My Earth Day piece
EARTH DAY AT 45: THE EVOLUTION OF ENVIRONMENTALISM
April 22 2015
The massive event signaled a maturation and transformation in U.S. environmentalism and marked the birth of the modern environmental movement as we know it. Before Earth Day, the environment did not score high among the population's concerns. According to Earthday.org, "The height of hippie and flower-child culture in the United States, 1970 brought the death of Jimi Hendrix, the last Beatles album, and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ Protest was the order of the day, but saving the planet was not the cause. War raged in Vietnam, and students nationwide increasingly opposed it. At the time, Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. ‘Environment’ was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news."
However, in the 1960s an environmental awareness was already slowly developing. 1962 saw the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” a book which opened the eyes of millions of readers to the dangers of agricultural pesticides to human health and wildlife. The chemical industry launched a mean-spirited campaign to discredit Carson and her book, but by the time of her death in 1964 she had been broadly vindicated and “Silent Spring” went on to become one of the most important environmentalist texts of all time. Her research and activism inspired and galvanized many of the scholars and activists that would organize the 1970 Earth Day.
The 1970 Earth Day festivities took place right in the middle of a very exciting and energetic period in the development of environmentalism. These years saw the first pioneering efforts to use the law to protect the environment. Inspired by the example of the ACLU and the NAACP, environmentally minded lawyers formed organizations that relied on the law and technical expertise, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. Scientist and environmental activist Barry Commoner made the cover of Time magazine in February 1970, the publication naming him "the Paul Revere of Ecology." The prestigious and influential Sierra Club was transformed from an elite hiking club into an iron-jawed activist organization not afraid to lock horns with the government and polluting corporations, thanks to the able leadership of the forward-thinking executive director David Brower. Social critic Murray Bookchin combined cutting edge ecological concepts with anti-capitalist militancy and anarchism to create a new philosophy called social ecology. Ecologists Herman Daly, Kenneth Boulding, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Howard T. Odum were all publishing their most important works in those years.
But some voices on the left saw the whole Earth Day affair with skepticism. "It turns out that the original Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was initially a staged event," says Tokar, a professor at the Institute for Social Ecology. "Politicians like Senator Gaylord Nelson and Representative Pete McCloskey took the lead in crafting the first Earth Day celebration that unexpectedly brought millions of people out around the country. The events, however, were supported by establishment institutions like the Conservation Foundation, a corporate think-tank founded by Laurance Rockefeller in 1948. Nixon even began the year with a presidential proclamation saying that the 1970s would be the ‘environmental decade.'”
Earth Day 1990 included an activist direct action to shut down Wall Street, a precursor and foreshadow of the Occupy Wall Street movement that would appear on the political scene two decades later. In 1990, the environmental movement was much more socially and politically mature than 20 years earlier. According to Tokar, "The 1990 Earth Day Wall Street Action reflected the flowering of grassroots environmental activity that had emerged throughout the 1980s, partly in response to the compromises of the big environmental groups. The popular response to toxic chemical pollution — launched by the mothers of sick children living near the severely polluted LoveCanal in New York — grew into a nationwide environmental justice movement that exposed the disproportionate exposure of communities of color to toxic hazards. Earth First! grew as a decentralized network of grassroots forest defenders, using theatrical direct action, combined with acts of industrial sabotage to stem the tide of forest destruction. Others joined in solidarity with indigenous peoples’ movements around the world that had arisen in defense of traditional lands, responding to the new onslaught of neoliberal development policies. During the lead-up to Earth Day 1990, a hundred environmental justice activists signed a letter to the eight largest national environmental organizations criticizing the dearth of people of color on those groups’ staffs and boards, along with their increasing reliance on corporate funding."