Remembering Earth Day: Rectifying Remissness in References

Earth from spaceEarth Day is always April 22. April is often observed as Earth Month. Being more historian than reporter, I am in no position to observe it by calling attention to this year’s upcoming events.

I can and will take a look back to the beginning to see what we have accomplished, what we’re still grappling with, and what we simply no longer talk about.

Meanwhile, the amount of utterly undocumented assertions about Earth Day, among many other topics, never ceases to amaze me.

A couple of years ago I wrote about Earth Day 1970 based mostly on my own recollections, although I did look up some basic information about how it got started. My post Earth Day: Looking Back, Looking Around, Looking Forward duly documents my sources.

I have since found any number of interesting posts on the web about Earth Day, but since the authors neglected to document their sources, it was impossible to follow up until I went to the library and scanned dozens articles from printed magazines, including every page published in Time under the heading “Environment.”

What follows is a broad overview, with no attempt to mention everything Time covered. The dates all refer to Time articles from 1970. I will provide a documented and more detailed look at some specific issues every week this month.

Problems solved, at least partially

tap water

Tap water is safe now

The environmental movement traces its origins to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which called attention to the dangers of DDT. Time mentioned it in the June 15 and October 12 issues.

Mosquitoes were becoming immune to it. The pesticide was banned in 1972. Other pesticides still cause concern, but no comparable crisis.

To the best of my recollection, about a third of Lake Erie was dead at some tine in the 1970s—incapable of supporting even microbial life. The article in Time didn’t mention that, but the May 4 issue speaks of a specific pollutant in the Great Lakes: mercury.

When tests showed that fish in Lake Saint Claire had fourteen times the maximum level of mercury considered safe for humans to eat, Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel ordered a federal investigation of all lethal substances discharged into the Great Lakes. The state of Michigan ordered the closure of a Wyandotte Chemicals plant. Other states, as well as Canada and Ontario likewise took vigorous action.

The water of the Great Lakes is hardly pristine today, but people can eat the fish. The dead spot in Lake Erie long ago came back to life.

The August 31 issue reported that tap water in some municipalities was hazardous. Some people today are suspicious of tap water, but thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act it’s safe to drink everywhere—provided, of course, no company has befouled a river with a chemical spill.

Housewives also regularly befouled rivers and groundwater every time they did laundry. Detergents were not biodegradable. In streams, algae blooms killed fish. In municipalities that depended on well water and septic tanks, like Suffolk County on Long Island, tap water came out foamy and obnoxious smelling.

The November 23 issue reports that Suffolk County passed an ordinance banning the sale of detergents, with hefty fines and possible jail time for stores that didn’t comply. Now that was simply foolish. Nothing kept people from going to another county to buy detergent.

Fortunately the chemicals and manufacturing techniques that caused the problems have long been illegal.

Less of a crisis than an irritant, dog poop made it into the July 20 issue. Some people wanted to ban large dogs from big cities! Nowadays most dog owners know to pick up after their pets. Piles of poop are still irritating, but no longer newsworthy.

Problems less discussed today


dance of death

Danse macabre (Dance of Death) / Michael Wolgemut, 1493

Paul Ehrlich took a very active part in pressing for environmental reform, fearing the effects of overpopulation. He was not alone. Many others insisted that the earth could not support any more people, and that without restricting growth, famine was just around the corner.

Do you remember the great worldwide famine of 1975?

Not long ago, environmentalists regularly made the news trying to block developments and large-scale engineering projects in order to save some obscure species from extinction.

On March 23, Time noted that a scheme to irrigate Death Valley would “soon test man’s reverence for life,” because it would mean the extinction of the amazing but economically useless Death Valley pupfish.

We don’t here so much about that issue anymore not because it doesn’t matter, but because as a tactic it didn’t work and turned too many people against the whole idea of protecting the environment.

The August 26 issue advocated combating traffic congestion by setting aside pedestrian malls where no vehicular traffic would be allowed. That seemed like a great idea. Unfortunately it turned out to be a dismal failure, as people did not patronize the stores in those malls in sufficient numbers to make them economically viable.

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Problems still with us

Pelican victims of BP oil spill

Pelican victims of BP oil spill

A major oil spill in Santa Barbara, California in 1969 continued to make news into 1970 (February 9 and June 22). Due to the negligence of the Chevron Oil Co., a dozen oil wells caught fire and burned for a month (March 23, April 13, May18).

The names have changed since 1970. The companies have changed. The places have changed. Our large corporations still haven’t learned to handle oil safely. Getting it right most of the time isn’t good enough. Oil spills (and spills of other hazardous materials) are still regularly part of the news.

But here is a comment that would never appear in a news report these days: “Fortunately the slicks blew out to sea” (March 23). Now we know that oil damages more than beaches.

Abundant water never seems to be where people want to live. The March 23 and July 6 issues covered news of a massive and controversial project to move water from northern California to southern California.

The November 9 issue mentions a group in Arizona that called itself “Town Hall” was trying to put a halt to that state’s attempts to attract new residents. Part of its mission was to teach Arizonans that rampant growth isn’t the same thing as progress. It’s not only Arizona that needs to learn that.

If there’s one place with abundant water where people want to live, it’s the Everglades. The January 26 and April 13 issues noted environmental damage to that fragile ecosystem. Such stories have not yet stopped.

Air pollution didn’t respect state boundaries in 1970. Vermont had to take steps to protect itself from New York and Boston (November 9). Smog from Los Angeles traveled for miles, killing trees in the San Bernardino National Forest (April 13.) Pollution is not and has never been strictly a local problem.

Meanwhile, we’re still arguing over the proper use of federal land: whether to exploit it for commercial use or preserve it as wilderness (July 6, July 27). We’re still dealing with illegal dumping (March 16), damage to tourism as a result of environmental degradation (October 12), agricultural wastes (September 14), and overfishing the oceans (July 13, July 20, August 28).

One new and serious problem

Official portrait of first EPA commissioner William Ruckelshaus

Official portrait of first EPA commissioner William Ruckelshaus

Whatever became of bipartisanship? Democrats controlled both houses of Congress when it passed all of the landmark environmental legislation in the 1970s. Republicans controlled the administration that proposed it and oversaw the enabling regulations.

In fact, according to the November 9 issue, Nixon issued an executive order mandating unleaded fuel in government vehicles after Congress refused his idea to increase taxes on leaded gasoline.

Time devoted articles to certain individuals:

  • Illinois Attorney General William Scott (January 5)
  • Secretary of Interior Walter Hickel (January 5, March 16)
  • Biologist Barry Commoner (February 2)
  • Undersecretary of Interior Russell Train
  • President Richard Nixon (February 23)
  • Administrator of the Consumer Protection and Environmental Health Service Charles C.  Johnson (March 16)
  • Zoologist Kenneth Watt (May 25)
  • Secretary of Transportation John Volpe (June 15)
  • Kane County, Illinois activist “The Fox” (October 5)
  • EPA’s first administrator William Ruckelshaus (November 23)
  • Rogers Morton, nominated to succeed Hickel as Secretary of Interior (December 14)

What jumps out to me about this list is that every politician or administrator (with the possible exception of Johnson) was a Republican. And every one of them was covered for some positive contribution to environmental protection.

Democrats in the House and Senate exercised leadership in environmental issues. So did Democrats in state governments. But Time mentioned them only in passing.

Where are the Republican leaders on environmental issues today? Where are the Republicans who publicly acknowledge that “conservative” and “conservation” come from the same root?

Photo credits:
Earth from space. Public domain. NASA photograph
Tap water. Source unknown
Dance of death. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Pelicans. Some rights reserved by MindfulWalker
William Ruckelshaus. Public domain. US Environmental Protection Agency


Remembering Earth Day: Rectifying Remissness in References — 1 Comment

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