The world was careening toward crisis, yes, but I was going to meet up with the people who were ready to do something about it. And I was going to have a chance to be a part of the solution. I was so into it all that I fashioned a cardboard sign, held on my lower back or posterior with twine. The sign said, "Pedals Don't Pollute." The letter "o" in "Pollute" was the squeezed Greek letter theta, which had become the Earth Day symbol, like this: Pedals Don't PΘllute. Laugh all you want; what happened changed history. Nationwide, 20 million people showed up to help create the modern environmental movement. We are still living in the aftermath.
I locked my Schwinn Super Sport bicycle to a flagpole at the Washington Monument, just as you would if you were riding around in a small town. (If you tried that today, your bike would probably be taken to a remote location, x-rayed, and destroyed. Such is change.) Then I joined the thousands of others making their way to the National Mall. On the Mall side of the US Capitol Building was a huge stage; over the course of the day, a succession of speakers there described in chilling detail the ways that humans were harming the planet and urged us to reform our environmentally evil ways.
More: From Al Gore: How to Talk to Climate Change Deniers
In those days, we were all intensely concerned about pollution. Just a year earlier, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River had essentially caught fire when a large oil slick on the water near the Republic Steel mill went up in flames. Soon, that river fire became an emblem of industry run amok. I remember riding my bike near the Potomac River around that same time and being incredulous that there were people out there on boats. It seemed impossible to me that anybody would voluntarily get near the Potomac, let alone on it: "Isn't that water too polluted to put valuable boats on or in? You can't be serious. What if a boat driver were to get some of that river spray in his mouth? Wouldn't he be dead in a few hours or even minutes?"
If you think today's environmentalists are doomsayers, you should have heard the Earth Day speakers. The message that I came away with was "Humans are bad." "Don't drive a car." Also, "Don't waste water—so wear dirty clothes" (like any good tree-hugging hippie). The overall lesson seemed to be that humans are bad for other living things, as well as themselves—us. Scientists were just starting to come to terms with the scope of our impact on the planet. The word "ecosystem" was relatively new, as was the field of ecology. It wasn't hard to see the overall trend, though. Living things interact in predictable ways, and we were seriously messing with those interactions. I might be exaggerating the mood a bit; the views of a teenager can do that. But to me, the warnings all seemed logical and conclusive. We couldn't keep on going the way we were going because we were destroying our world. Those views struck many as extreme, and they reinforced the idea in certain quarters that Earth Day was organized by that imagined bunch of dirty hippies.
"We have a collective responsibility and, along with it, the power of collective action."
I also got another, much stronger message that day: We have a collective responsibility and, along with it, the power of collective action. The majority of the 20 million people who showed up were ordinary people from all classes and cultures who were deeply concerned about the environment. When you added up that much concern, it was extremely influential. Factions in the US Congress quickly found common cause with President Richard Nixon and agreed to establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is a piece of environmental history that is too often overlooked: The government agency most responsible for clamping down on polluters and making this country more green was born under a conservative Republican president. Equally impressive, the legislation creating the EPA was enacted just 8 months after Earth Day. Partisan divisions and gridlock on environmental issues are not necessarily a given.
Since its inception, the EPA has continually fought the good fight. Its mission is to protect human health and the environment. The agency wages a continual battle for the public good as industries and individuals seek to externalize their costs. "Externalize" is an economist's term that means "make someone else pay for it." External costs are the consequence of the basic truism that you can't get something for nothing. In general, polluting is easier than not polluting; otherwise, people wouldn't be doing it. As a result, there will almost always be some expense involved in being cleaner and more benign. Those costs run headlong into another truism: People don't like to pay for something if there's some way they can stick someone else with the bill. Industries and individuals fight one another all the time these days to externalize the costs of living. The problem is, somebody has to pay for the services and quality of environment that we all want.
More: From Al Gore: 4 Ways to Help Stop Climate Change at Home
In the case of the environment, we all pay for waste-treatment facilities that have to include systems to get rid of all the dirty things we produce, from industrial solvents and debris to our food preparation and digestive by-products, along with the dirty motor oil that your neighbor decided to pour down the storm drain. If the power company on the Potomac River discharged an effluent so hot that it killed the fish, the rest of us would not have to deal with rotting fish carcasses downstream.
Come to think of it, we did. As a Boy Scout, I once paddled a canoe through a slurry of fish corpses on the Potomac River. It was an eye-and nose-opening experience. The fish had died because, at the time, the local power company was not required to cool water from the generating plant before that overheated water was pumped back into the river. When the company eventually addressed the problem by installing expansive cooling systems, it charged us all higher electric fees to offset the cost of the cooling equipment and the extra real estate it was built upon. In this example, the company redirected its externalized costs to the people who pay electric bills, rather than onto the fish and the people who would otherwise have had to deal with disposing of the rotting fish carcasses.
Economists call situations like this the "tragedy of the commons," a reference to the shared grazing land in the British Isles. Some people might decide to graze one or two more cattle than is allowed in the commons agreement. A little cheating doesn't seem like it would cause any harm. But if most or all the people do that, pretty soon the commons will not be able to support everyone's grazing animals. In other words, common resources will vanish unless people share responsibility for tending to them. So how do you ensure that the commons, and any other shared resource, isn't being exploited by someone or some agency that puts its needs ahead of the common good?
This is where the unfairly vilified term "regulation" comes in. As an engineer, I think of regulations as being like a complicated modern factory, complete with robotic welders, conveyor belts, sorting devices, and so on. You could easily get carried away when designing a factory like this, buying too many machines and giving the assembly line too many twists and turns. That would waste money and reduce efficiency, and perhaps create serious snags in the production process. On the other hand, there is a critical minimum set of components that a factory needs to operate. You can't arbitrarily step in and decide "I don't like the look of that robot, so let's not bother doing that part of the welding process." And once you've worked out an agreeable set of components to keep things moving smoothly, you have to remain alert to malfunctions. You cannot let the belts wear out; if you don't maintain them, they will break and bring the whole factory to a halt.
More: 5 Disturbing Side Effects of Freaky Weather
So it is with environmental rules. We want all the ones we need, but no more. Too many and we start to interfere with innovation and economic growth while providing little practical benefit. Too few legal protections pose a more critical risk, however. If we don't pay enough attention to our shared responsibilities, we can allow serious harm to humans and to the other species we rely on. Environmental pollution, especially the carbon dioxide emissions associated with climate change, is the tragedy of the commons writ large—as large as can be. Regulation is really just a legal analog of smart engineering. It formalizes our ideas about how best to take care of the planet (and ourselves) so that the whole system keeps running smoothly.
"The EPA, and all the other agencies that do like-minded work, is composed of true ardent nerds working hard to focus on the big picture and to serve the needs of the many rather than those of the few."
It is fashionable in certain circles these days to talk about government agencies as if they are autonomous devices that merrily go about pursuing their own agendas. That is about as absurd as criticizing a factory foreman for caring more about the machines than for the final product. Taking care of the machines is inseparable from taking care of the production process. Similarly, agencies like the EPA were created to take care of the planet and avert tragedy. I can tell you, as someone who was on the scene at the first Earth Day and as I detail it in Everything All At Once, there could hardly be anything more human than the worried, passionate, diverse crowd that gathered there to agitate for a cleaner planet. The EPA, and all the other agencies that do like-minded work, is composed of true ardent nerds working hard to focus on the big picture and to serve the needs of the many rather than those of the few. When those agencies are under assault, we are all under assault, and we need to defend our common interests.
The EPA is the American people, and we are the EPA. At least, we should be.