The first Earth Day

For more information on how corporations and scientists they fund have created doubt about climate change, acid rain, tobacco and the hole in the ozone layer, see Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

It wasn’t actually just a day. It was two. Some cities marked the first Earth Day on April 21, 1970, others the next day.

The second day of the occasion happened to fall on Lenin’s birthday, which prompted a few folks on the fringe, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and Georgia comptroller general James Bentley (running for governor) to call it a communist event.

Among less loony figures, there was an effort to use this activist moment to push off in the right direction, to give guidance to a movement that—thanks to environmental disasters like the Santa Barbara oil spill the previous year—was rising fast.


There was concern, even among Earth Day leaders and participants, that the new environmental movement would become a safe form of activism that would allow the middle class to be involved in non-controversial issues and thus avoid other, tougher issues. “Conservatives were for it,” New York Times reporter Nan Robertson wrote. “Liberals were for it. Democrats, Republicans and independents were for it. So were the ins, the outs, the executive and legislative branches of government. It was Earth Day, and like Mother’s Day, no man in public office could be against it.” (Sexist language was still in vogue.) The Times’ Joseph Lelyveld reported on New York City’s observances, “If the environment had any enemies, they did not make themselves known. Political leaders, governmental departments and corporations hastened to line up in the ranks of those yearning for a clean, quiet, fume-free city.”

To many Earth Day leaders who saw ecology linked with other issues, that kind of universal acceptance was a lure and a snare. They tried to warn against letting environmentalism slip into becoming a warm, fuzzy issue with all the edges filed off to smoothness or slickness. And even environmentalists wanted the movement kept in perspective alongside other equally or more pressing issues.

In an editorial, the Times asked, “Is the sudden concern for the environment merely another ‘nice, good middle-class issue,’ as one organizer put it, conveniently timed to divert the nation’s attention from such pressing problems as the spreading war in Indochina and intractable social injustice at home?”

At an Earth Day event at the Sylvan Theatre on the grounds of the Washington Monument, renowned journalist I.F. Stone gave it to his audience with the bark off:

“In the ancient world the Caesars did it with bread and circuses. And tonight, I’m afraid, is the first time that our Caesars have learned to do it with rock and roll and idealism and noninflammatory issues. In some ways, I’m sorry to say, we here tonight are being conned. This has many of the aspects of a beautiful snow job. The country is slipping into a wider war in southeast Asia, and we’re talking about litterbugs. … The divisions of white and black in this country are getting to the point where they threaten our future, and we’re talking about pollution. … We are spending, on new weapons systems alone, more than 10 times as much, in this coming fiscal year, in the Nixon budget, than we’re going to spend on air and water. We’re spending a billion dollars more a year on space than all our expenditure on natural resources. The priorities of this government are lunatic—absolutely lunatic. And we’re not going to save the air we breathe and the water we drink without very many fundamental changes in governmental policy and governmental structure.”

At New York City’s Bryant Park, Kurt Vonnegut had a similar message:

“I have no idea which sporting event the president is watching this time of day. [During a national antiwar protest the previous year, President Nixon affected unconcern by putting out the word that he would be watching football during the protests.] I tell you this, that if we don’t get our president’s attention, this planet may soon die. … He has our money and he has our power. … He should help us make a fit place for human beings to live. Will he do it? No. So the war will go on. Meanwhile, we go up and down Fifth Avenue picking up trash.”

Stone later wrote that the pollution problem was real, “but it cannot be solved in isolation.”

One of the dangers of the motherhood factor was that it could mean that when it came time for hard truths, naming names, and opposing money and power, those in the movement who were unaccustomed to tough fights for issues would falter. In Madison, Wis., Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson said, “An environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without discrimination, without hunger, without poverty, without war … will require some tough decisions—political, economic, and social decisions that I am not certain the majority of people in this country support. In terms of dollars it will not cost a mere two or three billion, but a commitment of $25-30 billion a year [$139 billion to $167 billion in 2010 dollars], and soon thereafter a commitment of $45-50 billion a year.”

At New York University, anthropologist Margaret Mead suggested there was already reason to doubt the wisdom of relying on the middle class: “The middle class have gone away to the suburbs. It’s the poor who are affected.”

Nobel biologist George Wald said in a speech at Harvard, “The environment has been called a motherhood issue. Everybody’s for motherhood, though one can get even too much of that. And it’s easy to hold eloquent speeches about it, but there comes the point at which one has to decide what to do. And then one finds that one is encountering very powerful forces, both powerful and sensitive.”

‘They are all interrelated’

One of the reasons for the motherhood concern, Earth Day leaders said, was that the environment was interconnected with other issues that were not so bland and did not enjoy the same universal appeal. Those who saw ecology standing on its own were told repeatedly that it did not. Major figures warned that being for something, like clean air or water, was not enough. Activists, they said, needed to get into other issues that seem unrelated but actually deny funding for environmental programs, such as military spending, or that contribute to a poor environment.

“And I think this environmental concern now that brings us here tonight, and our concern with the war, and our concern with the draft, and our concern with the militarization of the country, and our concern with Pentagonism—they are all interrelated,” Wald said.

There was in 1970 a plainly evident exhibit of the way the environment was linked with other issues. The nation was still at war in Vietnam. A massive U.S. herbicide program to destroy forest cover had sharply reduced Vietnamese harvests, destroyed wide swaths of forest, made seeds infertile, threatened the food supply. Agent Orange inflicted horrible effects on both its targets and its distributors. Bomb craters littered the land and unexploded bombs took (and take) their toll. The U.S. used aviation fuel on vast tracts of soil to make it unfarmable in areas where Vietnamese insurgents dominated.

Referring to his estimate of the amount needed for environmental spending, Nelson said, “Twenty-five to $30 billion sounds like a lot of money. It is. It is equal to the amount we are wasting on a mistaken enterprise in Vietnam right now.”

There were examples closer to home. At the State University of New York in Buffalo, former Robert Kennedy aide Adam Walinsky said, “Black children in Harlem eat lead paint as it flaked off tenement walls. … Farm workers are exposed to pesticides that are the commercial counterpart of nerve gas.” At a separate appearance at Columbia University, Walinsky chastised the environmental movement for ignoring industrial workers, the poor, and the Vietnam war.

In speeches at several colleges, U.S. Sen. Clifford Case—a New Jersey Republican—said, “What have justice and freedom have to do with the environment? The answer is: everything. At least, that’s the answer for me.”

In Civic Center Plaza, Amalgamated Meatcutters Chicago vice president Charles Hayes said, “The steelworkers have been living under the belching smokestacks of the steel mills. … The packinghouse workers have been breathing in the stench of rendering plants. … It is small comfort to breathe clean air while you slowly starve to death. … Our nation has been spending $30 billion a year to inflict death and defoliation on a small Asian nation. At the same time, our national administration’s major new contribution to the preservation of life on this continent is the offer of $4 billion, spread over five years, for a better sewer system.”

In another context, Robert Kennedy had said, “We must grab the web whole.” It was one of the messages of the 1970 Earth Days.

Public relations and preemption

But there were the first stirrings of a safe environmentalism that threatened no one. There was concern that the corporate world would preempt the movement, and plenty of evidence that it was already doing it. For one thing, there were early indications of the way business would manipulate Earth Day for its own purposes, robbing the movement of its verve and daring. Speakers, including businesspeople, said environmentalists needed to resist corporations that wanted to partner with the movement only for their own ends and had to get good fast at countering myths created by corporate public relations.

Investment banker Dan Lufkin, building business support for the movement, spoke to a utility organization executive about plans for Earth Day. The executive told him “Oh, our members will participate—definitely—some may even give a nice lunch, a tour of the plant, and perhaps a ride in an electric car.”

“Nor do they deserve to be let off too lightly,” Lufkin told an Earth Day audience at Harvard Business School. “To suppose that Earth Day is an incident best handled by the public relations department is the surest evidence of the corporate shortsightedness which has led us to a need for Earth Day in the first place. … In all areas, and in all forms, quality of life must weigh equally with Adam Smith’s market mechanism in the allocation of resources. Does this mean the death of the profit system and of free enterprise capitalism? In a thousand speeches before a thousand Rotary clubs, it perhaps will.”

One of the green issues of that time was soft drink bottles. At Kearney State College in Nebraska, Cornell ecology professor Lamont Cole said, “Our decision here is that we make all of our decisions on the basis of short-term economic considerations. Today we are seeing the no-deposit, no-return bottle. In fact, in the town where I live all the grocery stores have put up signs that they won’t accept any deposit bottles. Statistics show that a deposit bottle makes an average of 20 round trips, so by this one move, we are increasing this particular solid-waste disposal problem by a factor of 20.”

At Las Vegas High School for Earth Day, a sign read, “EARTH ISN’T NO DEPOSIT NO RETURN.”

In Washington, at a time when state governments were considering laws to require banning no-deposit bottles and requiring returnables, Pepsi Cola marketer James Anderson advised local bottlers to get involved in Earth Day activities: “By doing so, you will win many friends and influence those people who might otherwise attempt to push through legislation banning nonreturnables.”

U.S. Sen. James Pearson, a Kansas Republican and an Earth Day supporter—there were still moderate Republicans then—told a Kansas audience by telephone to get ready for some rough battles. “I want to warn that antipollution is not what we politicians call a ‘warm puppy’ issue, one that if we pass enough laws, spend enough money and have a good heart, happiness is assured and soon America will be beautiful again. Antipollution means that someone will be hurt. Profits must be cut, comforts reduced, taxes raised, sacrifices endured. And, as in all human struggles, the powerful will fight the hardest to hurt the least.”

“And that’s the hang-up,” Wald said. “It’s the American, not as man and woman, but as consumer. The primary duty of every good American is to consume his share. That’s why most of my generation are so incensed with the hippie style. The hippies have some trouble, but most of them are their own private business. But there’s one trouble with hippies that cuts at the roots of American life—they don’t consume enough. Not enough clothes, not enough haircuts, not enough expensive food, not enough high rental properties. And that’s the hang-up.”


It would be nice to be able to report that those guidelines were taken to heart and helped steer the movement thereafter. There were encouraging signs of interconnected issues. Six days after the first Earth Day, the United Auto Workers announced that it would “raise this issue [pollution] sharply” in collective bargaining with the auto manufacturers because workers had a stake in “unchecked pollution by the auto and related industries.”

But in another demonstration of issue linkage, while the 1970 Earth Days were being held, President Nixon was planning to widen the war and eight days after the observances, he did it. U.S. forces invaded Cambodia on April 30. The environmental devastation spread as U.S. bombers pounded the new theatre of war.

The Cambodia invasion was more typical than the UAW move of the movement’s future. Successful linkage has been rare.

When the first Bush administration was revving up for war over Kuwait, the environmental component was not a part of the public discussion over whether to go to war, though the ecological consequences were foreseeable. Depleted uranium weapons were used by the United States in the war. Two years later, U.S. Sen. Donald Riegle of Michigan issued a report on the health of veterans of the Kuwait war that concluded that biological and chemical weapons used against U.S. troops originated with biological agents supplied to Iraq by the United States.

Just weeks after the war ended, a United Nations team found that bombing of Iraq during the Kuwait war had left Iraq in a “near-apocalyptic” state facing famine and disease, undercutting U.S. claims in 2003 that Iraq had recovered enough to develop weapons of mass destruction: “Now, most means of modern life support [in Iraq] have been destroyed or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology.”

It goes the other way, too. Just as the environmental factor in other issues is ignored, so other issues are seldom called into play when environmental initiatives are launched.

There are those, including some of us at this newspaper, who believe that buying local grocery produce helps to reduce the impact on the environment of long distance shipping.

But as that movement spread, the environment was considered in isolation. No one asked questions about the economic fairness. The United States spent decades making Latin American nations—and thus their workers—dependent on the U.S. produce market, sometimes using military force and invasions to enforce privileges claimed by U.S. produce corporations. Does a large nation have the right to hook other nations on sales and then withdraw its market from people who in some cases live at subsistence levels?

More to the point, why have those questions not been raised as part of the equation, instead of promoting localism in isolation from all other considerations?

Environmentalists never got very good at making their cases in the face of corporate P.R., nor at exposing the myths the corporate world created—nor at avoiding partnerships with undeserving industries. Industries that put on green faces are among those that fund rent-a-scientists who create doubt about climate change.

Then there is the preemption of the good will of environmentalism by business. Earth Day sales, Earth Day products, Earth Day coupons are sometimes the principal contact many people have with environmentalism.

Had the web been grabbed whole, the impact would have been greater and the slickness less.