After Silent Spring, the rest of the decade was dominated by competing scientific studies, competing bureaucracies struggling for power, and a public that was became solidly pro-environment. The milestones of the decade were the banning of DDT and the first Earth Day celebration.
The DDT controversy simmered as a half-dozen major scientific studies in the late 60s came to differing conclusions. In some of the studies, federal pesticide policies were not protecting human health or the environment from the dangers of pesticides. In the other studies, the dangers were being blown out of proportion because the risk was miniscule especially when balanced against the benefits of better and cheaper food.
With little consensus within the scientific community, the politicians took up the issue of pesticides and found much to argue about. President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee issued a report that recommended that the use of DDT and heptachlor be phased out. The USDA disagreed and the battle was joined.
In 1963, the pesticide case was hurt when there was a massive fish kill on the lower Mississippi River. The Public Health Service said that a pesticide plant owned by the Velsicol Chemical Company – who had been particularly nasty in their ridicule of Rachel Carson – had leaked enough of the insecticide endrin to kill the fish. The USDA disagreed.
In part because of these recurring incidents of pesticide poisoning, the membership roles of the conservation groups were growing exponentially. In 1966, the Sierra Club abandoned its regional focus and bought a series of full-page advertisements in major newspapers urging the public to oppose a proposed dam on the Grand Canyon.
The IRS decided that this constituted lobbying and therefore the membership dues could no longer be deducted on the income tax forms of the members. The proponents of dams and the pesticide companies were able to deduct their lobbying expenses, but the environmental groups could not.
The environmental organizations found a way around the IRS rules. Rather than lobbying the federal government, they began to work through the courts. In the late 60s, the Audubon Society set up the “Rachel Carson Fund” to bring court cases against DDT. About the same time, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) was set up with similar ambitions for legal proceedings. The IRS decided that court cases did not constitute lobbying, and so the contributions to the legal funds were still tax-exempt. The Sierra Club quickly set up their own fund, and new organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Action were established.
The EDF became the main organization pushing to ban DDT. They lost several cases in federal courts, but then discovered that the State of Wisconsin had a hearing procedure that would allow EDF to define the issue – Was DDT safe for man or wildlife? The industry representatives and the USDA showed up for the hearing and were completely unprepared for the new rules. EDF was able to get into the record studies that had been banned in the court cases. In one particularly damning exchange, the USDA had to admit that they made no independent checks of the data that the pesticide companies supplied USDA in order to get a pesticide registered for use.
In early 1969, Wisconsin declared DDT to be a hazardous pollutant and recommended strongly that the pesticide not be used in the state.
It was the beginning of the end for DDT in the U.S.
Michigan banned the use in 1969. Ohio didn’t. The Audubon Society decried the hodgepodge of state actions. When Congress convened in 1969, there were 31 separate proposals to ban certain pesticides or change the way they were regulated. The same year, a new study from the Health, Education and Welfare department recommended phasing out federal use of DDT.
Finally, in 1969, Secretary of Agriculture Clifford Hardin cancelled the registrations of a third of the commercial formulations of DDT and stated his intent to cancel all but “essential” DDT use by late 1970. A full outright ban of DDT came in 1972.
The symbolic culmination of 15 years of growing environmental activism was the first Earth Day Celebration. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson formally proposed the idea in 1969. He had seen how the Peace Movement was sponsoring “teach-ins” and demonstrations to raise awareness of the issues, and he borrowed the concepts and organization techniques.
In September 1969, he announced that the first “Earth Day” would be held on April 22, 1970 – the same day as Arbor Day, the tree-planting holiday established by Nebraskan J. Sterling Morton. Nelson invited the public to participate in a day of study and demonstrations on behalf of the environment.
The idea took off. Calls and letters poured into his Senate office asking for help organizing local demonstrations. Eventually, Nelson borrowed office space from Common Cause and hired a Harvard Law graduate student and anti-Vietnam War activist, Denis Hayes, to head the effort.
Hayes took the event off of the campuses and into the streets of cities and towns. He also linked traditional rural conservation issues, like protection of wilderness and endangered species, with concerns about air and water pollution that appealed to urban activists.
When April 22nd rolled around, 20 million people participated. Folk singer and activist Pete Seeger was the keynote speaker and performer in Washington DC. Actors Paul Newman and Ali McGraw participated in New York City. The local coalitions organizing events around the country included anti-war activists, science teachers and Boy Scouts.
Reportedly, when (by then) President Richard Nixon saw the response to Earth Day, he developed his plan to combine around 15 diffuse federal agencies into one Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA was established in the December 1970.
Historians have also suggested that the depth of public concern that Earth Day demonstrated helped push through the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.
In 2000, an estimated 500 million people participated in Earth Day celebrations in 184 countries, including the first environmental demonstration ever in China.