There was no Earth Day teach-in at my university, but my friends and I got really excited about the environment.
I became really hungry to learn whatever I could learn.
Unfortunately, the Earth Day organizers had a big blind spot.
Besides reading and some kind of political action, I had no idea what to do about my newfound enthusiasm. Besides recycling, I still had little idea until I started serving on a university sustainability committee just a few years ago.
In this month’s final look backwards at Earth Day 1970, it is apparent that its leaders neglected something very important.
With the emphasis on demonstrations, teach-ins with prominent speakers, new laws, new strategies for litigation, and the like, no one had any idea what ordinary people were supposed to do about the environment.
I want to share some of what I have recently learned, but first let’s look at what environmental leaders were writing 45 years ago.
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When the “experts” just didn’t get it
It is as good a statement as any of what people were expected to do.
Earth Day was a start, and may have been the launching date of a lasting crusade. But what will follow? The days following religious revivals and old-fashioned Fourth of July celebrations saw many backsliders and much business as usual. Earth Day, too, may be forgotten, or ears may be dulled by overexposure and people may quit listening to the Earth Day message.
No single event will keep people listening, and the tactics that gave Earth Day its impact will wear out too soon. The Sierra Club announced Ecotactics, its handbook for environmental activists, as dealing with “teach-ins, attacks on giant industry pollution practices, community concern, boycotts. . . ” These activities are calculated to rouse excitement, but they are not a long-range strategy for maintaining widespread concern for environmental problems or for understanding the management alternatives. – Dael Wolfle. “After Earth Day” Science (May 8, 1970): 657.
While I certainly have not uncovered everything published in 1970, or even most of it, about Earth Day, Wolfle is the almost the only author I found who recognized the shortcomings of organized political action.
In his review of Ecotactics: The Sierra Club Handbook for Environment Activists / edited by John G. Mitchell and The Environmental Handbook / edited by Garrett De Bell, Luther Gerlach described an essay by someone else who recognized it. That author doubted whether people could be trusted to do anything at all.
Some of the essays feed coherently into the developing ideology of radical ecology . . . For instance, Garrett Hardin argues that man will not be motivated to decrease environmental despoliation simply by appealing to his conscience or warning him of impending disaster . . .
Hardin explains that instead man must be coerced by official restrictions if he is to be restrained fro m exploiting his environment to death. Presumably this is to be done within the present system, using its legal mechanisms. – Luther Gerlach. Eco-Gemini: Two for the Teach-In” Natural History 79 (May 1970): 72.
Other authors who mentioned ordinary citizens at all didn’t share Hardin’s cynicism, but also lacked Wolfle’s insight. Here is an article by a professor of religious studies at North Texas State University:
Concerning these increasingly obvious—and more and more ominous—problems, more is being said and written, almost daily. Unfortunately, however, very little is being done about them.
Hard-pressed conservationists, frightened population experts, exasperated scientists have managed, in part, to gain the attention of the “man in the street.” But both government and industry have been slow to act, and, indeed, have continued in many cases to act as if there were no real problem at all. –Peter A. Gunter. “Mental Inertia and Environmental Decay.” Living Wilderness 34 (Spring 1970): 5.
In several articles by the better-known author of The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich, I found only this recommendation:
People have got to demand and make sure they receive an environmental bill of rights that the Government is forced to protect. – . Paul Ehrlich “Ecological Destruction Is a Condition of American Life” Madamoiselle (April 1970): 292.
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Some things ordinary people can and should do
- Be politically active if you want, but remember that you have daily influence with your family, the people you see in your neighborhood, the people you work with, and your own work place. Share your knowledge. Talk about your interests and concerns. And live out a sustainable lifestyle where others can see it.
- Be mindful of what you buy. Do you really need it? Is it quality that will last, so you don’t have to throw it out after a little while? Can you find the products with the least packaging so that you don’t take home lots of trash with your purchases? Are the products’ ingredients good for the environment as you use them?
- Participate fully in recycling programs. Recycling was impossible in 1970, because it didn’t occur to anyone until later. Now nearly everyone can participate in some kind of municipal recycling program. And that’s not the only opportunity you have.
- Be careful not to litter. Parents, make sure your children understand why they shouldn’t litter. There are many reasons, of course, but here’s one: all kinds of pollution eventually makes it into the ocean. Pictures of birds that starved to death after filling their stomachs with plastic might pack an emotional punch. But ocean pollution from littering also interferes with fish and fishing. It directly takes money out of our pockets when we buy seafood.
- Keep looking for more ways to save energy. If you haven’t had your dryer vent cleaned in the past two years, doing so can make a big difference. Even little things like fastening your seat belt before you start the car can add up.
- Keep looking for more ways to save water.
- At work, if you see something that has the potential to do environmental damage, pass your concerns up the hierarchy. If you say something, maybe someone will do something about it. If you say nothing, who will know the potential danger?
- Remember that you’re not alone. What’s the environmental impact of several hundred million people living as you live?
- Keep informed about environmental issues. Sustainable Green Homes is one of many sources of ideas and inspiration about what kinds of things you can do.
It’s quite true that all levels of government have a big role to play in protecting the environment. Big business has a role to play. Both government and industry get complacent.
Both government and industry are likely to put a higher value on other things besides acting sustainably. Someone needs to keep and eye on them and speak up.
Environmental leaders knew that in 1970 and worked hard to initiate changes, with or without the necessity of going to court. But it’s all they thought about. They left most of us out of the picture.
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Common air leaks. Public domain. U.S. Environmental Protection agency
Save paper. Source unknown
Save water. Source unknown