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The Spirit of the First Earth Day

by Jack Lewis
[EPA Journal - January/February 1990]

In the waning months of the 1960s, environmental problems were proliferating like a many-headed hydra, a monster no one could understand let alone tame or slay. Rampant air pollution was linked to disease and death in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere as noxious fumes, spewed out by cars and factories, made city life less and less bearable. In the wake of Rachel Carson's 1962 best-seller, Silent Spring, there was widespread concern over large-scale use of pesticides, often near densely populated communities. In addition, huge fish kills were reported on the Great Lakes, and the media carried the news that Lake Erie, one of America's largest bodies of fresh water, was in its death throes. Ohio had another jolt when Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, an artery inundated with oil and toxic chemicals, burst into flames by spontaneous combustion.

In a response commensurate with the problem, an estimated 20 million Americans gathered together on April 22, 1970, to participate in a spectacularly well-publicized environmental demonstration known as "Earth Day." The rallies, teach-ins, speeches, and publicity gambits almost all went smoothly, amid a heady and triumphant atmosphere that was further enhanced by perfect spring weather. But the months leading up to Earth Day had been frantic, and the success of the event had been unpredictable up to the very last moment.

Such uncertainty is endemic when volunteer effort is the driving force behind any activity, let alone one as ambitious as Earth Day 1970. Some of the grassroots activists who coordinated the work of thousands of Earth Day volunteers had come to the environmental cause rather late, after cutting their teeth on other political issues of the 1960s, such as civil rights and the anti-war movement. Others, however, had been intensely involved in environmental causes for many years. Whatever their background, these activists were the driving force not only behind Earth Day, but also behind many smaller and less publicized environmental reforms during the closing months of the 1960s.

The term "Breathers' Lobby" was coined by the Wall Street Journal in the late 1960s to denote one of the most prominent components of the grassroots movement: the congeries of anti-air pollution groups that had sprung up over the previous decade in urban areas across the country. GASP in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, the Metropolitan Washington Coalition on Clean Air, the Delaware Clean Air Coalition, and other similar groups started with sweat equity, then qualified for grants and technical assistance from the federal government. Groups focusing on water quality issues were also making dramatic inroads: most notably, the Lake Michigan Federation, and Get Oil Out in Santa Barbara, California.

The anti-pollution stance of these groups, after changing the climate of political opinion at the state and local level, quickly permeated editorials and editorial cartoons featured in the nation's leading newspapers. Even Broadway picked up the environmental theme when the smash-hit musical Hair lampooned air pollution with a hilarious song called "The Air," which ended in a choking chorus of coughs. Readers were sampling a range of provocative books on the environment: The Whole Earth Catalogue, John Sax's The Environmental Bill of Rights, Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, and Charles Reich's The Greening of America. Students tuned into the counterculture were picking up environmental messages from rock lyrics.

Media coverage of the massive youth rallies of 1969 - as well as the ghetto riots of 1965 to 1968 - helped to impress on the American public that the United States had become an urban country with complex problems compounded by huge numbers of people. Early in the 1960s, most rhetoric about the state of America's air, water, and other resources had revolved around the word "conservation," with heavy emphasis on the preservation of parks and recreational areas. The word "environment" came into widespread use only at the end of the decade. By then, committed activists understood that urban environments would be the battlefield for years to come, but they wanted the American public and American political leaders to understand that as well.

One prominent politician, Gaylord Nelson, then Senator from Wisconsin, had been frustrated throughout the 1960s by the fact that only a "handful" of his Congressional colleagues had any interest in environmental issues. On the other hand, during his travels across the United States, he had been greatly impressed by the dedication and the expertise of the many student and citizen volunteers who were trying to solve pollution problems in their communities.

It was on one such trip, in August 1969, that Nelson came up with a strategy for bridging the gap separating grassroots activists from Congress and the general public. While en route to an environmental speech in Berkeley, California, the Senator was leafing through a copy of Ramparts magazine, when an article about anti-war teach-ins caught his eye. It occurred to him that the teach-in concept might work equally well in raising public awareness of environmental issues.

In September, in a ground-breaking speech in Seattle, Senator Nelson announced the concept of the teach-in and received coverage in Time and Newsweek and on the front page of the New York Times. Several weeks later, at his office on Capitol Hill, he incorporated a non-profit, non-partisan organization called Environmental Teach-In, Inc. He announced that it was to be headed by a steering committee consisting of himself, Pete McCloskey, a Congressman from California, and Sidney Howe, then the President of The Conservation Foundation.

The main purpose of the new organization, he declared, was to lay the groundwork for a major nationwide series of teach-ins on the environment early in 1970. The purpose of the teach-ins was, in Nelson's words, to "force the issue [of the environment] into the political dialogue of the country." Very quickly, Environmental Teach-In received pledges from the Senator himself ($15,000), from the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO ($2,000 each), as well as from The Conservation Foundation ($25,000) and other organizations.

Early in December, Senator Nelson selected a 25-year old named Denis Hayes, the dynamic former President of the Stanford student body, as national coordinator. Hayes, postponing plans to enter Harvard Law School, immediately set to work making plans for the inaugural Earth Day.

Hampered from the start by an extremely limited budget (approximately $190,000), he rented an office in Washington and gathered around him an enthusiastic cadre of volunteers, most of them students. The most promising and the most dedicated of these were named coordinators for various regions of the country. Working in an atmosphere Midwest Coordinator Barbara Reid Alexander recalls as "mass confusion," they were inundated each day by torrents of phone calls and overflowing mailbags.

Senator Nelson's Senate staff lent its full support and guidance to the work of Hayes and his assistants, only a few of whom were salaried and those only at meager levels. Nelson and Hayes had already agreed that the teach-ins should, wherever possible, be located not on college campuses, but in public spaces within the community, and furthermore, that active participation should be sought from labor unions, the League of Women Voters, and other organizations. The latter goal was realized, but not the former, at least not to the extent originally intended.

One masterstroke was the purchase of a full-page ad that appeared in the New York Times early in February 1970. The advertisement announced that on April 22, 1970, at locations throughout the United States, citizens would demonstrate for a cleaner environment. Immediately contribution started to roll in, and better yet, the curiosity of network broadcasting giants was piqued.

April 22, 1970, a Wednesday, was a glorious spring day in most parts of the country. Newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post had given front-page coverage the day before to the roster of scheduled events, and the television networks also had provided enough coverage to give the impending day something of the aura of a national holiday.

Perhaps the most impressive observance was in New York City, whose mayor, John V. Lindsay, had thrown the full weight of his influence behind Earth Day. For two hours, Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic between 14th Street and 59th Street, bringing midtown Manhattan to a virtual standstill. One innovative group of demonstrators grabbed attention by dragging a net filled with dead fish down the thoroughfare, shouting to passersby, "This could be you!" Later in the day, a rally filled Union Square to overflowing as Mayor Lindsay, assisted by celebrities Paul Newman and Ali McGraw, spoke from a raised platform looking out over a sea of smiling faces. In New York, as elsewhere, self-policing demonstrators left surprising little litter in their wake.

In Washington, the focus of events was the Washington Monument and its adjacent Sylvan Theatre, where thousands of Earth Day demonstrators congregated to hear speeches as well as songs by Pete Seeger and other performers. One of the most noteworthy statements, by Denis Hayes, made it clear that Earth Day was a beginning, not an end in itself: "If the environment is a fad, it's going to be our last fad...We are building a movement, a movement with a broad base, a movement which transcends traditional political boundaries. It is a movement that values people more than technology, people more than political boundaries, people more than profit."

There was no point in marching to Capitol Hill, for Congress at the behest of Gaylord Nelson and others had recessed so that members could return to their constituencies and address Earth Day rallies. Interestingly, many of these politicians had to borrow prepared texts from Nelson and Environmental Teach-In, Inc. Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and most other major American cities were also scenes of Earth Day rallies; in fact, 80 percent of all observances were urban affairs.

To countless participants, Earth Day was a turning point in their lives, which they remember to this day with awe and reverence. "It was something magical and catalytical," remarked Denis Hayes, "touching a huge cross-section of Americans." Byron Kennard, then a grassroots coordinator with The Conservation Foundation, was also impressed by "one of the largest peaceful demonstrations in human history, [an event] sacred in my memory." "A charmed event," "a joyous occasion," "a public-relations masterpiece," "foundation of a national environmental consciousness" were words of praise conjured by other participants.

Earth Day was also the foundation of many environmental careers. Denis Hayes and Ed Furia, who are heading the 20th anniversary celebration of Earth Day, are typical of many individuals who built environmental careers on the momentum generated that day. One former participant, Tom Jorling, is today Commissioner of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation; another, John Turner, is Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The list goes on.

Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970. When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal a 2500 percent increase over 1969. That percentage has continued to grow, albeit more slowly, so it is fair to say that the ideals espoused on April 22, 1970, however naive and simplistic they were in many ways, have left an enduring legacy. They are, in the words of Barry Commoner, "permanently imbedded in our culture." Sam Love, who was Southern Coordinator for Environmental Teach-In, fully agrees: "What has surprised me, is the staying power of the environmental movement. A lot of people were saying this was a flash in the pan. History has proven them wrong."

With the founding of EPA in December 1970, the history of the environmental movement entered a new phase. The Agency was fused together from 44 organizations scattered in nine departments, and it gave a much stronger profile to the federal effort to curb environmental decay across the nation. Also during the 1970s, in keeping with the stepped-up pace of environmental reform, conservation organizations began to take more active stances on urban environmental issues. These private lobbying groups soon found that they needed lawyers, scientists, and economists to make their voices heard. The whole tenor of environmental activism increasingly took on an aura of "professionalism" that was a far cry from the bold sometimes simplistic generalities debated on Earth Day 1970.

Yet today - despite the rise of specialists and experts - grassroots emotions still boil over in the face of clearcut local issues, such as defective landfills or hazardous medical waste, which can quickly galvanize a community of homeowners.

The signs are promising that Earth Day 1990 will suffer from no dearth of volunteers or money. Its budget of $3 million is 15 times greater than the budget of the 1970 event, and its scope will be worldwide, rather than strictly confined to the United States and Canada. In fact, there is every reason to expect that Earth Day 1990 will be an appropriate legacy of that April day 20 years ago when, even if only for 24 hours, people really did seem to matter more than profit and more than technology.

 


Lewis was an Assistant Editor of EPA Journal


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