In “Letters from an American,” political historian Heather Cox Richardson recently observed that in the post-World War II years, there was a commitment to using government to promote stability by fostering equality of opportunity and a rising standard of living for all. This was an extension, she says, of the government regulations, social safety net and infrastructure development established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democrats in the 1930s and continued by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.
In the decade after World War II, a young woman born on a farm outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania used her scientific training and powerful writing skills to educate the general public about the inextricable connections between humans and the natural world: the life support systems upon which we all depend. Her name was Rachel Carson.
As a biologist and editor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she was privy to early studies that showed how chemicals, developed during wartime then transformed into domestic products, were poisoning birds and wildlife – while contaminating our air, land and water. Carson embarked on a relentless, and often lonely, crusade to bring science, data and rigorous analysis to the attention of the public and elected officials in language that was understandable and compelling. In 1962, she published Silent Spring, which warned of the dangers to natural systems from the misuse of chemical pesticides and helped launch the modern environmental movement.
A private person and unlikely revolutionary, Carson literally changed the world by creating among the public an “ecological conscience” and revealing the critical role of science and data in protecting all of us from man-made poisons. In 1970 – eight years after the publication of her seminal book and six years after her death from cancer – Congress created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which, this year, celebrates its golden anniversary. It has been said that EPA is the “extended shadow of Rachel Carson.” People across America were sick and tired of burning rivers, oil spills, toxic air pollution and stinking waterways; they were alarmed when a nationwide survey revealed, in 1969, that more than half of all drinking water treatment systems had major deficiencies. With strong public and bipartisan political pressure, they demanded and secured change.
I was in college and only generally aware of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 and the creation of EPA that December – when a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities were consolidated into one agency. Its mission: to protect public health and the environment by conducting research and implementing federal environmental statutes, most of which were passed during that transformative decade. After completing a masters in environmental planning at Georgia Tech, I began working at EPA in 1980, as a management intern. Six months later, Ronald Reagan was elected president; in his inaugural address, he proclaimed: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
With the advent of the Reagan Administration and its laser focus on tax cuts, the unraveling of federal natural resource agencies, such as EPA, began. Experts were silenced, investigations shut down and research and monitoring projects de-funded. While I worked on several interesting water-related projects, I had way too much time on my hands with nothing meaningful to do – the apparent intention of political appointees. Those years did provide me with an important lesson in how budgets, politics and ideology can stymie and even destroy the science, data collection and policy-making that keep our communities safe.
Over the past four decades, support for EPA has waxed and waned, but hard-working, committed people at the agency have secured an impressive list of successes that have made our lives better and longer. Blood lead levels in children have been dramatically reduced; toxic air emissions significantly lowered; bans of dangerous chemicals enacted; and, here in Atlanta, EPA worked closely with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper to stop chronic sewage spills in the river that supplies our drinking water; its role was critical to the successful outcome. This year’s 50th anniversary celebration should appropriately recognize all of these accomplishments and many more.
It’s going to take a long time for scientific expertise to return to the EPA, Centers for Disease Control, Health and Human Services and others government agencies – even when we act now by electing candidates who embrace science and fact-driven policies. As we are learning with the ongoing public-health crisis, our lives and economic futures depend on a strong, funded and informed government.
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in INtown.