Discuss as:

At 90, an eco-pioneer looks ahead

Worries about a catastrophic oil spill ... a sense of impending ecological decline ... political gridlock over environmental policy. It all sounds familiar to 90-year-old Russell Train, who was in on the beginnings of the environmental movement. Except for the political gridlock, that is.

The political factor is the big difference that Train sees between how things were back the '70s, when he was a top environmental policymaker in the Nixon White House, and how they are today.

Many of the pillars of current environmental policy were erected during Train's tenure, as the first chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the second adninstrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. And Democrats as well as Republicans were quick to erect those pillars back then. "I think that was a moment in time that we may well never see again insofar as the environment is concerned," Train told me. "The issue has become much more highly politicized than it was back in the '70s."

Over the past half-century, Train has been in on many of the ups and downs of America's environmental issues - including the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which some have compared to the current offshore oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. "This moment may be like the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 - because most people got alarmed, that ended California offshore drilling," CleanTechnica's Susan Kraemer observed during the early days of the Gulf spill. "Even people who only watch 'American Idol' now know - there's an oil spill and it's bad."

Russell Train

Sam Kittner

Russell Train still speaks out on environmental policy at 90.

Train has played a big part in fostering America's environmental awareness, not only as a government official but as a grassroots leader as well. He founded the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation in 1961, was president of The Conservation Foundation from 1965 to 1969 and is founder chairman emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund. "Under his guidance, World Wildlife Fund-U.S. grew from a small, primarily grant-making organization into a global conservation force with over 1 million members," his WWF biography says.

Last month, Train celebrated his 90th birthday, but that doesn't mean he's resting on his laurels. In May, he wrote a letter to Senate leaders calling on the chamber to reject a resolution that would stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions. "The country would be better served if, rather than attempting to fix what is not broken, the Senate instead focused its energies on finalizing legislation to limit greenhouse gas pollutants and move the United States towards cleaner energy sources," Train wrote.

The Senate ended up defeating the motion on a 47-53 vote - which you could consider a belated 90th-birthday present for Train. During our interview, the eco-pioneer talked about past and present political controversies, past and present oil spills, and how it feels to be a "new nonagenarian." Here's an edited transcript:

Cosmic Log: I was very interested in any lessons that could be applied from your experience with the Santa Barbara oil spill to the current oil spill ... and perhaps the shape of environmental challenges to come.

Russell Train: Looking back, the Santa Barbara oil spill occurred just as I was entering the Department of the Interior as under secretary. I think I had been nominated by the president but had not yet been confirmed. I was in a bit of a no-man's land. It was very much front and center. ... I don't really recall any specific new legislative initiative that arose because of the oil spill. At that time we had in the country a rising tide of environmental awareness - particularly the younger side of society, but not exclusively. Doubtless the Santa Barbara spill helped feed that, but it was already there.

I don't think anything specific came out of the oil spill, other than building a wave of public opinion on the environment. There were other things that happened, of course: the Cuyahoga River being set on fire, that sort of thing. These helped move the public attitude on the environment toward awareness and concern. When you look back on it, and think of all the dithering we go through today to get anything done, it was absolutely unbelievable - the variety and quantity of proposals that emanated from the Nixon White House and from the Congress itself.

Q: Do you think that was a historical turning point that really can't be replicated, even if we are facing new environmental challenges such as global warming and oil spills?

A: Yeah, good question. I think that was a moment in time that we may well never see again, insofar as the environment is concerned. The issue has become much more highly politicized than it was back in the '70s. My own memory is that most of the major environmental legislation passed with bipartisan support, and rather overwhelmingly. In my own case, my confirmation was unanimous for the EPA job. I don't think that happens anymore. I may be crazy, but it strikes me that way. When I was at EPA I kept in close contact with the Democrats as well as my own Republican members of Congress that had jurisdiction over environmental matters. There were friendly relations. These were people I knew on a personal basis.

I jotted down some of our initiatives from the Nixon-Ford era, because I knew I wouldn't remember them all. Among them were the Toxic Substances Control Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, ocean dumping legislation, which also called for an international convention that did take place. The whole field of pesticide and herbicide legislation, we put that in an integrated form. And I haven't even mentioned the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, probably the two most important of all. Then you have minor things like proposed tax on sulfur emissions, a whole new approach that didn't get anywhere, but it was a new approach. Legislation calling for better control of strip mining, or surface mining. That never went anywhere, it died in the Congress.

That's a little bit of a run-through that doesn't include executive actions, such as the banning of the use of DDT on federal lands. It's an extraordinary array of initiatives, including international conventions, international cooperative arrangements, all of this coming primarily from the Nixon White House.

Q: It's pretty hard to match that record. ...

A: It's incredible. You can always look at my book, "Politics, Pollution and Pandas." That's a little self-advertising there.

Q: I'll make sure to link to that. So what lessons do you think can be taken from your experience, either on the sorts of approaches might need to be taken, or any strategies you might suggest for the next generation of environmentalists?

A: I think something has happened to our public life, and it's hard to know how to turn it around. That's the lack of bipartisanship. Put it the other way around: the acute political partisanship that seems to mark every move on Capitol Hill. Take as an example that initiative by Sen. Murkowski of Alaska, Senate Joint Resolution 26, which specified that the EPA was not to exercise any authority over the regulation of greenhouse gases, carbon emissions in particular. When that came to a vote, every single member of the Republican membership of the Senate voted for it. That's incredible. No divergence whatsoever, even among some of those I know were opposed to it. It's just a very partisan process today. That did not exist when I was involved in such matters. That's going to be extremely hard to turn around.

What would I recommend? I don't know. How do you change that? Now, maybe if the Republicans got a Republican president who would be more relaxed with the Congress ... I don't know that for a fact at all. By the way, to understand my political viewpoint, I'm registered today as an independent. I grew up as a Republican, served in several Republican administrations, but I'm no longer on that side of the fence. I am independent.

Q: It almost is like a long philosophical cycle that has to move, as it did from the Goldwater era to the Nixon era. It's almost as if we're in the wrong part of the curve.

A: That we certainly are. How that's going to change, I don't know. It seems like the only game in town right now is the defeat of Obama and the election of a Republican president the next time around. Everything else is unimportant. That, in my mind, is the picture of a Congress, or at least the Republican side of the Congress, that is abrogating its responsibility to the American people. I don't think that members of Congress are elected simply to pursue political ends, I think they're there to serve the well-being of the American people. That's what we wanted.

Q: Well, you've been involved with that world for so long, and that's uppermost in the minds of a lot of people - but in the meantime I'm wondering what sorts of strategies can be pursued by environmentalists beyond the Beltway. Is there a way to circumvent the Beltway, or is environmental policy so crucial to these developments that you can't avoid dealing with the politics?

A: The pendulum probably swings back and forth on something of that kind. I think that there's a huge role for grassroots environmental leadership today. A huge need, and a huge potential, because that's where it all comes from. It's not engendered here in Washington, although leadership in Washington is extremely important. The whole environmental game really started because the general public felt this was an important issue that they cared about - not because someone in Congress or the White House was leading the issue, although that helps.

You can never do it without grassroots efforts. Today, there's so much education that includes environmental studies. It's extremely important to get an educated society that knows a good deal more about environmental matters than it ever did before. That cannot help but be positive in its impact on public policy.

Q: Do you think the sorts of challenges we're facing going forward are more complex than the ones you faced? The Gulf oil spill hints at a very complex kind of challenge where you are really operating at the very edge of technology. It's such an important issue to secure those energy resources, but we may be at the limits of what we can do technologically. And with the climate change issue, there is so much that depends on how the general public will react and whether they can change their behavior. Even President George W. Bush talked about our "addiction to oil" - and whether we can break this addiction.

A: I think, just generalizing, that in the early days, the late '60s and early to mid-'70s, the problems never seemed as complex as they do today. That's not to say they were simple. They were not simple. However, compared to the problems today, they were relatively simple. And I think that made it possible to address them with the public, and have the public understand what you were up to and support it.

Today, the public hears this cacophony of argument over climate change, carbon emissions, what's the role that mankind plays in creating the problem. There's all this debate going on, and I think the average person all too often tends to say, 'Gee, this is a tough one. I don't really know the answer. Nobody else seems to know the answer.' And they just turn their backs and minds to it. There's a lot of that today.

I would be the first one to agree that climate change is a hugely complex problem. For the average guy or gal to really put this together clearly in their minds is probably impossible. But I think we have to learn to accept the overwhelming view of the scientific community that climate change is real, it is happening, and it is primarily due to human activity. There's no question about the scientific consensus worldwide on this matter. There is the odd person who speaks up and takes a different view. And those who do tend to get an awful lot of press attention. But when your own National Academy of Sciences comes out with a report presented by the president of the academy to the public, I think the American people have to pay attention to that.

This is the best scientific judgment there is. I shouldn't second-guess it, our policymakers shouldn't second-guess it. You may not like the result that science gives you, but if properly founded, that is the inevitable result. One has to accept the overwhelming view of the scientific community and move ahead, and not fall into the trap of playing politics. Scientists aren't untouched by politics. We're all human beings. But I think when the National Academy speaks up, they do so honestly, with the best expertise we have in this country, and it deserves to be accepted as a general viewpoint.

Q: Do you have any advice for people who see what's going on in the world, environmentally speaking, and want to learn more or get involved? How would you advise someone who is sometimes confused by the pros and cons of such-and-such an environmental issue. What sage words do you have, as a new nonagenarian?

A: Ha, I never thought of it that way. It's a new birth.

Q: Right ... you're a youngster when it comes to nonagenarians.

A: Well, I think if an individual cares about the issue and has a general pro-environment sense, they ought to hook up with local and state environmental organizations - and national, as the case may be - and go through a process of self-education. I think the environmental movement as such plays and should play a tremendous role. This is the future we're talking about. Not petty politics of an overnight nature, but the future of humanity on the face of this earth. It's time we woke up to that.

Q: Do you feel as if you want to hang up your mantle at some point and just go fishing?

A: I find it's very hard for me to cast a line anymore. I'm afraid it's the other way around. I've had to give up most of my outdoor sporting activities. Even walking is difficult. I'll probably spend more time wearing my environmental mantle. I'm not about to throw that away.

An earlier version of this item mischaracterized the status of international restrictions on ocean dumping, due to a transcription error. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."