Thursday, February 24, 2011

R.W. Peterson, Environmentalist

In an obituary by Douglas Martin about the environmentalist Russell W. Peterson, who recently died at the age of 94, we are reminded of a man who served as a research scientist for DuPont, was a Republican governor from the state of Delaware, and became one of the country's most uncompromising advocates for clean water and protected wildlife. In a 1993 speech, former President Jimmy Carter commented that "Every time something wonderful has happened when I was President and since then in the field of environmental quality in this country or on a global basis, Russ Peterson has been intimately involved in it."

Born in 1916 to a poor family in Portage, Wisconsin, Peterson doggedly sought an education despite the fact that most of his siblings before him had dropped out of school. He earned a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin and went on to get a doctorate in 1942. He accepted a low level job at DuPont and worked his way up the ladder, becoming Director of research and development in 1963. Along the way, he helped develop Dacron and other highly successful synthetic substances. Yet when he became governor of Delaware in 1969, he passed legislation to protect the state's coastline, despite the fierce opposition of his former employer. Another of his opponents, Shell Oil, attempted to discredit him which only caused him to fight harder, and to proudly flaunt a frequently displayed lapel button "To hell with Shell."

When Peterson was hurried to the Nixon White House to be chastised for threatening the security and economic well-being of the United States by promoting his coastline protection act, he arrived equipped with dozens of convincing ways to promote economic development without harming the coastline. Even Nixon was impressed and appointed him to the Council on Environmental Quality.

He became President of the National Audubon Society from 1979 to 1985 and, as Martin indicates, "pushed Audubon well beyond its traditional mission of protecting wildlife into newer environmental battles like population control, energy policy, and curbing toxic chemicals." These other goals did not prevent him from remaining committed to the preservation of birds. Even before the became President of Audubon he had identified nearly 1000 different kinds of birds. It was a lifelong passion, second only perhaps to his commitment to environmental quality. This country owes a great debt to people like Russell W. Peterson. His passing on Monday gives us an opportunity to remember and to express our heartfelt thanks.

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