By Wendy Read Wertz
By the 1950s, 150 years of unfettered exploitation of the continent’s immense wealth of natural resources had helped to make the United States the world’s leading power. This status, however, had been achieved at an enormous cost to the natural environment. During a three month, 11,000 mile drive he undertook around the western United States in 1950, political scientist Lynton Keith Caldwell observed for himself some of the environmental destruction that generations of Americans had often unthinkingly perpetrated on the landscape. He lamented, for example, the garbage strewn along highways, the erosion of soils, the pollution of waters and air, including escalating levels of urban smog, the ugliness of poorly planned communities, and the irreparable ecological damage created by mining, logging and dam building activities.
As I trace in Lynton Keith Caldwell: An Environmental Visionary and the National Environmental Policy Act, Caldwell made the decision in 1962 to abandon his career in government and public administration in order to turn his mind to something then entirely novel: the development of environmental policy and administration to achieve better public planning, regulation and protection of the nation’s remaining resources. By this time others both within and outside of government, including some influential members of Congress such as Henry M. Jackson, Edmund Muskie, and Gaylord Nelson in the Senate and John Dingell in the House, shared his concerns about the rapid deterioration of the nation’s natural environment.
Between 1960 and 1965, various members of Congress, including Nelson, introduced a number of environmental bills. By 1967, Jackson had become determined to advance and win passage of a bill on national environmental policy. To prepare the way, he turned to Caldwell—who in the interim had become well known for his then unusual expertise in both public administration and environmental affairs—to provide needed expertise and assistance. In March 1967, Dingell introduced a bill in the House that called for the establishment of a Council on Environmental Quality. In December that year, Jackson introduced the first version of his own environmental bill that also stressed the need for such a council.
During the course of 1968, Nelson, Muskie, and Jackson all reintroduced revised versions of their respective bills. In June 1968, Caldwell submitted to Jackson a detailed report, A National Policy for the Environment in which, among many recommendations, he supported the idea, as suggested by Senator Nelson in his own bills, to set up and fund new programs of ecological research and surveys. In April 1969, Caldwell acted as the chief witness for Jackson’s bill at a major hearing held on three rival bills presented by Senators Jackson, Nelson, and George McGovern before the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee that Jackson chaired. During this hearing, at which Jackson’s bill prevailed, Caldwell argued the need for the inclusion of “action forcing” provisions. These provisions eventually became the important environmental impact statement (EIS) clauses in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
Nelson was among those who gave their strong support to the final version of Jackson’s bill, which included the EIS clauses, the setting up of ecological research and survey programs, and the establishment of a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). President Richard Nixon signed NEPA into law on January 1, 1970. The passage of NEPA, the nation’s “keystone” environmental law, marked the start of what is now often called the “Environmental Decade.”
A month later, planning preparations were already under way in towns and cities across the nation to celebrate the launch of the first Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson’s brainchild. On April 22, 1970, in a way that demonstrated just how important an issue taking better care of the Earth had become for large sectors of the public, some 20 million people took part in activities that together constituted a coast-to-coast pro-environment grassroots demonstration. In Bloomington, Caldwell, mindful of Nelson’s input and proactive help in advancing NEPA through the Senate, helped to arrange Earth Day events at Indiana University.
Today, 44 years since their inception, NEPA and Earth Day still remain in force, the living legacy of two men who shared a commonly-held vision: the urgent need to take better care of our planet now to ensure the healthy future survival of humanity.
Wendy Read Wertz has a degree in History and Environmental Studies from Indiana University where she met Caldwell and was captivated by his work and writings. Additionally, she has published several articles on Caldwell.