This was an exciting time for environmentalists. In 1970 Nixon signed the EPA into existence. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts would soon follow. (Although Nixon, Reilly said, did not care much about environmental issues, but rather wanted to keep ahead of the era’s environmental groundswell.) After serving as president of the Conservation Foundation, which later merged with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Reilly assumed his role at EPA in 1989.
The “need to unify our culture and politics in constructive ways,” Reilly said, has been a persistent theme throughout his career. Emphasizing this point, he studded his talk with quotes from writers Graham Greene, John le Carré, Norman Mailer, the poet Robert Frost, as well as his political mentors. Among the latter, he cited the late U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan from New York. The central conservative truth, Moynihan once said, is that culture, not politics, determines a society’s success. The central liberal truth is that politics can change culture and save it from itself.
“In my own career,” Reilly said, “I have seen culture drive politics, as in the environment in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and politics drive culture in the history of civil rights.” From experience, Reilly draws hope. “There are many…. promising measures of a culture undergoing a significant conversion to a new and greener future of greater efficiency and sustainability,” he said. “Something’s happening.”
He acknowledged that today’s political environment is not the one in which he operated. The current Congress, he jokes, more closely resembles Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” than a legislature. He remains confident, however, that humanity’s cultural progress will trump political paralysis, and that American politics will catch up with American values. “We’re on an upward trajectory,” he told the crowd. “The culture, not just here, in other places is changing, too.”