There were rumors that NASA had the capacity to take satellite images of the Earth. It was 1966 and Stewart Brand, Merry Prankster and future founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, wanted to see them. He created several hundred of buttons reading, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” and distributed them to NASA officials, members of Congress, UN officials, and students on college campuses. The campaign gained traction, and in 1968, when a NASA astronaut took the now ubiquitous Earthrise photo, it was released to the public, becoming one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. Brand later recounted to TIME, “those riveting Earth photos reframed everything. For the first time humanity saw itself from outside… Suddenly humans had a planet to tend to.”
According to Tom Jundt, visiting American Studies professor at Brown University, the 1970 Apollo 13 crisis—of “Houston, we have a problem” fame—solidified this notion. “It was this ‘oh my god’ moment,” Jundt explains. “Here are these guys struggling in this little capsule and writ large: that’s what we’re all doing. It brought the existing trope of Spaceship Earth to life. People realized it wasn’t just a rhetorical device. Suddenly, it became real.” The metaphorical reading of the earth as akin to a spaceship became common in cultural criticism as academics, environmentalists, and politicians expressed concern over the Earth’s limited resources and the necessity of global cooperation in working towards ecological sustainability.
Three days after Apollo 13 returned to Earth, 20 million people turned out in cities and campuses across the country for the nation’s first ever Earth Day, drawing more participants than any rally, march, or protest in the 1960s. Advertisements for Earth Day articulated a postwar existential anxiety about humanity’s capacity for destruction. “A disease has infected our country,” the ad reads. “It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left cities in decay. Its carrier is man.”
The first Earth Day is often heralded as the dawn of the US environmental movement, but as Jundt explains, the movement got its start much earlier. Contemporary environmentalism arose in the shadow of the Atomic Bomb, as pioneering environmental thinkers like William Vogt, Fairfield Osborn, and Aldo Leopold articulated postwar anxieties married to environmental concern. In the introduction to Our Plundered Planet, Osborne writes that the impulse to produce the book came at the end of World War Two, and warned that “if we continue to disregard nature and its principles the days of our civilization are numbered.” This small but growing movement gained momentum in the fifties and sixties. The air, rivers, and forests of North America were increasingly threatened by massive industrial development. The visibility of pollution—flaming rivers, dense smog, and sickness caused by tap water—provided a constant reminder of pollution’s presence. “It’s very hard for someone living now to imagine how polluted America was back then,” Adam Rome, environmental historian, history professor at University of Delaware, and author of the forthcoming Earth Day explained. “Scientists didn’t need a sign or a model telling people ‘this is what I think is going on.’ It was visible.” As the decade drew to a close, corporate-sponsored environmental destruction and widespread governmental indifference caused a growing sense of unease.
Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, came up with the idea for Earth Day as a way to get environmental legislation passed. He found inspiration in the university teach-ins popular during the sixties. He allowed Earth Day to build a grassroots level of support by ceding power to local organizations. Americans, Nelson suggested, should observe Earth Day “in any way they want,” whether it be an academic discussion, a political rally, a parade, a theatrical performance, or coalition building.
Students put a Chevy on trial for pollution, buried trash-filled caskets, and held teach-ins to challenge corporate power. A working-class mother in Philadelphia arranged a bus tour to bring neighbors to see the refineries that produced smog in their community and Albuquerque’s United Mexican American Students marched to a sewage plant that was stinking up their neighborhood.
Despite the variety of action, Rome sees an underlying anxiety about survival. “They weren’t just afraid of losing places that they love; they weren’t just afraid of getting sick, or having their kids get sick. There was also a sense that there were so many problems that were hardly being addressed that they might add up to a catastrophic threat.” There was an air of impending apocalypse as participants sported gas masks and scientists spoke of global destruction. Speeches were flagrantly anti-war, urging citizens to take on corporations, and warning of forthcoming disaster.
Earth Day was also constructed to more broadly encompass the socioeconomic disparity among Americans. Nelson spoke in Colorado, noting that “Earth Day can—and it must—lend a new urgency and a new support to solving the problems that still threaten to tear the fabric of this society,” he said, citing “the problems of race, of war, of poverty, of modern-day institutions. ” He mentioned “housing not worthy of a name,” “neighborhoods not fit to inhabit,” “a hungry child in the land of affluence”—in other words, issues not contemporarily linked with environmentalism.
With such a huge turnout, environmentally-minded politicians like Nelson had less trouble convincing fellow politicians that Americans cared about the environment. In the years immediately following the first Earth Day, a slew of protective legislation was passed. The National Environmental Policy Act required environmental impact statements for all federally funded projects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded by none other than Richard Nixon, who would later famously note that environmentalists wanted to “go back and live like a bunch of damned animals.” The Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 required the EPA to set standards for local air quality and is still regarded as the most significant air pollution control bill in national history. In 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection act passed, followed by the Endangered Species act just one year later. Businesses found ways to circumvent these laws, but they marked an important first step in combatting environmental degradation.
Due in part to legislative measures like these, pollution has drastically decreased since the seventies. Twice as many rivers and lakes are safe for swimming. Air pollution is down by a third, even though Americans now drive twice as many cars twice as many miles as we did then. But even though air quality has improved overall, the American Lung Association suggests that some 175 million Americans, almost sixty percent of the population, still live in places where pollution levels cause breathing difficulties. The socioeconomic division of exposure to environmental toxins remains. According to one Cornell study, though lead concentration in the blood of children (known to cause learning and behavioral disorders) has fallen by more than 80 percent in the past 30 years, lead exposure remains especially prominent among children living in impoverished communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control, children between the ages of one and five who were enrolled in Medicaid made up 60 per cent of cases of children with blood-lead levels that indicated a degree of lead poisoning.
Indeed, despite positive developments in air and water cleanliness, environmental issues today are even more pressing because of global warming. However, it’s surprisingly difficult to mobilize individuals beyond changing their personal shopping habits, and even those concerned about the environment don’t take today’s Earth Day very seriously. “A lot of people denigrate it,” Jundt explains, “and rightfully so. Today’s mainstream movement feels less than satisfying.” Once a critical and determinedly anti-corporate movement in which organizers refused corporate sponsorship, Earth Day has become a marketing platform rife with contradictions. It’s not a national holiday, and usually just children and the media celebrate it on a yearly basis, while environmental activists tend to work toward increasingly larger Earth Day spectacles each decade. At the last big Earth Day celebration in 2010, Greenpeace paired up with tech giants Cisco and Google, New York’s recycling campaign was sponsored by Pepsi Co., and corporate “greenwashing” dominated the media.
The 1970 Earth Day was compelling for so many people namely because the pollution was evident and the effects were immediately tangible on a personal level, as opposed to the indirect threat of climate change. Because climate change feels so distant, the contemporary environmental movement must rely on a moral invocation: we should worry about climate change because it’s the right thing to do, or out of concern for future generations. What’s more, climate change is a divisive political issue, whereas a communitarian ethos surrounding environmentalism in the late sixties and early seventies offered a respite from the divisive issues and political schisms of the sixties. Getting people to care about the environment again will be a major challenge, but one way to start is by reframing the rhetoric surrounding environmentalism and climate change so that it is less dependent on moralism and more tangible. Environmentalist ideology offered a solution to postwar anxieties and the existential crisis induced by the Atom Bomb. But today, environmental concerns are even more pressing. It’s just about changing the way people see it.
ALEX RONAN B’13.5 wants to go back and live like a bunch of damned animals.