Remembering the First Earth Day

Reader Contribution by Linda Holliday
1 / 2
2 / 2

We didn’t watch much TV when I was young, partly because my mother freaked out about wasting electricity and ruining our eyes. So, for me to recall a single program is no big deal – except the CBS Special Report I remember aired 43 years ago.

I was in elementary school when newscaster Walter Cronkite presented Earth Day: A Question of Survival in 1970, the year Mother Earth News debuted. Earth Day’s founder, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, hailed from my home state of Wisconsin.

Although I didn’t understand every program point, and my dad called all activists “hippies,” the movement fascinated me because I was an outdoorsy kid building forts, sledding, fishing, swimming or just exploring. I didn’t want my world to change.

I scored an A+ on my poster project that first Earth Day. I drew a crying rabbit sitting on a stump surrounded by acres of sawn trees. He held a sign spelling P-O-L-L-U-T-I-O-N, with each letter starting corresponding words my young mind perceived as being really bad. With a dictionary, I came up with Putrid, Obscene, Loud, Lousy, Ugly, Toxic, Icky, Oily and Nasty.

I thought our planet’s problems were roadside garbage and air pollution in far-off cities. I knew nothing of nuclear waste, ozone depletion, global warming, melting icecaps, peak oil, genetic pollution, aquifer depletion, deforestation, overpopulation or extinction of species.

Then I realized while reviewing Earth Day 1970 videos no one mentioned those issues. Our concerns were more tangible – industrial pollution and a general sloppiness. Cronkite spoke of “fouled skies, filthy water and littered earth.”

Only once I encountered more serious issues: “This planet is threatened with destruction and we who live in it with death,” Prof. Barry Commoner, a biologist, said. “The heavens reek, the waters below us are foul, children die in infancy, and we and the world, which is our home, live on the brink of nuclear annihilation.”

Cronkite said the first Earth Day event attracted “predominantly young, white and anti-Nixon” attendees in 2,000 communities. “The protests appeared frivolous and the protestors curiously carefree,” he said, “although their message was clear – act or die.” Perhaps Cronkite’s interpretation caused many to ignore the grassroots effort as hyperbole.

President Richard Nixon’s staff advised him against attending Earth Day Teach-Ins and said there were no federal funds for “any action on environmental problems.”

In 1975 John Shuttleworth, cofounder of Mother Earth News, said in a Plowboy Interview: “For at least 20 years now, I’ve been getting an increasingly uncomfortable suspicion that all the major nations of the world — capitalist and communist — suffer from the narrow delusion that only people, and people alone, have any rights on this planet.”

When a United Nations committee in 1987 called for banning chlorofluorocarbons by 2000 after evidence the chemicals destroy Earth’s ozone layer, developing nations such as China balked at a total phase-out of CFCs. China said it “did not want to sacrifice economic progress,” according to a 1989 textbook. In developing countries’ view, industrialized nations recklessly polluted the world for decades and should be the ones to forfeit prosperity.

Last month, the UN Climate Change panel finally said with confidence it is “extremely likely” global warming since the 1950s is manmade. Qin Dahe, the report’s co-chair, said, “The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, the global mean sea level has risen and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

As in 1970, some disagree with the panel’s findings, citing a purported slowdown in warming since 1998. Still, according to former Vice President Al Gore, 12 of the hottest world temperatures have been recorded in the last 15 years. It certainly has been hotter here in the Ozarks.

“We’re seeing the manifestations all over the world,” Gore told the UN. “There has been a 100-fold increase in extremely hot days occurring around the Earth” and more catastrophes such as Colorado’s recent flooding, Hurricane Sandy and western wildfires.

In 2007, I spoke with a global warming expert and meteorologists about Missouri’s extreme weather. They predicted we could expect more severe storms, insect infestations, heavier downpours, longer droughts and more “freak” unseasonal weather.

My husband and I are old enough to say, “It didn’t use to be like this.” Rain rarely falls peacefully anymore. It pounds down, blows in like a hurricane or doesn’t rain for weeks. Instead of anticipating a welcome shower when thunder rumbles in the distance, we wonder whether to head to the basement or if the garden will be smashed to smithereens.

Dr. Helen Caldicott, a nuclear opponent for 40 years, said recently when I asked why we didn’t heed environmental warnings sooner, “Yes, indeed, why didn’t we?” With more extremes in our future, the outlook is gloomy. Radiation released from the earthquake-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant is “much, much worse” than even Caldicott predicted.

Some discredit Caldicott for a “fear-based plea” to end nuclear power. Meanwhile, at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, six holding tanks continue to leak the world’s most dangerous toxin into the environment with no replacement plan.

Although George H.W. Bush presented himself as the “environmental president,” in 1991 the Bush Administration disagreed with European and Japanese proposals to deal with global warming, according to historian Howard Zinn. Bush’s Administration feared setting carbon emission limits and timetables would “hurt the nation’s economy” without “demonstrable long-term climatic benefit.”

I can’t imagine what the next 40 years will bring, but how I wish our concerns were beer cans and old tires chucked in the woods.

“The choice is ours,” Lester R. Brown wrote in a 40th anniversary issue of Mother Earth News. “We can stay with business as usual and preside over an economy that destroys its natural support systems until it destroys itself, or we can adopt Plan B and become the generation that changes direction, moving the world onto a path of sustained progress.”

Our generation will make the choice, Brown said. “But it will affect life on Earth for many generations to come.”

To read more and see more photos, visitour blog.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.