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My Earth Day

We still need to demonstrate that we can rebuild the economy in a way that preserves life on this blue planet. Earth Day+50 is the time to do that.

Earth Day, the first one and all of its 50 anniversaries remain days of hope. (Photo: Sanmonku)

Earth Day, the first one and all of its 50 anniversaries remain days of hope. (Photo: Sanmonku)

April 22, 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Earth Day +50. Face it. Most of us take our habitat for granted. But we should know, now more than ever, that a robust life support system is not guaranteed and requires our attention. Unrealistic visions of space travel and colonization aside, the Earth will be home to our kind as long as we endure. But Earth Day remains the only day on the calendar dedicated to the notion keeping our habitat livable.

It is remarkable that collectively, starting decades ago, we put our life support system in desperate need of champions. By the middle of last century, the challenge became hard to ignore. Millions of people understood that things were going radically wrong.

The first Earth Day was billed “a teach-in” but it was also a reckoning. One thing changed immediately, most people and all reputable companies started calling themselves environmentalists.  But as a civilization, half a century later, we still need to develop an economy that provides for human needs but still protects the quality of air, land, water and climate systems and therefore the habitability of Earth.

We can use renewed Earth Day spirit today to keep the web of life from unraveling on us now. For me, the spirit came on a little slowly -- but I am all in.

I remember the first Earth Day. I participated. And I am proud of it, even if the day did not mean much to me then. I was a sophomore at Bernards High School in Bernardsville, New Jersey. An upperclassman organized a little ceremony to coincide with what was first called “a national teach-in on the environment.” Our organizer announced it a day or two before during lunch period. I do not remember what compelled me to attend even if saving the earth from ruin did make sense to me.

Thanks to the coronavirus, we have recently learned that people worldwide can reorganize everything we do. What we still need to demonstrate is that we can rebuild the economy in a way that preserves life on this blue planet. Earth Day+50 is the time to do that. 

After a brief observance with a few unmemorable words, we planted a tree. No one objected to the event, but also few students participated. I wonder if the tree we planted is still growing and absorbing carbon. As I live in Maine now, I have not checked back. Now 50 year later, one of the most unifying ideas for addressing climate change, today’s biggest environmental challenge, is to plant trees. Even President Trump, who shows no interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, announced in his 2020 State of the Union address that “the United States will join the One Trillion Trees initiative.” Planting trees is a good climate response if carried out along with all the measures needed to reduce pollution.

I find no mention of the Bernards High Earth Day event in our school’s yearbook for 1970. Also, no mention in the local paper. But I did find an article from June 1970 about a full day of Earth Day events in the neighboring towns of Peapack and Gladstone . According to the Bernardsville News, on the weekend that followed the designated national event, there was an “Earth Day Happening” in Peapack-Gladstone. There was eco-information and music. “The stage was set with ‘Stop Pollution’ stop lights.” “Cub Scouts garbed in gas masks paraded by carrying signs protesting pollution.” “Overhead hung skulls labeled ‘smog’ ‘lead’ ‘nitric oxide’ ‘carbon dioxide’” St Luke’s Church sold 440 ‘Earth Steward’ buttons. Students cleaned cans, bottles and trash out of Peapack Brook. All of this was reported back then. I am glad to learn all these years later that some folks in the area I called home back then were more in the spirit of that first Earth Day.

For context, it is worth noting that Peapack also borders on the town of Bedminster, N.J. That is where, in 2004, Donald Trump built the Trump National Golf Club. There is only one truly organic golf course in America today, it is in Edgartown, Massachusetts. We can be certain that Donald Trump did not encourage his fairway and greens keepers to heed the lessons of Rachel Carson when doing the turf management at his facilities.

The first Earth happened in the Somerset Hills of New Jersey, but immediate changes there were subtle at best. But elsewhere other more impactful events were happening. As Adam Rome wrote in in his 2013 book ‘The Genius of Earth Day’:

 “Earth Day was almost unfathomably big – not one event but 12,000 or 13,000. Though the events had common elements every one was unique. Many events responded to local circumstances. The variations from place to place help to make Earth Day a powerful force across the country.”

A few stops from Bernardsville on the Erie Lackawanna train line is Maplewood. Columbia High School there held what it still proudly proclaims was the first in the nation Earth Day observance, on April 17, 1970.   The jump on big day happened because Columbia High was scheduled to be on spring break on April 22. The Columbia High student body was already acclaimed for inventing Ultimate Frisbee two years earlier. A Wikipedia entry today summarizes the eco-events there:

“The presentation was known as Earth Day Minus Five and a specially prepared flag was run up the main flagpole. The all-day observance, which was coordinated by biology teacher Jeffrey Himmelstein, began with Congressman Joseph Minish as the keynote speaker; several noted scientists from the area conducted seminars. Featured was an assembly with films and slide shows that were created by several students and environmentally themed folk songs were sung.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbia_High_School_(New_Jersey)] This was plainly a more vigorous showing than my school had mounted. 

One Dr. Edward Ambry, director of the N.J. State Council for Environmental Education shared some apt thoughts about the State of the Earth in 1970. “’The way man uses his biosphere, one would think he had a spare,’ he said. Dr. Ambry’s sentiment back then is now echoed by climate activists who succinctly point out: ‘There is No Planet B.’ Ambry added: “The situation borders on the brink of disaster, but it also borders on the brink of hope, for many now realize the interdependence of human communities with the broader community of life and resources – the environment.” [The Courier-News, Bridgewater, N.J. (11/25/70).]

Mrs. Mabel Stauber, a ‘green biology’ teacher, offered Earth Day advice based on her understanding of the challenges presented: “Use mass transportation and urge your legislators to improve it. If you must drive, use a carpool and keep your car tuned for efficient combustion. Recycle as much as you can. Demand returnable, reclaimable containers.” [The Courier-News, Bridgewater, N.J. (11/25/70).] All still germane fifty years later.

As for what was happening across the nation on that first Earth Day, a wire service article summed up the events as “teach-ins, marches, demonstrations and exhibits with ecological themes.” The Courier Post in Camden, N.J. (4/21/70) wrote “Earth Day is burgeoning into one of the biggest popular productions this area – and this nation – have ever known.”

The three major television networks each had special broadcasts. CBS called its prime time special “Earth Day: A question of Survival.” It was estimated that 20 million people participated in some Earth Day event. Participants included 10,000 elementary and high schools and 2, 000 colleges and universities and some 2,000 community groups who staged events.

At a high school in Oklahoma City students staged a “mock burial of a gasoline engine…to protest internal combustion fumes.” [A.P. 4/23/70]

In a similar vein, students in Los Angeles contributed to a special environmental fund-raiser for the opportunity to smash a car to vent their feelings about internal combustion engines, gasoline and oil. [L.A. Times 4/19/70]

What I only vaguely noted back then, it was a single Wisconsin Senator named Gaylord Nelson who started Earth Day. Nelson was a self-appointed environmental champion, who got the idea for an “environmental teach-in” after visiting the scene of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. [Lila Thulin, smithsonianmag.com (4/22/19)]. Nelson’s vision started taking shape around the time the ‘Woodstock nation’ gathered in the Catskills of New York in the summer of 1969. To give it momentum, the Senator brought on a lead organizer.

Denis Hayes was a twenty-five-year-old Harvard grad student. Nelson covered a small payroll and office rent with a little of his own money and contributions from a few organizations including notably the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO and the Conservation Foundation. Hayes, working out of a small office in Washington with a steadily growing team of volunteers and low paid staff, soon had contacts across the country. Aspiring “eco-freaks” across America were offered ideas but encouraged to make of Earth Day whatever they envisioned it to be.

When April 22, 1970 dawned, Denis Hayes had chosen to join the event in New York City where hundreds of thousands of people showed up and packed into 5th Avenue. The event was supported by Mayor John Lindsay and the city closed off several blocks to motorized traffic. The next day The New York Times published a front-page article, under a six-column headline. The Daily News was more exuberant with a full-page photo of the crowd and two words in large typeface: ‘Earth Day!’ The small caption read: “Making their feelings about pollution perfectly clear, throngs take over auto-free Fifth Ave.”

Senator Nelson, on that first Earth Day, spoke at four events ending up in Los Angeles. “The issue was more than survival,” Nelson said, “How we survive is the crucial issue.” He seemed to be on to two ways of thinking that would later be called environmental justice and deep ecology. At his L.A. speech, Nelson elaborated “Our goal is not just an environment of clean air, and water, and scenic beauty – while forgetting about the Appalachias and the ghettos where our citizens live in America’s worst environment… -- Our goal is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human creatures and all other living creatures….”

Another Senator who would be crucial to environmental progress in the ensuing years, Ed Muskie, of my since adopted state of Maine, joined a large Earth Day event in Philadelphia. Earth Day there was marked with a gathering in Fairmont Park that drew 30,000 people ‘mostly youths,’ many hiking to get there “leaving their ‘pollutmobiles’ behind.”[A.P., 4/23/70.]

One of the key organizers in Philadelphia was soon to be a professor of mine after I matriculated to the University of Pennsylvania in 1972. Ian McHarg was a landscape architect who wrote the pathbreaking book ‘Design With Nature’ published in 1969. McHarg was recognized for his theories in planning and design but was over time transformed into an obsessive environmental activist. For Earth Day in Philadelphia, McHarg rounded up, in addition to Senator Muskie, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, poet Allen Ginsburg, and Senator Hugh Scott, Republican of Pennsylvania. Earthkeeping, was bipartisan in 1970. On Earth Day eve, Scott was quoted warning “that civilization is in danger of embalming itself in a chemical world or entombing itself in a concrete world.” Scott urged younger people “to become involved rationally and not emotionally in calling for an end to the poisoning of the earth.” [Latrobe Bulletin, 4/20/70.] Scott later distinguished himself by encouraging Richard Nixon, the President from his party, to resign after the Watergate Scandal came to light.

From the Earth Day stage, Ed Muskie declared “Man has burst upon the environment like an invader – destroying rather than using, discarding rather than saving, and giving the environment little chance to adapt.” Muskie continued: “We have depleted our resources and cluttered our environment – and only recently have we been shocked by the enormity of our errors.” Muskie called for “an environmental revolution” that is “one of laws, not men; one of values, not ideology; and one of achievement, not unfulfilled promises.”

It was reported that some of Muskie’s remarks were greeted with boos. Perhaps the crowd was more impatient than was even this outspokenly green senator. Asked if he thought Congress had moved fast enough on environmental issues, Muskie said: “I don’t think any of us has done enough. I think we should have been doing more for the past seven or eight years. … There is no need to wait.” Or maybe Muskie drew boos with these words: “The power of the people is in the ballot box – and we can elect men who commit themselves to a whole society and work to meet that commitment.” Men? Six years earlier Margaret Chase Smith, also from Maine, had had her name be placed in nomination for the presidency at the Republican national convention. The year following the first Earth Day, Shirley Chisholm, the U.S. Representative from New York, was a declared candidate for President. For the duration of the time she was in the race, Chisholm was my choice for the presidency in the first election in which I could vote.  

It should be noted, Muskie made good on the commitment he stated on that first Earth Day. In the four years that followed, Muskie, working with Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee, drove a series of environmental laws through the Congress. These included passage and enactment of: the Clean Air Act Extension (1970); the Resource Recovery Act (1970); The Clean Water Act (1972), The Endangered Species Act (1973) along with provisions added to statutes to control noise, regulate coastal zone development, protect the public against toxic substances and control ocean dumping of waste. Many of these acts were signed into law by President Nixon. Nixon, however, vetoed the Clean Air Act, and in a remarkable display of environmental governing, Congress overrode the presidential veto.

Muskie also had some insight on issues of environmental justice. In his Earth Day speech he made plain that his vision was for “a society that will not tolerate slums for some and decent houses for others, rats for some and playgrounds for others, clean air for some and filth for others.”

There were certainly those who doubted that justice would be part of the pro-environment agenda. Mohammad Kenyatta, then the Pennsylvania leader of the Black Economic Development Conference told reporters that “The whole anti-pollution movement, especially Earth Day, is an effort to distract the attention of the public from the issues of racism and the war in Vietnam.” [New Castle (PA) ‘Earth Day: Success or Failure?” 4/24/70].

Even the most famously conservative American politician joined in the launch of the modern environmental movement. Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who had been the Republican party nominee for President in 1964, wrote in 1970: “Our job is to prevent that lush orb known as the Earth . . . from turning into a bleak and barren, dirty brown planet.” The Increasingly libertarian Senator called for strong enforcement of environmental laws. “I feel very definitely that the administration is absolutely correct in cracking down on companies and corporations and municipalities that continue to pollute the nation’s air and water.” “Although,” Goldwater added, “I am a great believer in the free, competitive enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in clean and pollution-free environments.” [‘The Conscience of a Majority’ 1970].

Given the diversity of participation, the first Earth Day touched on a vast range of separate if inter-connected environmental concerns. Issues addressed in the event’s official Handbook included: water and air pollution from industries and transportation; oil spills; risks from nuclear technologies including accidents and waste; pesticide overuse; deforestation, overpopulation, sprawl; and wildlife extinction. [“The Environmental Handbook” Garrett De Bell (1970).] Taken together, these issues along with other concerns made for an overwhelming agenda. The massiveness of the undertaking was daunting even if engagement and enthusiasm were at all-time highs. There may never have been such massive coalescing around a public policy agenda, at least one unrelated to war and national defense. A battle of many fronts was joined.

Pesticide overuse, as an example, was just one of Earth Day’s leading issues of concern. Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring, published in 1962 had sensitized the nation to the insidious and far-reaching ecological harm caused by pesticides. Perhaps indicating its prominence, just a week before the world’s biggest ever environmental event, Senator Nelson introduced a bill (co-sponsored by Senator Muskie) to impose strict regulations of pesticides. “It is time we started keeping products out of the marketplace until they are proven safe to the environment and to human beings, instead of waiting for their massive us to discover tragic, unforeseen consequences.” [http://www.nelsonearthday.net/docs/nelson_26-18_preED_toxins_press_release.pdf] The logic Nelson expressed back then is essentially what is now known as “the precautionary principle” which has been recognized in law in the European Union but is still aggressively resisted in the USA.

In the years that followed ‘Silent Spring’ and Earth Day, chemical manufacturers would succeed in luring the media and public into complacency about pesticides. Somehow, we unlearned the warnings about their products. Monsanto – the now vilified manufacturer of DDT, Agent Orange and Roundup gave us the disingenuous tag line "without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.” But all major pesticide makers would obfuscate facts about their products to restore an assumption of safety. They lured us back to acceptance of broad scale releases of toxic chemicals that have been disrupting all kinds of biological systems. Applicators ranged from homeowners with spray cans, family farmers with tractor booms, to crop-dusting planes and now drones. A handful of the worst and most notorious pesticides are now banned in the USA – including DDT, 2,4,5-T (part of agent orange), Aldrin, Chlordane, DBCP and Toxaphene –but the  total annual load, one billion pounds of pesticides dispersed in the United States today, still exceeds what was used back in 1970. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2946087/]

Still the first Earth Day had jump started an assessment of the state of the environment that went deeper than discussion of specific and largely separate environmental issues. Adam Rome in his 2013 book “The Genius of Earth Day” [p. 168] summarized the inquiry reflected in speeches made that first Earth Day this way:

“The root cause of the environmental crisis was an especially contentious question. Earth Day speakers blamed the exploitive character of capitalism, the unprecedented complexity of modern technology, the hostility to nature in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the explosive growth of human population, the wastefulness of a newly affluent society and the shortsightedness of human nature."

Politicians typically avoid questioning the underlying premises of a nation’s economic system. But Earth Day inspired far-reaching analysis from some. Gaylord Nelson in his Earth Day speech expressed the hope that the day would “mark the beginning of a new American ethic that rejects the frontier-industrial philosophy of growth for its own sake.” He added “Hopefully, now we have learned that even a highly urbanized, highly successful, extremely affluent and technologically sophisticated society, like ours, if, in spite of all the genius, still dependent on the degraded and fragile vital life systems of air, water, and land.” Future Georgia Governor and President Jimmy Carter in remarks given at the” Environmental Teach In” at Georgia State University called into question the bedrock notion of “growth for growth sake”.  [Rome, “The Genius of Earth Day” p. 167.]

Part of the lasting impact of the first Earth Day was renewed vigor of environmental organizations. A cadre of newly energized environmentalists was ready to join the old hands in the mission of saving Mother Earth. In addition to the venerable Sierra Club (founded 1892), the younger Environmental Defense Fund (1967) and the upstart Friends of the Earth (1969), a new powerhouse environmental organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council – initially a team of young lawyers -- was founded before the end of 1970.

Of greater consequence to my life, the following year saw the birth of Greenpeace. The group with an environmental and peace agenda, started up in Vancouver, Canada, with the launch in September 1971 of a beat-up halibut fishing vessel in a protest voyage to nonviolently disrupt a planned U.S. nuclear weapon test on the small island of Amchitka in the Aleutian chain off Alaska.

In 1978, I went to work for Greenpeace after answering an ad in Seattle to “sell advertising for a good cause.” It was a peculiar fulfillment of the call of Earth Day before the decade was out. I had previously been in ad sales and I knew a little about Greenpeace due to well-publicized efforts to put activists in inflatable craft between explosive tipped harpoons and fleeing whales. I joined up in what was a third wave of Greenpeace seven years after its founding. First Greenpeace started with opposition to nuclear weapons tests. Then the group sailed to save the whales. When I came aboard, Greenpeace was getting support to save the habitat of whales and other sea creatures as well as the habitat for humans and others on the land.

Raising money for a publication was my first job with Greenpeace, but before long the environmental mission itself became my calling. Starting out in Seattle and Vancouver, I was soon hard at work with skilled and good-hearted people working for clean air and clean water. By 1980, I was developing plans and carrying out Greenpeace “campaigns” against pesticides and other toxic products and waste; oil exploration and shipping; coal mining and burning, and nuclear technologies and the irradiated waste transportation and dumping. As I witnessed and learned more about the environmental harms, my reaction invariably was: if people only knew about this it would change.

I was appalled to learn that people killed whales for an oil that could come from plants. I was similarly struck to find out that people who did not like an invasive weed in their lake would hire a company to put poisons into fresh water. Oil companies were pushing to have oil supertankers transit through narrow inland waterways. Moreover, in 1980, at least five nations were still regularly exploding nuclear weapons and dispersing long-lived radiation into the environment. These were all part of our work plants.  Although at that time scientists understood that greenhouse gases, generated by various human activities including burning fossil fuels, caused global warming, it would be a couple of years before I learned about this massive challenge. A couple of more years would pass before I joined the effort to save the climate.

It was a pleasure to pick up the challenge laid down by that first Earth Day. After working on specific Greenpeace campaigns, I held the position of Campaign Director, in charge of the whole program, first for Greenpeace USA and then for Greenpeace international.

When I first went overseas to meet and work with Greenpeace colleagues, I was a quite disgusted with what my country had allowed to occur with toxic waste sites all over the country and with industries still belching deadly poisons into the environment. I recall Greenpeace scientist Alan Pickaver telling me “No, Jon, the USA is ahead of us in Europe.” Pickaver pointed to regime of American environmental laws. Many of the laws my colleague reminded me of were those that Ed Muskie and Howard Baker had gotten passed in the early to mid-1970’s. These were still the leading edge a decade later. Those laws had been leading to steady progress. It is much less true today. Most of Europe is greener today in policy and actions than is the United States. Americans tend to take pride in being environmental leaders. In most areas, the USA is now a laggard. Congress has not been meeting the challenge of the environment for decades now.

The magnitude of the undertaking is precisely what makes environmental activism exhilarating. When confronted with environmental harm, some people need to avert their eyes. I found it to be a great pleasure to come across a bunch of people who want to put themselves between the harpoon gun and the whale or parachute into a nuclear power plant. As the guy who hired me, Greenpeace photographer and scribe Rex Weyler said, with intentional irony, environmentalism was one of the few growth industries left.

Nonviolent direct-action campaigning is particularly thrilling. When I try to characterize the thrill of a peaceful confrontation, I sometimes quote Karl Wallenda, the now deceased patriarch of the famous family of high wire performers known as The Flying Wallendas. Karl, who was labeled the “King of the Wire”, said: “On the wire is living, everything else is just waiting.” That is how I came to feel about environmental campaigning. On the wire was how I felt when I was among a group of activists blockading an oil supertanker in Puget Sound, halting a nuclear explosion at the Nevada Test Site or plugging the discharge pipe from a chemical plant on the Great Lakes or Jersey shore.

Naturally, most of the work I did with Greenpeace was not “on the wire”. I spent hours doing research and developing strategies to achieve environmental wins. This required figuring out what precisely is causing environmental harm, what practices are the green and workable alternatives, what levers should be pulled to achieve positive change. The job also required deciding how to engage and mobilize allies and concerned citizens and then work on refining messaging and talking points. Internally, we had to prepare proposals and budgets and work to get things done under budget. There were always long hours of meetings. Many of the meetings were within the organization but others were with allies, community groups, in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures and in the offices of environmental agencies, federal, state and local.

For direct actions campaigns, Greenpeace campaign also had to scout locations of the environmental bad acts and figure out how best to confront them. We would also do reach out to the workers and other stakeholders.

Over years of working with Greenpeace, I spoke to audiences at 50 or more colleges and universities. The biggest crowd to show up for one of my talks numbered close to 500 students at the University of Georgia in Athens.  But I was also on the stage for one outdoor Earth Day event at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. That was April 22, 1985, the 15th anniversary of the first national “teach-in”. I spoke about the scourge of toxic waste and the merits of nonviolent direct action. The event also included a jazz band, medieval English folk singers and jugglers keeping green tennis balls in the air. The Program urged participants to “Add your influence on behalf of all that is defenseless, voiceless, and irreplaceable in our natural heritage” and added: “Celebrate Life on Earth!” [The Keystone, KU 5/3/85 p 17].

One other small thing occurred during my time with Greenpeace that is worth noting in the context of Earth Day. I had the pleasure in the 1990s of meeting Denis Hayes. At the time, Denis was on the board of Greenpeace USA and I was with Greenpeace International in Amsterdam. We met in Washington during a meeting of staff and board members. I was delighted to make the contact with a man I had long known of based on his reputation. We only talked about the work at hand. 

As a working environmentalist I learned that the Earth can win. I witnessed and was part of big pro-environment victories. This taught me that there does not have to be a steady erosion of the livability of the planet. In my ten years with Greenpeace, the organization worked with others to achieve: 1) a moratorium on commercial whaling; 2) a Treaty declaring Antarctica off-limits to resource plundering and waste; 3) the Montreal Protocol limiting ozone-depleting gases; 4) a worldwide ban on radioactive waste dumping at sea; 5) a worldwide ban on incinerating toxic waste at sea; 6) an end to many discharges of toxic waste into communities and coastal and fresh waters; and 7) a worldwide ban of hazardous waste exports from rich industrialized countries to the poorer developing countries. These and many other victories told me the Earth can win.

What is more, the record of environmental success is not just a Greenpeace thing. All major and many smaller environmental groups and even valiant individuals have had significant triumphs. Governments and even corporations have also done important things for the environment, almost always when pushed from outside. Earth Day kick started much of this as people all over America and in the rest of the world picked up on the spirit and moved it forward.

I keep the environmental spirit going whenever I can. After graduating from law school, I have done pro-environment law, including representing fishers and native villagers in the Exxon-Valdez oil spill case. I also returned later to work for a Maine state environmental non-profit. 

On Earth Day in 2004, Maine Governor John Baldacci signed into law a groundbreaking statute I had spent two years as a staff lawyer for the Natural Resources Council of Maine working to get enacted. With its producer responsibility “e-waste law,” Maine became the first state to require manufacturers to collect old computers, televisions and other electronics to take charge of the collection, shipping and safe recycling of their products after their useful life. Requiring producer responsibility, this approach encourages manufacturers to use less toxic content, design them to be more easily recycled and save consumers and local government money otherwise spent on waste management. At least 24 states have since adopted the Maine extended producer responsibility model for e-waste. Again, some progress with a tip of the hat to the annual celebration of Gaea. For me, it was another fabulous, if low key, Earth Day.

In 2005, Rush Limbaugh led me to search for records of the first Earth Day. I had not done that previously. What drove me to this research was hearing a few Limbaugh rants about “global cooling”. You see, according to Rush, the existence of a theory of global cooling proves that the science of global warming is phony. It went something like this: These are the same people who warned us for years about global cooling. Actual Limbaugh words: "I call [global warming] a hoax… A 1975 Newsweek cover was gonna talk about the ice age coming. So they're really confused how to play it." Rush, Sean Hannity and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) used this line of reasoning to undermine the credibility of climate scientists and activists working to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Limbaugh never displays any genuine interest in climate science but offers his scientific knowledge and conclusions, nonetheless.

The thing was, I was around, I did not recall talk of global cooling. Did I miss a big environmental campaign? Well, the answer is no, but still score one for Rush. The climate change denying bloviator did not just make this up. There once was a nine paragraph Newsweek story called “The Cooling World” (Gwynne 1975). “The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the earth’s climate seems to be cooling down,” the article said. Several scientists were pursuing this hypothesis and it got some press.

Was it true scientists and environmentalists had been caught up with the notion that there would be a new ice age? That is when I tracked down “The Environmental Handbook,” the Friends of the Earth publication that was the treatise for “the first national environmental teach-in.” As it turned out, in the official Handbook a few pages were devoted to the subject of climate. A chapter written by Garrett De Bell was remarkably prescient about global warming not global cooling. “Scientists are becoming worried about increasing CO2 levels because of the greenhouse effect, with its possible repercussions on the world climate,” De Bell wrote. He reported a calculation that burning all recoverable reserves of fossil fuels would produce three times as much carbon dioxide as was then present in the atmosphere. “Carbon dioxide absorbs infrared rays more strongly than visible or ultraviolet rays. Energy coming towards the earth’s surface thus readily passes through the atmospheric carbon dioxide, but some escaping heat energy is absorbed and trapped in the atmosphere by carbon dioxide, much as heat is trapped in a greenhouse.” De Bell referenced uncertainty about how this heat trapping would play out but amply demonstrated the understanding of the mechanism of global warming and the reasons to be alarmed by the accelerating burning of fossil fuels.

As I came to understand, many scientists for decades theorized that greenhouse gases would result in warming. In 1856, American Eunice Foote presented a conclusion, based on her experiments, that adding CO2 above background levels to the atmosphere will result in warming. In 1896 this phenomenon was further described by Swede Svante Arrhenius. The understanding of the greenhouse effect held sway among most climate scientists ever since. At times, as briefly in 1975, some scientists have hypothesized that aerosols and particles of soot and ash would block some incoming sunlight resulting in cooling. Cynically Rush Limbaugh and the U.S. Senate’s leading climate denier Inhofe (R-OK) seized on the outliers to mischaracterize climate science and undermine efforts to protect the climate.  Even though climate change was not a leading issue for environmentalists in 1970, it was gratifying to learn that environmental leaders recognized global warming in 1970 and before. At the same time, the First Earth Day organizers and activists were concerned about other aspects of the petroleum fuel cycle from oil spills, to air pollution, from refineries to internal combustion engines.

Thanks in part to the first Earth Day, I got on the environmental bandwagon fifty years ago – if I get credit for joining a tree planting on that day in April in 1970. I have been on the eco-beat ever since. The environmental trend lines were frightening in 1970. I learned that we can bend those lines and change things for the better. If we do the right things, we can give Mother Earth a chance. But my heart aches when I think about the environmental harm that we have not yet countered and particularly those things that have gotten worse. It is encouraging to know that there are many fellow travelers in all walks of life and everywhere on Earth, however. Denis Hayes, the organizer of the first Earth Day, is still at it. This is what he said about his environmental priorities today. “I’m particularly interested in campaigns where failure would lead to significant, irreversible harm,” said Hayes. “Those are the battles that we absolutely have to win.” [https://www.seattlefoundation.org/Blog/Articles/2019/04/an-earth-day-conversation-with-denis-hayes] Hayes is so right.

“After Earth Day, nothing was the same,” former New York Times environmental writer Phil Shabecoff has written. It “touched off a great burst of activism that profoundly affected the nation’s laws, its economy, its corporations, its farms, its politics, science, education, religion, and journalism…” Shabecoff continued. “Most important, the social forces unleashed after Earth Day changed, probably forever, the way Americans think about the environment.” [Philip Shabecoff, A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 114.]

Earth Day, the first one and all of its 50 anniversaries, remain days of hope. We should celebrate while we come to grip with the facts. Today we are still witnessing rapid depletion of biological diversity. In fact, we now see the fastest rate of plants and animal extinction since the emergence of homo sapiens. Current extinction rates are some 1,000 times higher than natural background rate. [Jurriaan M. De Vos et al, ‘Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction’, Society for Conservation Biology (2104)]. Since the First Earth Day, the bird population in North America is down by 29 percent or 2.9 billion birds. [Rosenberg, K et al, ‘Decline of the North American Avifauna’ Science (Oct. 2019).] Such metrics should be our barometer. We are still taxing our environment beyond what can be sustained.  Thanks to the coronavirus, we have recently learned that people worldwide can reorganize everything we do. What we still need to demonstrate is that we can rebuild the economy in a way that preserves life on this blue planet. Earth Day+50 is the time to do that.  

Jon Hinck

Jon Hinck

Jon Hinck is an attorney in private practice and a former member of the Portland, Maine City Council. In 1979 he co-founded Greenpeace USA and later was in charge of the worldwide program for Greenpeace International. He was an NGO delegate to the 1997 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan. Follow him on Twitter:@hinckjon.

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