When Did Protecting The Environment Become A Partisan Issue?

by Marcia G. Yerman

Within the past month, two men who had an impact on the American environment died. They were both in their ninth decades. Their lives and work are important examples of the direction we should be pursuing today.

Russell E. Train was 92; Barry Commoner was 95. They came from disparate places on the political spectrum and very different backgrounds. Yet they both grasped the vital consequences of protecting the earth’s resources and the fact that people need to work together to achieve these goals.

When did protecting the environment become so polarizing? Ironically, it was Richard Nixon who was prescient about the importance of environmental concerns. He worked in tandem with Train—who in a New York Times obituary was referenced as being“considered the father of modern federal environmental policy.”

Train was a Republican from an insider D.C. family. The Washington Post stated that he was widely regarded as one of the most important American conservationists in the past half-century.” He served as the Chairperson of the Council on Environmental Quality for three years before becoming the second administrator of the EPA (1973-1977) under Nixon and Ford. Armed with degrees from Princeton and Columbia Law School, his path was geared toward public service. A trip to Africa in the 1950s was a turning point. Shortly afterwards, he founded the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation.

Credit has been given to Train as the force behind the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environment Policy Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act.

I found an oral history with Train on the EPA website that was eye opening. He related that he had a good working relationship with the Nixon White House and the Congress, enjoying “bipartisan support.” In 1970, the Senate passed the Clean Air Act by a unanimous vote. He noted, “Nixon made a decision early in his administration that the environment was important politically.”

Train spoke clearly about the connectivity between “developmental planning” and“international economic growth,” and believed that the environment concerned every “geographic region of the country” and could be “used to help unify the nation and bring people together.” He wanted to involve American citizens.

Forthcoming about the pressure he received from the agricultural, automobile, chemical and energy industries, Train openly admitted that those supporting health and environmental concerns had also called him to task. Still, he wasn’t afraid to be tough. He didn’t hesitate to close down a U.S. Steel plant in Birmingham during a fight over emissions. He saw a clear relationship between poverty and environmental factors, and named his biggest achievement as “holding the environmental line” during the 1970s energy crisis and oil embargoes.

Train wanted to educate Americans about the importance of environmental issues and“engage” government in the process. The Washington Post reported that in 2009, he personally told EPA head Lisa Jackson that she was “well within her authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.” Train protected the sanctity of the Everglades and spoke about climate change.

So why are people half Train’s age so unwillingly to embrace the need of the environment to be defended?

An answer may be found in the career and observations of Barry Commoner, who died 13 days after Train. His philosophy was simple. He believed the problem was the thoughtless way we produce [via industrialized agriculture and manufacturing] without thinking about how it’s done and how it impacts lives, health, and poor people.”

Commoner trained as a biologist at Columbia and Harvard, came from an immigrant family, and had decidedly leftist politics. He always linked environmental concerns with social justice. On the 1970 February issue of Time Magazine, Commoner’s image graced the cover with the title, “The Emerging Science of Survival.” A diagonal banner announced the environment as “Nixon’s New Issue.”

In a 2006 video interview with the New York Times, Commoner discussed how his studies yielded the research at the root of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He warned of radioactive fallout, the greenhouse effect, and the need to recycle. By example, he spoke about how lead emissions in gasoline had affected the brains of children, as evidenced in diminished IQs. In 1970, through means of reformatting production, lead was removed from gasoline. Currently, the percentage of lead in children’s blood is minimal.

Commoner’s point was embodied in the National Environmental Policy Act, which proposed, “Man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” Unfortunately, it is a concept too many are willing to ignore as they try to solve economic problems with short-term solutions.

Russell Train and Barry Commoner left this country important legacies. They left us with a vision for protecting the environment as a health issue, not a political one. When did protecting the environment become a partisan issue? It’s time we learned from these two environmental leaders and move forward – together.

Tell the presidential candidates to talk about global warming.

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Photo credit: Shutterstock


Georgia L.
Georgia L5 years ago

I suppose people will have to watch their children sick from mercury poisoning or breathing coal soot again before they wake up. These fanatics think they are going to rapture any minute and not have to worry about it I guess. I have news for them. They've been saying that it was the end times for 2000 years.

Carrie Anne Brown

interesting article, thanks for sharing :)

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago

Vote all republicans out of office in every state at every opportunity.

Susan Allen
SusanAWAY Allen5 years ago

Well, the answer to this question is a no brainer. Once the fundamentally religious started to infiltrate the government in the early 80s and bring with them their crazy ideas of young earth creationism and of end of days, it was just a hop, skip and a jump to disbelieving science altogether. And since the fundamentalist crazies were welcomed into the government by the republicans, it makes sense that climate science is believed by the democrats and denied by the tea-publicans.

Stephen Greg
Jason T5 years ago

People who worked with Nixon have said he didn't care about or understand the environment personally. Nixon did whatever he did for the environmental movement because there was an immense amount of public pressure placed on him from the public, republicans and democrats alike. These days RepubliCorp has sold its soul to big polluters, and most of the citizens who are blindly loyal to that party have jumped aboard the anti-environmentalism express. So protecting nature has become a partisan issue because of the legalized corruption deeply ingrained in our political system.

John B.
John B5 years ago

Thanks for sharing Ms. Yerman's wonderful article about these two great men. when did environmental issues become partisan? When Republican's decided that big oil, gas,coal and agro business' would line their pockets with money.

rene davis
irene davis5 years ago

Great article.

Isabel Araujo
Isabel Araujo5 years ago

Very good article, thank you.

Dieter Riedel
Dieter R5 years ago

We cannot wait for corporations and governments, it is up to everyone to do their bit and life by example...

Jane H.
Jane H5 years ago

Things changed when the Repugnicans went out to right field, and make no mistake they're still so far out there I can hardly see them. The Dems are the only moderate party in existance now.