Founder of Earth Day warns of overpopulation
By GREGORY FOLEY
Express Staff Writer
More than three decades after founding
Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, 87, remains profoundly passionate about his mission
to raise public awareness of environmental issues.
Nelson, who served as governor of
Wisconsin from 1959 to 1963 and a U.S. senator from 1963 to 1981, still works
daily as a counselor for The Wilderness Society, the Washington D.C.-based
environmental organization. As such, he is a tireless advocate for the
preservation of natural resources.
In Sun Valley last week for a meeting of
the National Governing Council of The Wilderness Society, Nelson served as the
keynote speaker of the event’s celebratory dinner. He joked about partisan
politics and even called upon the words of former Vice President Dan Quayle to
get a few laughs from his audience.
One of the most humorous things he had
ever heard, he said, was a comment made by Quayle during his four-year tenure in
the George Bush Sr. administration. "It isn’t the pollutants that are
harming the environment," Nelson quoted Quayle. "It’s the impurities
in our air and water."
However, Nelson spoke with a more serious
tenor last Friday in an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express at Sun Valley
Lodge. First and foremost, he warned of the perils of impending overpopulation
and the tendency of elected officials of all political persuasions to avoid
tackling key environmental issues.
Nelson said he believes the United States
needs to act promptly to protect more natural areas, largely because public
lands will be subject to explosive degrees of pressure in the next century from
an ever-expanding population.
"We ought to preserve as much of the
natural areas as we can because they’re disappearing rapidly," Nelson
He noted that there were 98 million people
in the United States when he was born in Clear Lake, Wis. in 1916. The figure
climbed to 280 million in 2000, and is expected to reach 500 million by around
2060, he said.
"The presidents and Congresses are
not even discussing what’s going to happen to the United States," he
said. "What will be left of the natural areas when we hit 500 million or a
billion? There will be very few open spaces and places for wildlife."
Nelson said he is gravely concerned that
the millions of people that now inhabit the nation are not using their natural
resources in a sustainable fashion. "Creating sustainability is our
greatest challenge," he said. "All the issues fold into that…
"At least the president and Congress
ought to be conducting hearings on sustainability, but nobody’s talking about
The former senator said he has embarked on
a campaign to encourage the White House to render a "State of the
Resources" address every year, scheduled with the same regularity and
fanfare as the "State of the Union" address.
"The state of the union depends a lot
more on the state of the resource base than on what happens on Wall
Street," he said. "The public’s right to know is at stake here…
They’re entitled to know what’s happening."
Many communities in the West and Midwest
are drawing too heavily on water resources, he noted, and the country by 2050 is
facing a dramatic surge—from 217 million to 317 million—in the number of
automobiles and light trucks that travel its ever-expanding system of roadways.
"Where are you going to put 100 million more cars?" he asked.
Nelson said he believes representatives in
Washington are generally more aware today of environmental issues than they were
in the 1960s, when he hatched the idea for an Earth Day celebration. However, he
said elected officials will have to become more "collegial" if they
are to be effective in addressing the nation’s larger problems.
"I don’t believe an institution can
survive very long if there is not a mutual respect among its members," he
Nelson, who worked on the Earth Day
concept for seven years before it was inaugurated in 1970, said he believes the
dialogue about environmental issues that was started in the early 1970s has
fostered a greater awareness among the nation’s youth—a true cause for
optimism. "We have to nurture a generation, and it’s happening."
Moreover, he said new generations of
elected officials and citizens are employing more wisdom and common sense than
they did in the last century. Gone are the days, he noted, of filling wetlands
simply to build straighter roads.
"If we had been asking the question
of ‘What are the consequences?’ we wouldn’t have done 95 percent of what
we did," he said.