Nelson's environmental agenda

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This transcript in the Janaury 19, 1970 Congressional Record contains the Senate speech in which Gaylord Nelson proposed a comprehensive legislative battle plan for tackling the "environmental crisis."

Nelson proposed an 11 point "environmental agenda for the 1970's" that included sweeping policy changes, alternative energy, education, pollution control, recycling, and public advocacy. The speech also documents Nelson's proposed a constitutional amendment that would read: "Every person has the inalienable right to a decent environment. The United States and every State shall guarantee this right."

Some of these proposals from January 1970 may strike modern readers as pipe dreams, such as Nelson's demand that the internal combustion be eliminated before decade's end or his proposal for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing environmental quality (an idea he later admitted to his biographer, Bill Christofferson, was "totally unmanageable").[1]

However, if one considers that efforts were - and still are - underway around the world to bring Nelson's most ambitious agenda items to life, Nelson's 1970 speech seems very contemporary. And, by Christofferson’s count, by the middle of the 1970s Congress had moved forward on half of the 20 bills Nelson describes here in this speech.

The tone of the speech reveals that Nelson's sense of urgency remained as acute as when he was the "conservation governor" of Wisconsin. But, a decade on, he insisted it is not simply idyllic landscapes that were threatened, but all of humanity. "Man is on the way to defining the terms of his own extinction," he here proclaims to his Senate colleagues.

Nelson's proposals in this speech were not limited to the land preservation and natural resource conservation he prioritized as governor. Rather, they addressed a broad range of concerns that had come to the fore during the 1960s.

He targeted pesticides, the villain of Rachel Carson's 1962 firebrand of a book, Silent Spring, as well as overpopulation, which had been much discussed since the publication of Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb two years earlier. With the spectre of the previous January's disastrous oil spill in Santa Barbara still haunting the nation, Nelson called for increased regulation of offshore oil drilling.

Notably, Nelson here insists that urban environments must be included in the commonly-held conception of "the environment" as a rural and wild place. The speech criticizes "progress—American style" for its toll on not just unspoiled lakes and tranquil mountain ranges, but its harsh effects on "the laboring man, living in the shadows of the spewing smokestacks," "the student watching the university building program destroy a community," and "the black man living alongside the noisy, polluted truck routes through the central city ghetto."


1 Bill Christofferson, The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Senator Gaylord Nelson (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), p.328