The First Earth Day Felt More Like “Doomsday”: Now We Call It The Good Old Days

By on April 22, 2015

The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. Twenty million Americans came out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) and Congressman Paul McCloskey (R-Calif.) gave bipartisan sponsorship to the event, but its popularity far surpassed their widest expectations. President Nixon was not caught by surprise. He had spokesmen deployed throughout the country to present the Administration’s case at teach-ins.

EARTH DAY 9 The theatrical flair of some of the demonstrators had a great deal to do with its success. Oil-coated ducks were dumped on the doorstep of the Department of the Interior…A student disguised as the Grim Reaper stalked a General Electric Company stockholders’ meeting…Demonstrators dragged a net filled with dead fish down Fifth Avenue, and shouted to passers-by, “This could be you!” The hippies of the sixties had finally become organized. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. “It was a gamble,” Sen. Nelson recalled, “but it worked.” For many people who are now over 50 years old, their principle memory of the first Earth Day forty-five years ago, on April 22, 1970, was of the one hour prime time CBS Special Report with Walter Cronkite on Earth Day.

Today’s guest editorial is a flashback to a piece about the first Earth Day, written by Jim Washburn in 2008.

“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time …”

– Come on, you know the words, intone along –

“… for y’all have knocked her up,
I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe,
I was not offended,
For I knew I had to rise above it all,
Or drown in my own shit.”

That’s the intro to “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic, in case you were absent when American History stopped dead as 10 minutes of Negro fuzztone lamentation washed over it in 1971. “What the truckful of fuck was that?” you might have asked then, for this was not progressive supergroup fuzz guitar; it was a raw cry, Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel operating under first-take instructions from George Clinton to play as if he’d just heard his mother had died. Clinton didn’t tell him it was Mother Earth. That’s where that was coming from.

When you heard Jimi Hendrix play “Machine Gun,” you knew it was the sound of war, but from some extra-human perspective. Listen long enough and you realize it’s the cry of the planet, avulsed by napalm and carpet bombs. That’s where that was coming from.

EARTH DAY 7

Things were always coming from somewhere back then. “Dying trees … It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong”; “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the nineteen-seventies” – that was coming from Topanga Canyon. Over in Laurel Canyon, it was “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” and escaping the apocalypse in wooden ships. In Brian Wilson’s purple Bel-Air retreat, the Beach Boys weren’t singing “Catch a Wave” anymore, but “Don’t Go Near the Water.”  The sound from Woodland Hills was Captain Beefheart warning, “The rug’s wearin’ out that we walk on/Soon it will fray and we’ll drop dead into yesterday/Must the breathing pay for those who breathe in but don’t breathe out?”

That’s how it was circa 1970, with the best and brightest of L.A. and the world’s other cultural centers sounding the environmental alarm. And don’t forget the Motor City: “Mercy, mercy me/Things ain’t what they used to be/Where did all the blue skies go?”

They thought it was almost doomsday back when the first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970. Now, we call it the good old days.

Banner the first Earth Day

In 1970, the world’s human population was only 3,692,492,000. It had taken nearly 2,000 years to plump that number up from the mere 200 million who had peopled the Bible days. Now it’s taken only 38 years to bloat the 3.6 billion by another 3 billion [update: it’s 2015, and 45 years since the first Earth Day, the population is closer to 7.3 billion]. People may not have been listening too deeply to Marvin Gaye’s music, but they were sure fucking to it.

In 1970, gas was 34 cents a gallon and few people pondered what the lead in it was doing (outside of those in the DuPont boardroom, which had covered up lead’s deadly downside for decades). Our oceans were still teeming with fish, and they weren’t anywhere near full of mercury yet. Honking Delaware-sized chunks of Arctic and Antarctic ice shelf weren’t yet crumbling into the sea.

Back then, the weather extremes, species die-offs and oceanic dead zones of today still lived in a murky realm between scientific conjecture and science fiction. Some shit that has since come to pass even sci-fi writers couldn’t have imagined, such as in 2004, when Australia’s epic drought got so bad that thirst-crazed kangaroos began going into towns and attacking humans. Bad Kanga!

Soylent Green is people, if you’re a kangaroo.

In 1970, the dichotomy of us regarding the world as both our oyster and our toilet hadn’t taken so obvious a toll on the planet, nothing like what’s happening now. But it was enough to get people singing and organizing. Earth Day was a huge deal in which some 20 million Americans participated, and it wasn’t just Arbor Day with a splash of patchouli behind the ears.

Yes, some of those 20 million were teachers and kids spending an hour at tide pools poking sea urchins, but Earth Day’s participants also fostered substantive legislative, scientific and academic change. It has since gone global – let’s say hooray in 173 languages – but here at home Earth Day’s slowly become an other testament to our inertia, particularly over these last seven years of environmental rollback. We can bang drums and chant slogans until even the moon says shut up, but it won’t change a thing at the EPA, even though the agency owes its very existence to the first Earth Day.

EARTH DAY 2
( A Pace College student in a gas mask “smells” a magnolia blossom in City Hall Park on Earth Day, April 22, 1970, in New York)

Oh, tell us the story of the first Earth Day, will you, Hippie Granddad? Sure, kids. Pretend it’s a blustery day and you’re off the California coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara, but you’re not on a boat; you’re on the Union Oil Company’s Platform A, drilling for oil. It’s six miles out at sea, where the oil is and where California’s bothersome regulations aren’t. Those end at the three mile limit, and federal regulation is much more lax. For example, out here you can use thinner sheathing in your wells.

So there you are giving old Mother Earth a good drilling when – Jiminy Cricket! – there’s a rupture, which is sort of like the rapture except instead of souls shooting up everywhere it’s millions of gallons of oil. Whoopsidaisy!

EARTH DAY 11

(Volunteers are washing oil from the feathers of a grebe hoping he will be one of the 25% who survive. Photo by David Ranns)

That was January 29, 1969, and the resulting oil slick covered 800 square miles along the then-pristine coast. Birds, seals, dolphins, fish and their invertebrate brethren all sucked it up – oil that is, Texas tea – and died a horrible death. Union Oil’s president Fred Hartley was unimpressed, quoted as saying, “I am amazed at the publicity over the loss of a few birds.”

But Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson happened to be in Santa Barbara, witnessed the unction in action and was sufficiently appalled to shortly thereafter call for a national environmental teach-in. Harvard University student Denis Hayes was moved by Nelson’s speech and visited the senator to see if he could help organize the teach-in on his campus. Since Nelson hadn’t yet developed the idea and had sacks of mail from Americans supporting it, he enlisted Hayes to organize the event, not just at Harvard but across the USA.

From that happenstance, oil-flecked beginning, Earth Day was born.

The public will have carried some weight then, and the significance of Earth Day was not lost on then-President Richard M. Nixon. Hayes once told me of a night years later that he’d spent drinking with Nixon insider John Ehrlichman, who told him that “Nixon didn’t care much for the environment and thought all this whining about pollution was a sign of moral decay, a weakening of the American fiber by people who weren’t prepared to suck it up and pay the price of progress.”

EARTH DAY 4
(Independence Mall in Philadelphia, during Earth Week activities celebrating the eve of Earth Day, April 22, 1970)

But Nixon looks out the White House window and sees the mall full of people, turns on his television and sees gigantic crowds in cities across the country, and reads the Associated Press report that more than 20 million people are involved. He had barely won in 1968 and figured he had to be a player in this.

Nixon the tactician noted that both his chief Republican rival, New York Mayor John Lindsay, and his putative Democratic presidential opponent Edmund Muskie were involved in Earth Day. Ehrlichman told Hayes he’d suggested Nixon could outflank them by combining various elements of the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Health, Education and Welfare and the Atomic Energy Commission, tying a bow around them and calling it the Environmental Protection Agency. That was a direct result of Earth Day, according to Ehrlichman, who was a pretty straightforward guy if you overlook his convictions for perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

“We can change the world,” Crosby and Nash sang back then. While some things remained impossible – such as getting CS&N to sing in tune in concert – change certainly was in the air: The Clean Air bill passed, Nixon was toppled, the Vietnam War ended.

EARTH DAY 1
(Students from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay march on the first Earth Day in 1970)

Today, people couldn’t be more anxious for change if they were stuck inside a seven-year Pampers. Watergate was a mere bagatelle compared to stuff Bush has tried to get away with, yet Bush did get away with most of it, and he just will not go away. A great deal of the shenanigans was bad for the environment. Nearly Bush’s first act was reneging on a campaign promise to control power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions, going beyond that disgrace to also have the EPA drop its existing suits against power plant polluters. His excuse was that we needed the energy, citing as a reason California’s energy crisis, omitting that it was rigged by his friends at Enron.

But why stop there? He tried to replace the Nixon-signed Clean Air Act with his Clear Skies plan, which, among other niceties, would have allowed 50 percent more carbon monoxide emissions, this despite a National Academy of Sciences estimate that the new standards would cause an additional 30,000 premature U.S. deaths per year.

EARTH DAY 8

When even the Republican Congress rejected the plan, the administration did an end-run, “reinterpreting” EPA rules, over the objections of staff and a federal advisory panel. While the smokestacks spewed, the administration was instead branding eco-terrorism as our chief domestic threat.

Since then they’ve rolled back or reversed hundreds of environmental laws, usually at the behest of lobbyists and against the better advices of government experts. Here’s one example: The flame retardants PDBEs and deca BDE are banned in Europe and elsewhere because studies found both that they disrupted the brain development, memory, learning ability and hearing of lab animal offspring and that they concentrate in humans at alarming speed. The breast milk of U.S. mothers had 70 times the PDBEs of European mothers – near the levels that were damaging lab rats – yet the Bush administration sided with lobbyists in opposing regulation.

Judging by a glut of similar rulings, you’d pretty much have to be pouring effluent straight into a baby’s mouth before they’d intervene. Lobbyists are in charge of agencies that should be policing the lobbyists’ polluting industries. Whistleblowers are fired. Science has been so censored and distorted by this administration that over 4,000 scientists, including 127 members of the staid National Academy of Sciences and 48 Nobel Prize winners, issued a 49-page detailed letter condemning it. In one example it was found that the reports of NASA’s head climate scientist, James Hansen, were being censored by a political hack, and a 23-year-old college dropout at that.

EARTH DAY 6

California has been particularly victimized. There was the rigged energy crisis and the higher rates the feds stuck us with. There was the emergency request from the state for FEMA’s help in clearing trees killed by bark beetles, saying they posed an imminent threat of catastrophic forest fires, a request FEMA sat on for six months, then denied on the same day that catastrophic fires swept the state. Due to federal inaction, California has been screwed out of much of the water it was getting. Then there’s the tooth and nail fight by “states’ rights” Republicans in Washington to deny California the right to set its own smog rules, as L.A.’s sky has grown more sepia by the day.

We could fill this blog with similar depressing stuff, but to what avail? It bums us out, and nothing changes. I just had to go sit under an olive tree for half an hour to watch the leaves and sky and listen for the peepings of the little brown birds in our eaves, to recall that life goes on despite our ruinous idiot schemes.

Years ago the lovely U. Utah Phillips mused, “You know, maybe we’re winning and we don’t even know it.” He was talking about the slow silent acceptance of organic foods, of neighborhood vegetable gardens, about women’s rights, gay rights and global human rights, about our growing respect for the fragility and majesty of the natural world.

There is that, but also this: Walter Cronkite once said – and I can only paraphrase from memory – that the most frightening interview he ever conducted was with a scientist who was studying the effect of pesticides and other toxins on the human brain.

“You know,” the scientist said, “one day the human race is going to lose its ability to reason, and we won’t even know it.”

EARTH DAY 3
(The first Earth Day observance in Philadelphia, April, 1970)

Colony Collapse Disorder – it’s not just for bees anymore! Where are those damn bees? Where are the salmon? Maybe the other species see the writing on the wall and are getting out while the getting’s good.

Except the kangaroos. They are going to fuck you up. Do we rise above it?

Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites, FourStory.0rg, et. al. He is currently finishing a novel that even the smartest dog in the world will want to read. This wonderful piece originally appeared on the L.A. Citybeat website in 2008.

EARTH DAY 10

If you’ve read this far, you know that it’s not easy bein’ Green — it’s never been easy, and it never will be easy — and as Jim’s editorial points out, we’ve still got a long way to go before we can say we’ve fixed some of the problems that we’re reminded of each Earth Day.

Here are (at least!) ten things you can do on Earth Day that you will help save energy and resources and make Earth a much better place to live:

Compost your veggies and fruits: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a stunning 40% of food in the US is thrown away – 165 billion dollars-worth! Even the most well-meaning and conscientious among us often end up tossing withered carrots, spoiled milk, or moldy bread. Cutting down on waste is an easy and gratifying way to save money and reduce your impact on the earth. Shop with a menu in mind: buy small amounts of perishable foods (meat, dairy, fresh produce) at a time, and use them right away. Certain foods can be processed as soon as you buy them: celery, bell peppers, carrots, leafy greens and other vegetables can be cleaned, cut up and stored for easy snacking or inclusion in recipes. Clean your fridge every week, so you can use what you have before it goes bad.

Buy local produce: Produce actually begins losing nutrients as soon as it is harvested. Once fruits and vegetables stop receiving nutrients from their parent plant, vine, or tree, they begin to break down their own organic material for energy. As a result, carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and other key nutrients begin to disappear. The longer the produce sits, the more nutrients it loses. Since most produce at supermarkets and grocery stores has to be transported several hundred miles from the farm, to a warehouse, to your store, on average it takes seven days before the fruits and vegetables arrive at the produce aisle. That means nutrients have been breaking down for a whole week! No wonder the produce only has half of its original nutrients. To make matters worse, transporting the food over such long distances emits hundreds of pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So not only is the produce you’re buying not as healthy as it could be, it’s also contributing to climate change. Luckily there is a solution: buy local produce. If you are buying local produce from a nearby farm, chances are it was picked less than 24 hours ago and had to travel less than 100 miles to get from the farm to your plate. This means you’re getting nearly all of the original nutrients and actively reducing your carbon footprint

Stop or limit your consumption of meat: Meat production takes a lot more energy and resources than growing vegetables or grains, and 18 percent of human-generated greenhouse gases come from the livestock industry. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to make a difference in this area: Try skipping meat just one day a week. If every American had one meat-free day per week, it would reduce emissions as much as taking 8 million cars off the roads. Cattle ranching has contributed to desertification and a loss of biological diversity, as forest is destroyed to make way for grazing land. The meat industry is also a major polluter, damaging watersheds and producing greenhouse gases. Simply cutting back on your meat consumption can make a difference: make meat a once-in-a-while treat, rather than a staple. When you do buy meat, make sure that it’s sustainably and humanely-raised. Better still, buy it from local producers at your farmer’s market.

Go one hour a week without electricity: For one hour, focus on your commitment to our planet for the rest of this year. To celebrate, you can have a candle lit dinner, talk to your neighbours, stargaze, go camping, play board games, have a concert, screen an environmental documentary post the hour, create or join a community event – the possibilities are endless. While you’re at it, turn down your thermostat: Lowering your heat in winter by just 2 degrees can cut your energy bill by 10 percent. Get an automatic or programmable thermostat to make it easy to save on heating; set it to turn down when you’re away from home or sleeping, and to turn back up half an hour before you’ll be up and around.

Don’t use your car once a week: Vehicles consume half of the world’s oil, and spew a quarter of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Leaving your car at home even one day a week can save a lot of gas and emissions over a year. Try walking, biking, car pooling or taking the bus or subway to get where you need to go — or see if you could telecommute to work one day a week. When you do drive, make sure your tires are properly inflated — underinflated tires can cut your gas mileage by 5 percent.

Buy used furniture: Buying used furniture can save you tons of money and can add some character to your home. You don’t have to be a shabby-chic crafter, either. You can find antiques in great condition for less than new furniture. we don’t know about you, but we like owning furniture that was made over 100 years ago by hand versus something that was mass-produced a few months ago using particle board and toxic varnish. Better yet, don’t buy anything you don’t need: When you buy things you don’t need, you are contributing to unnecessary production, pollution, and consumerism. Little plastic trinkets that look cute on the shelf took energy and resources to make, and they will eventually end up in a landfill.

Use compact fluorescents: This sounds too easy, but we are creatures of habit and we are wasteful. Do you really need to have the light on when we are watching TV in the evening? At risk of sounding like your mother, “Does every light in the house need to be on? You can only be in one room at once!” But you can also use compact fluorescent lights to save money and energy too: they use about 70-90% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs, and last 10 to 25 times longer and saves $30 to $80 in electricity costs over its lifetime. Replace six regular light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs. Bonus!: While you’re at it, why not install a low-flow showerhead, which will save on water heating and use. Lower the temperature of your water heater to 120 degrees and insulate the tank.

Use native plants in your garden: Native plants are just that – native to your region. They are supposed to be there. Native plants attract butterflies and honeybees. Their root systems prevent erosion. Landscaping with native plants is rewarding to the gardener and beneficial to the environment. While you’re at it, grow a garden: growing a garden lets you enjoy fresh, delicious produce that tastes better than anything you could ever get at the store. It gives you the satisfaction of seeing your efforts bear (literal!) fruit. It also decreases your dependence on a food system that relies, by and large, on fossil fuels to get produce to market. And, eat with the seasons!: A peach at the height of summery perfection is fragrant, juicy, and flavorful. The same peach in winter, though, is hard, mealy, and bland, and has probably traveled many miles to get to your plate. Eating food that’s in season where you live lets you choose the highest quality, most nutritious produce, while cutting down on imported foods that come with a heavy fossil fuel cost. Once you start eating fruits and vegetables at their peak, you’ll never want to eat a winter tomato again!

Plant a tree once a year…or donate one: Planting a tree is perhaps the most common Earth Day activity, but we can plant a tree any day of the year. There are dozens of reasons, but here’s a good one: planting a tree ensures a good supply of oxygen which helps the atmosphere feel calm. Bonus!: Grow your grass longer: the longer grass has more surface to absorb sunlight, plus you’ll have thicker turf and deeper roots, which means you won’t have to water as often. Here’s another tip: After you cut the grass, leave the clippings on the lawn. This will add nitrogen to the soil and discourage weeds.

Unplug your electronics you don’t frequently use: Even when you’re not using them, some of your appliances and devices are still using energy if you leave them plugged in. Look around your house. Is there a red light on your cell phone charger or your DVD player? Yup, they’re using electricity. You can unplug your TV, stereo, computer, microwave and other electronics when you’re not using them — or use a power strip that you keep turned off unless you’re using one of the items. And make sure to unplug your cell phone and MP3 player chargers as soon as the devices are powered up. While you’re at it, recycle your electronics too: Don’t just throw your old cell phones or other electronics in the trash. These days, electronics stores and cell phone carriers have recycling programs that make it easy for the consumer to responsibly dispose of their unwanted electronics.

About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide and a dozen other websites and zines, most of them long gone. He’s also worked for over twenty years at reissue record labels, and penned scads of liner notes -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He is now somewhat reclusive and bides his time quietly in his dusty Miracle Mile hermitage in Los Angeles, CA.