On April 22, 1970, I was running a recruitment campaign for Peace Corps at the University of California in Davis. It was one of those beautiful spring days in the Central Valley of California where green grass covers the valley floor and pushes on up into the foothills, the birds are busy declaring their love, and everything seems to bloom at once. Inspired, I had gone out for an early morning walk along the American River in Sacramento before heading to work. When I arrived on campus around 9:00, booths had sprung up across the large open quad that is the heart of the University, and a sense of excitement filled the air.
It was Earth Day I, ground zero in America’s efforts to save its environment, to return to an earlier time in American history, back before our rivers and air became a cheap way to dispose of industrial wastes, back before the value of our remaining wild areas had only been measured in the minerals that could be mined, or oil that could be produced, or trees that could be cut down, back before agricultural production was determined by the number of poisonous chemicals we could pour on plants and the antibodies and hormones we could pump into our livestock, back before America’s ‘greatness’ was measured in terms of how many times we could blow up the world with our nuclear weapons, and the amount of wealth that could be concentrated in the top one percent of our society.
Rachel Carson had provided the initial impulse for the environmental movement with her classic book, Silent Spring, published in 1962. The original idea for Earth Day had come from US Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, after he had witnessed the devastation caused by the Santa Barbara oil spill. He had noted student activism on American college campuses in support of human rights and in opposition to war and felt that some of the energy might be captured for saving the environment. Nelson had recruited Senator Pete McCloskey, a moderate Republican from California, and the two of them had gone on to organize the nation-wide teach-in on college campuses that had become Earth Day I.
I had quickly given up any pretense of recruiting for Peace Corps that day and instead spent my time walking from booth to booth and talking to young people and organizations about the challenges we faced on the environmental front, about their hopes and dreams for the future. Something happened to me that day. I became a believer in the importance of turning back the clock, of making America great again from an environmental perspective, and of redefining progress to include clean air and clean water, and wild places we could still enjoy and escape to.
Within two months, I had left my job as Director of Peace Corps Public Affairs in Northern California and Nevada and become Executive Director of a fledgling environmental center in Sacramento. On a national level, 1970 saw creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. But the battle was just beginning. And nowhere was this clearer than in California. The then governor of the state, the man who would be president, Ronald Reagan, had already declared in the battle to preserve the redwoods, “…a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?” The timber industry, and apparently, the governor, still looked at a 2000-year-old forest giant and saw 480,000 board feet of lumber.
In 1990, Earth Day appropriately went international. Some 200 million people in 141 countries carried the fight for clean air, clean water, and for the protection of wild places and wild animals onto the world stage.
Today, in the US, after 50 years of making progress in cleaning our air and water, in saving endangered species, in setting aside wild and beautiful areas, in developing clean energy, and in recycling our waste, the man who is President has declared war on environmental protection. He has proposed drastic cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and appointed a man to head the agency who is a dedicated opponent of the organization. He has denied the science behind global warming and moved to pull the US out of international efforts to solve the problem. And this is just for starters according to his campaign promises. Apparently “Making America Great Again” includes returning to the days when making a profit always trumped protecting the earth. But who knows? Our President is known to change his mind.
But the battle to save the earth, and that is what it is, is not just a US problem; it is a world-wide problem. It doesn’t matter today whether you are reading this post today from Nigeria, or Australia, or France, or Canada, or England, or Russia, or Brazil, or Singapore, or any of the other 160 countries from which people frequently or occasionally check in on my blog, the fight for clean air and water, for healthy food, for wild places, and for wild animals is a fight for all of us. Future generations of people, not to mention lions and tigers and frogs and trees and elephants and butterflies will say thank you.
The photos today (taken by Peggy and me) are to remind us of just how precious this world we live in is.
Happy Earth Day from Curt and Peggy!