Edmund Muskie was the leading environmentalist in Congress in 1970, so it was not surprising that he was invited to be the keynote speaker at the first Earth Day gathering in Philadelphia.  Muskie called for “an Environmental Revolution,” a fitting idea to suggest moments after the cast of Hair sang “The Age of Aquarius” to the 20,000 people in attendance.  Muskie explained that the environmental revolution “must be one of laws, not men; one of values, not ideology; and one of achievement, not unfulfilled promises.”  So how is the revolution going 46 years later?

Whether one sees more environmental achievements or more unfilled promises probably depends on whether one is inclined to see the proverbial cup as half empty or half full.  Numerous speakers in 1970 predicted the extinction of countless species, pollution that killed millions of people, and mass starvation resulting from the so-called population bomb.  Much of today’s rhetoric regarding climate change echoes those portraits of doom.  But nothing even close to those earlier prophecies has happened.  To the contrary, fewer people are hungry today, pollution is not nearly as bad as it was in the United States in 1970, and more species are being removed from the list of endangered species because they have recovered, not because they went extinct.  Since we celebrated Earth Day last year, the Louisiana black bear, a squirrel native to the Chesapeake Bay region, and fish found in northeastern California have each recovered from the brink of extinction so that they no longer need federal protection to survive.  Next year grizzlies in Yellowstone may join them.

Muskie’s second concern was that values should drive environmental decisions, not ideology.  The brief era of environmental bipartisanship ended within a few years after the first Earth Day, but environmental issues more polarizing today than they have ever been before.  We used to argue about the solutions to environmental problems; now we often argue about whether they even exist.  Part of the disagreement involves questions which were unanswered in 1970.  The National Environmental Policy Act, enacted a few months before the first Earth Day, states “a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment.”  A few years later, President Ford’s Earth Day proclamation exhorted us to “join in building a productive land in harmony with nature.”  But what harmony looks like, and how we can build it, remains uncertain. 

That is why Muskie’s emphasis on values is so important.  In his 1993 Earth Day address, President Clinton referred to “a deep understanding rooted in our religious heritage and renewed in the spirit of this time that the bounty of nature is not ours to waste. It is a gift from God that we hold in trust for future generations.”  Such ideas received their fullest expression to date last summer when Pope Francis released his encyclical echoing the words of St. Francis of Assisi and urging “care for our common home.”  The praise which the encyclical has received from otherwise battling political forces offers hope for a non-polarized environmental future.

The third feature of Muskie’s environmental revolution is that it is “one of laws, not men.”  Congress quickly fulfilled Muskie’s hope by passing a half dozen statutes which continue to provide the foundation for environmental law today.  But Muskie expected more than that.  His reference to “laws, not men” came from the Massachusetts state constitution, drafted by John Adams in 1780, which insists on a strict separation of governmental powers “to the end that it may be a government of laws, and not of men.”  Today many of our environmental law disputes are precisely disputes about the separation of powers. 

Muskie believed that Congress should take the lead in environmental lawmaking.  “Few other areas of public policy require the balancing of conflicting interests and the consideration of trade-offs in such agonizing detail,” Muskie wrote later, “but that detail should not be an excuse for deferring to the courts or to the executive.”  Yet today many environmentalists applaud such deference to the President and to the courts, while demeaning congressional environmental actions.  The criticism of Congress is exaggerated; the December 2015 federal spending bill that extended tax credits for renewable energy while lifting a ban on offshore oil drilling is just the latest in a long history of congressional compromises related to the environment. 

Muskie anticipated that impatient environmental revolutionaries would reach for an “excuse” to rely on executive action rather than enduring the agony of waiting on Congress.  That is precisely what has happened as President Obama has championed environmental causes while Congress seems hopelessly divided.  But Muskie’s counsel is to wait lest we resort to a government of men, not laws. That’s how his Environmental Revolution can remain true to the American Revolution, and how April 22 can be reconciled with July 4.