these days is solar electric and solar hot water systems. We’re building wind turbines. We’re building a lot of geothermal systems. We’re doing energy efficient lighting systems. Also, combined heat and power systems.

The biodiesel Operation Free bus has crisscrossed the country to spread the veteran-based message of energy independence. (Courtesy of Operation Free)

YOUNG: Do you feel like you came back from the war especially fired up about clean energy?

LEARY: I was. I was. And I think it’s important for our generation to get on top of this because I think anything that we can do to bring better security to our nation is less task that frankly our children and our grandchildren are going to have to deal with. Energy and water and a whole number of things that lead ultimately back to we just have to have more sustainable practices as a society.

YOUNG: Do you get a sense that your fellow veterans have had a kind of awakening about energy issues?

LEARY: I think that we all have. I think that veterans have been able to see it firsthand, what is sustainable and what’s not sustainable. As soon as you’ve seen a massive desalinization plant running on oil that has to be pumped from thousands of feet below the ground to sustain large populations you understand just how fragile the whole system is. And think that’s what veterans certainly understand firsthand and the more that we can generate onsite it does things that more than just national security, it’s really just the right thing to do.


YOUNG: Leary’s not alone in that thinking. A recent poll of Iraq and Afghanistan vets found an overwhelming majority see our energy policy undermining national security.
And just over 70 percent support policy changes to promote clean energy and address climate change. The poll was sponsored by the group Vote Vets, which is also part of a rolling public outreach program called Operation Free.


YOUNG: Operation Free’s bus—powered by biodiesel—has rolled through 22 states so far, drumming up support for legislation on clean energy and climate change. We got on the bus to talk with Army vet Robin Eckstein of Wisconsin, Marine vet Matt Victoriano of Arkansas, and Navy vet Wade Barnes of Massachusetts. Barnes says he had an epiphany while watching his ship refuel.

BARNES: It takes one million gallons of diesel at a shot. When you watch diesel fuel flow through a one and a half foot diameter pipe for four hours under high pressure, and you realize that’s something that’s done every seven to ten days, it doesn’t take a lot to kind of extrapolate that out and think about that same flow going through each of our fuel pumps, into our vehicles, things like that.

And when I learned through Operation Free that we’re really transferring one billion dollars a day overseas to fuel our oil addiction, it really hammered it home. That really was probably the turning point for me.

YOUNG: Robin, same question for you, what was it about your experience in Iraq that you think motivated what you’re doing now?

Former Marine, Matt Victoriano. (Courtesy of Operation Free)

ECKSTEIN: I was part of the logistical nightmare that the military deals with because of our energy policy. I drove in convoys everyday, all around Baghdad, hauling fuel and water, and every time I left the gates of Baghdad International Airport it was a role of the dice of whether what I was going to encounter that day. You know, whether it was going to be sniper fire, ambushed, IEDs, was anyone going to be shot or killed so that I could be this huge, slow moving target hauling this fuel and water to get to these various outposts. I mean, if these other forward operating bases had solar generators, that’d be less mission that I would have to pull.

And so it was really important for me to make sure that we move in that positive direction. Because I don’t want to see other truck drivers in the future having to die over something that we can do something about.

YOUNG: I think a lot of people will understand the connection with dependence on foreign oil undermining our national security, but climate change might not be so obvious, how do you explain that to people?

ECKSTEIN: You know as far as climate change goes I listen to my chain of command. The Pentagon, the DOD and CIA are all on board with this. They’re saying it’s true, and I’m sorry, the CIA isn’t known for hugging trees and saving polar bears.

They specifically list climate change as an accelerant to the instability of nations. Current we can see in Afghanistan and Somalia where climate change has disrupted these areas that were already unstable in the first place. It’s accelerated the problems with famine and drought and the areas become breeding grounds for terrorists.

YOUNG: You know the conversation around climate change and cap and trade type approach to dealing with greenhouse gases has become very politicized. Do you think that you’re able to, I don’t know, sort of do an end run around the partisanship that’s become associated with this issue because you’re approaching it as veterans?

Jeremy Grisham clears invasive brush as part of therapy for PTSD. (Photo: George Cavallo)

VICTORIANO: Our message gets louder traction because we are veterans, but I also truly believe this issue transcends partisan politics. When you come at this from a national security standpoint, you’re talking about an issue that everyone can get behind.

ECKSTEIN: This isn’t a left issue. This isn’t a right issue. This is an American issue. We want to secure our energy future and make America No. 1 again, and we can do that by passing comprehensive clean energy legislation.

YOUNG: The bus stops at an American Legion hall in Wrentham, Massachusetts, where a few dozen people, mostly men in their 50s and up, sip coffee and listen to Robin. She tries to bridge the generation gap here with a reference to World War II.

ECKSTEIN: America really came together during World War II. People were at their own home creating these victory gardens. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have our own victory gardens by having these solar array fields, by having wind turbine places? Have those be our victory gardens. Have that energy be here in the United States, that money here, those jobs here.

YOUNG: Peter Baker, who calls himself a Cold War veteran, speaks up.

BAKER: I run a small little business and I could easily retool to make solar panels. There are some things going on and I’m proud of my country. I want it to stay proud. I don’t know what the heck to tell my grandchildren. I don’t know what to tell my sons what to do, where to go. Well, there’s something we can get on board and that’s what we’re here for is to get people off their duffs and do something about it. Thanks.


YOUNG: After a lively Q&A period it’s back to the bus and on to the next town.
Matt Victoriano says the response in Wrentham is typical of what he’s hearing from people around the country—deep concern about national security and economic uncertainty and a general anxiety about where the country’s headed.

VICTORIANO: They have a hard time looking at their grandkids and making sure that they’re going to be secure when they grow up and have kids on their own. We spend billions and billions of dollars on oil subsidies on foreign jobs. We get 60 percent of our oil from overseas. We have a manufacturing sector that has dwindled. They see the jobs going overseas and they say what can we do.

And this is absolutely a way to bring those jobs back, bring the money back. They hear a message and they can go home and tell their grandkids, yeah, there is hope for you in the future.

YOUNG: Do you see this as a sort of continuation of your service to your country?

Veterans clear invasive species in Washington. (Photo: George Cavallo)

VICTORIANO: We didn’t stop our service to the country once we took off our uniform. We carry that same patriotism, that same dedication in our hearts wherever we go. I did see 19-year-old marines crying with holes in their body and blood coming out and it’s my responsibility to keep on doing what I can to protect them and make sure that their best interests are always taken into account. All veterans want to keep on serving their country once their service in the military is over and this is—you can’t find a better way to do it than this.


[MUSIC: Van Morrison “Brand New Day” from Moondance (Warner Bros 1970)]

YOUNG: There’s more about these veterans programs and green jobs for vets at our web site l-o-e dot org.

Related links:
- Nexamp
- Veterans Green Jobs
- Veterans Conservation Corp
- Operation Free
- Vote Vets

Back to top


CURWOOD: Now, we need your thoughts. Earth is 40-years-old—middle aged indeed–does it still have a role? And what should that be? Let us know how you feel.
Email comments at loe dot org – comments at loe dot org. Or call 800–218-9988. That’s 800-218-9988.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, and Mitra Taj, with help from Sarah Calkins, Marilyn Govoni and Sammy Sousa.

YOUNG: Our interns are Emily Guerin and Bridget Macdonald. We had engineering help this week from Dana Chisholm. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org. I’m Jeff Young.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening. And happy Earth Day!

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