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From the Journal Sentinel
Last Updated: April 21, 2001


Earth Day founder sees some progress

(STYL)note,l Gaylord Nelson, 84, now counselor to the Wilderness Society, soaked up a love for the outdoors "by osmosis," as a kid growing up in Clear Lake, Wis. His zest for conservation propelled him from a seat in the Wisconsin Senate into the governorship in 1958, the first Democrat to occupy the office in 25 years. By 1962, he had broadened his environmental horizons, winning election to the U.S. Senate, where he served until swept from office by incoming Reagan Republicans in 1980. By then, he was better known nationally and internationally as the founder of Earth Day, April 22, 1970, a kind of coast-to-coast teach-in that involved 20 million people. At a conference of grass roots environmental groups in Oshkosh this weekend sponsored by the River Alliance and the Gathering Waters Conservancy, Nelson responded to these questions from Journal Sentinel environmental reporter Jo Sandin:

Q. Considering our refusal to ratify the Kyoto treaty, does the United States have any credibility in making environmental demands on other nations?

A. I think it's a disaster to pick up your marbles or your bat and ball and go home, as the United States has done in conferences on global warming. We're the biggest consumer. We're the biggest polluter in the world. We ought to be in a leadership position on these matters.

Q. Over the last 30 years, we have seen an increasing number of corporations making high-profile efforts to show environmental concern. Were we seeing the greening or the greenwashing of corporate America?

A. You've got to consider how far we've come. In 1970 there wasn't any head of any corporation nurtured to think there was any such thing as an environmental problem. Nor was anybody else prepared to think that way. . . . Now you have heads of corporations who were raised after the environment became a popular concern. Many of them are very good environmentalists. I suppose one of the items that excites and irritates college students is greenwashing, people who aren't green trying to appear green.

Q. What is the number one environmental problem facing the earth today?

A. If you had to choose just one, it would have to be population. . . . The bigger the population gets, the more serious the problems become. . . . We have to address the population issue. The United Nations, with the U.S. supporting it, took the position in Cairo in 1994 that every country was responsible for stabilizing its own population. It can be done. But in this country, it's phony to say "I'm for the environment but not for limiting immigration." It's just a fact that we can't take all the people who want to come here. And you don't have to be a racist to realize that. However, the subject has been driven out of public discussion because everybody is afraid of being called racist if they say they want any limits on immigration.

Q. What is the most important achievement of the environmental movement?

A. I'm not sure about that. Two things occur to me. One is the increasingly dramatic sensitivity of the general public to the issue of the status of our environment. Number two is environmental education. There was no environmental education in 1970. Now there are thousands of schools which offer good environmental education. The impressive thing to me as I go around speaking to groups is that grade schoolers today are asking me far more intelligent questions about the environment than I used to get from college seniors.

Q. Is the absence of a conservation ethic still our major problem? What must we do to begin to approach a conservation ethic?

A. It's evolving. We are making incremental progress. Let me give you an example. I was speaking recently to 700 third and fourth graders in Georgia. I spoke only about three minutes and then opened it up to questions. One little girl had, not a question, but a story. She said that she came home a week ago and went through the kitchen and saw her mother's groceries on the table. Among them, she saw there was a can of tuna without a dolphin symbol. She said, "I made my mother drive back to the store and turn in that tuna for a can with a dolphin on it." This little kid understood "dolphin safe" (tuna caught with methods that don't trap and kill dolphins in the tuna nets). That is part of the evolution of an ethic. . . . What's is the real wealth of a country? The real wealth is air, water, soil, forests, minerals, scenic beauty, oceans, wildlife habitat, biodiversity. Take that away and you've got a wasteland.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on April 22, 2001.



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