What many people don’t remember about the Endangered Species Act is that it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who called on a Democratic Congress to take action to protect our environment.
We need to do the hard work, every single day, of coming together and talking with our friends and neighbors in our community. We need to embrace new technology and find new tools for getting our message across. We need to share stories of what’s working and what needs to change. We need to get our elected officials—from both parties—on record with their proposals, and then make sure that they are held accountable for their words.
Four decades later, in this time of gridlock and partisanship, it would be helpful for both political parties to take a lesson from history and remember how this legislation—and the other environmental legislation passed during the 93rd Congress—came to be.
Yes, politics mattered, and the environmental movement pushed our leaders towards action. But both parties knew that, above all else, they were responsible to leave our children with a better life and a better world. However many moral tests Richard Nixon failed, he passed this one with his environmental record. I’m not sure how many of our leaders could pass it today.
Imagine how different our world would be if our broken politics of today operated in that golden era of environmental legislation. Would anything have been accomplished?
What species would no longer be free to roam, fly, or swim?
Which lands would we have destroyed, instead of preserving them as natural habitats?
Would the symbol of our national heritage, the bald eagle, be extinct?
Over the last forty years, our politics has become so polarized, so partisan, and so poll-tested, that our leaders can’t even come together around something that, at its core, is a basic responsibility.
At the same time, this simple need to preserve and protect our world has not gone away—it has only become more important. And despite the progress of the Endangered Species Act, something as obvious and obligatory as protecting our environment has now become the victim of a broken and dysfunctional political system.
Combating the enormous threat of climate change (that virtually all scientists agree on) is somehow controversial in some political circles. Too many of our leaders would rather sit on their hands than upset a fringe political movement that denies science. It has become politically easier to get lost in gridlock than take a stand for generations to come.
The challenge now for the environmental movement is to build a roadmap to turn the tide of history, yet again. And this time it’s going to be a lot harder. We have plenty of environmental pioneers who are building on the spirit of the Rachel Carsons and Paul Ehrlichs from decades ago. But we need more Gaylord Nelsons and Republicans like the late Russell Train—and yes, even Richard Nixon.
So the job will rest with the people, with all of us: To build the biggest grassroots movement we can. We need to do the hard work, every single day, of coming together and talking with our friends and neighbors in our community. We need to embrace new technology and find new tools for getting our message across. We need to share stories of what’s working and what needs to change. We need to get our elected officials—from both parties—on record with their proposals, and then make sure that they are held accountable for their words.
Together, we can grow this movement all across America until it is a force that is impossible for anyone to ignore. And through this all we must never lose sight of why we are doing this: our responsibility to protect not only ourselves, but the generations to come.