Earth Day 1: 50 Years Ago… It Changed My Life

Sand dunes in Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.
The world is full of incredible beauty that is worthy of our love and protection. These are sand dunes in Death Valley National Park.

I was recruiting for Peace Corps on the Davis Campus of the University of California on April 22, 1970, 50 years ago. For those of you not familiar with the date, it was Earth Day I. At the time, I was running the Peace Corps’ Public Affairs office for Northern California and Nevada out of Sacramento. Curiosity pulled me away from my recruiting duties to check out the event.

UC Davis puts on great fairs. It probably has to do with an event it calls Picnic Day, a rite of spring with roots as deep as humankind. The birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and the snow is melting in the mountains; let’s have a party! All of the departments become involved, put on shows, put up displays, and do silly things.

The flowers were blooming.

Earth Day at Davis was similar, but it incorporated a vitally important message.

Somehow we had forgotten where we had come from in our rush toward progress and the good life— and in the desire to maximize profits. As a result, we were chopping down our forests, polluting our streams, poisoning our air, destroying our last remaining wilderness areas, and saying goodbye forever to innumerable species whose only evolutionary mistake was to get in our way.

We had forgotten that birds can make music as beautifully as any symphony, that peace and balance can be found in the wilderness, and that somehow, in some yet unfathomable way, our fate might be tied to that of the pup fish. It seemed okay that the last brown pelican was about to fly off into the sunset forever so we could squeeze one more bushel of wheat from our crops, and that it was appropriate for the great redwoods, silent sentinels who had maintained their vigilance for over 4000 years, to die for our patio with a lifespan of 20-30 years.

Brown pelicans, once near extinction because of DDT used on crops, have made a dramatic comeback since the use of DDT was banned. I took this photo south of Santa Barbara, California.

Rachel Carson, in her landmark book Silent Spring, had sounded a clarion call to a Holy Crusade: saving the earth. Others, too, were raising the alarm. Earth Day I was an expression of growing concern. Its message struck a deep chord with me. The years I had spent wandering in the woods while growing up, my exploration of the rainforest around Gbarnga, Liberia during my Peace Corps assignment, and my hiking in the wilderness as a backpacker, all came together in a desire to join the environmental movement and help protect the wilderness I had come to love.

Some of my happiest moments as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa were spent exploring the rain forest surrounding where I lived.

I wandered between booths on campus, talking to the representatives of various organizations and picking up materials. There was information about the redwoods, over-population, water and air pollution, land-use planning, mass transit and the protection of valuable farm lands. I learned about all the species that had become extinct because of our activities— and that many more were threatened.

Giant redwood tree at Redwoods National Park. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.
How could one not feel awe when confronted by giant redwoods in their cathedral like setting at Redwood National Park. It seemed terribly wrong to me that the life of a 2000 plus year old giant should be ended with a chainsaw to meet our short-termed demand for wood products.

I went home that night inspired, concerned, and more than a little frightened about what we were doing to our planet— the only home we have. Three weeks later, I had left the Peace Corps and become Executive Director of Sacramento’s first Ecology Education/Environmental Action Center, working 50-60 hours a week for one hundred dollars a month. I would continue to devote a significant amount of my time to supporting environmental causes for the next 20 years of my life, working beside some of the most dedicated, selfless and talented individuals I have ever known.

Our efforts, and those of hundreds, even thousands of others, made a difference. The majority of people in the US as well as in numerous other countries around the world became convinced that protecting the environment was a worthwhile endeavor. Air pollution was reduced, waterways were cleaned up, wilderness areas were saved, and a number of endangered species were brought back from near extinction. Once again, eagles soared, buffalos roamed and wolves howled.

But the progress has never been easy and the war is far from won. Nothing represents this better than our present battle against global warming, a reality that was dramatically brought home to me two years ago as I hiked down the Pacific Crest Trail dodging huge fires in Oregon and California. A drought created by climate change had killed millions of trees and those trees were burning.

The massive Carr Fire near Redding sent fire tornadoes shooting into the air, reduced visibility to close to zero, and filled the air with choking smoke for hundreds of square miles. This was the view I faced on the PCT near Chester, California.

The 50th Anniversary of Earth Day 1 is an excellent time to take stock of where we are in our efforts to protect the environment. The news is not good. Over the past three years we have seen our national government withdraw from international efforts to combat global warming, eliminate many of the protections that we have fought so hard to put in place over the last 50 years, back away from using science designed to measure the impact of pollution, and systematically dismantle the EPA. Continuing down this path will once again lead to air filled with pollution, waterways poisoned, wilderness areas eliminated, and species exterminated. This isn’t an exaggeration; it is reality.

But it doesn’t have to be. The time to renew our commitment to the environment is today. Each of us can take action on the personal level to reduce our negative impact on the environment, support positive efforts on the local, state, national and world level, and insist that our political leaders do the same. The future of our children, grandchildren and future generations depend on it.

Grand Tetons National Park photo by Curtis Mekemson.
A final reminder of the beauty that exists in our world. This are the Grand Tetons. Happy Earth Day. May we have 50 more!

30 thoughts on “Earth Day 1: 50 Years Ago… It Changed My Life

  1. My prayer lately is that those who can make a difference note the clean air we have right now and do something about it. When life begins to again go on and humankind continues to pollute, our species will not survive. It is just that severe. To be able to breathe clean fresh air lately has been such a JOY!! Loved your post, Curt. Thank you!

    • Thank you Amy. Much appreciated! Global warming certainly speaks to the incredible damage we are doing to our environment. Interestingly, I just read an article in Scientific American that relates air pollution to Alzheimer’s disease. One more problem. And even if we don’t succeed in wiping out our species, there is the whole quality of life issue. –Curt

      • Curt, I am witnessing with my own two eyes dramatic healing in our Earth (fresh air, blue clear skies, more birds) and in our special needs cats (3 who looked to be “near death” but within the last 3 weeks have made a dramatic turnaround!), and me whose asthma symptoms are nearly non-existent. It was pointed out today that our mayor (Buffalo, NY) wants those who are able to permanently work from home to do so, and I “think” it is in an effort to keep road traffic low. I’d also like to see air traffic limited. We all have a RIGHT to breathe clean fresh air. If things go back to where they were and continue to go in that direction, we as a species are doomed. I honestly believe people are waking up to the fact we must must implement change to keep the healing trend in motion. The more of us who open our mouths and begin to talk about these things, the better the chance we have to actually have change happen!

      • I truly hope so, Amy. Voices like yours are critical to this ongoing battle. Land use planning, telecommuting, mass transit, bicycling and even walking are all valuable. With the energy options we have now, we have a true opportunity to clean the air. Thanks for your comments. Appreciated. –Curt

    • Thanks, Andrew. It pretty much set my life course. But beyond that there were a number of things along the way that had significant impacts. One question I would ask you is what turned you into such a devoted traveler? –Curt

      • It was books for me as well, Andrew. I’ve mentioned the impact the Alexandria Quartet had on me. Like you, travel in my childhood was extremely limited, mainly to visit the grandparents, who fortunately lived on the coast. My great uncle, Edison Marshall, was a true inspiration. I think I have talked about him as well. He wrote historical fiction, much of it about the world’s great travelers like Marco Polo and the Vikings. I read his books as soon as I could read. I also had his 1920s atlas that he had drawn lines on the maps showing where he had travelled throughout the world. I could only dream. –Curt

  2. Curt, how can I thank you for this beautiful and loving post. The writing itself is
    wonderful, the content has me tear eyed. My love for nature sings along with your
    experiences and words. It is wonderful to know how many people work hard like
    you to restore some balance.

    I love your photos and am especially silenced by the sand dunes. I know, nothing green, the beauty and smoothness of their waves holds me. I have never seen a big desert.


    • Thanks so much, Miriam. Your words touch me. As for deserts, Death Valley is gorgeous. It isn’t somewhere you want to go in the summer— the heat can be a bit much 🙂 — but go in the spring, fall or winter and you are in for a real treat! –Curt

  3. Years ago, at my son’t high school graduation party, I asked his friends what they wanted to do with their lives, (I know, I was being the obnoxious parent). Out of 40 kids, almost every one of them wanted to do something with the environment or social justice.

    I told them, “Great, study business and accounting.”

    You should have seen the looks, but I went on to explain that I had worked with a lot of non-profits and had yet to see one managed professionally or even efficiently for that matter. I guess when you are saving the world, pennies don’t matter – but they do.

    Oddly, my son took my advice and went on to get a business degree. His first job was with Best Buy as an energy analyst. At one point, he wanted to sell management on an aggressive energy saving program, so we brain-stormed his presentation and came up with the best elevator speech opening I have every heard:

    “You are burning money,” he told them. He later said he could have walked out of the room at that point and still won his program.

    He went on to a number of other Fortune 500 companies, doing the same thing – but grew disillusioned with the industry. Just too many hustlers and whores, he liked to say.

    So he decided to walk the walk by opening a distillery that makes organic spirits using locally sourced grains and is doing quite well.

    At one point, he came across my father-in-law who was a fence-row to fence-row corn and bean farmer who thought anything green that wasn’t money was ridiculous.

    So when he and my son got into a conversation and my father-in-law started to diss his business, my son simply said, “It’s a market.”

    My father-in-law understood and respected that.

    There is a lesson in there somewhere, something about being able to reach anyone where they are at – and still accomplish your goals.

    • Agreed Greg in terms of being able to reach people. Part of my work over the years was building coalitions. And you have to sell an idea in such a way that people can see the benefit from their perspective. Some of my coalitions included business, labor, environmental and health groups. 🙂 As for nonprofits, there are good ones and bad ones. My evaluation has always been on how effective the organization is in defining and achieving its goals. For example, I worked for the Lung Association in California. Our primary goal was the prevention of lung disease. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to put together an initiative designed to increase tobacco taxes and spend a substantial amount of the revenues generated on prevention programs. There’s quite a story about what we did and how we accomplished it. The tobacco industry spent over $25 million trying to defeat us. In the end, the prevention programs that were designed led California from having the second highest incidence of tobacco use among teens to the second lowest. The state department of health estimated that over a millions lives were saved from premature death in the first 20 year. Billions in health care costs were saved. That’s an example of what well run n on-profits can achieve working together with businesses, government and a wide array of other organizations. But the initiative came totally from nonprofits.

  4. Thank you Curt for writing this poignant piece. My heart aches as I read
    “…that it was appropriate for the great redwoods, silent sentinels who had maintained their vigilance for over 4000 years, to die for our patio with a lifespan of 20-30 years…” … And the Pelicans… these are our ancestors.
    I pray that Covid will gift us with the willingness to change course and make protecting all life the number 1 priority for everyone.

    • I hope that some positive things come out of the pandemic. Certainly the clean air that has resulted is a valuable lesson. At a minimum, regaining a government that is concerned about the environment… Thanks, Arati. –Curt

  5. It’s a bit scary how much we’ve regressed in the last three years. You could argue it’s karmic justice that nature has put us on hold. Hopefully, folks will notice the cleaner air we’re already enjoying, and take that into consideration once we hit the go button again.

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