The first Earth Day snuck up on America. Sure, we all knew about pollution – a year earlier a polluted river in Cleveland had burst into flames – but no one had ever tried to build an environmental movement. On April 22, 1970, we stumbled into a mass movement to save the earth.
For the first time, the magnitude of the situation was laid out clearly, in a way that even we high school students could understand. Pollution, overpopulation, looming shortages of food, water and energy – it was astonishing to realize what a mess we were making.
The brilliance of Earth Day was in applying the lessons of the civil rights and peace movements to environmental issues. There were teach-ins, demonstrations and political campaigns. It was up to us to bring the planet back into balance. Briefly, it was the most important thing on earth.
Briefly, because a week after Earth Day, the US invaded Cambodia and all hell broke loose. There were soon students dead in the streets, and even burning rivers seemed secondary. We lost sight of the lessons of Earth Day, and a backlash took hold. The seeming consensus evaporated, and we began to hear how questioning “progress” was un-American. It was years before the momentum was regained.
On that first Earth Day, there was no talk of global warming. Of all the grim scenarios we imagined, warming the planet sufficiently to melt the ice caps was beyond our imagination. We imagined freezing in the dark as our oil ran out, or choking on car exhaust. We didn’t know it was the invisible gasses that would threaten the planet, but we did learn that “progress” could be dangerous.
Looking back, Earth Day 1970 seems like a brief optimistic moment when we – our generation – felt we could fix things before it was too late. But since then the world has barreled down a road to an overheated, sea-drowned slow-motion apocalypse that now seems inevitable.
We can’t say we weren’t warned.
In Some Way Outa Here, I tell the story of Earth Day, 1970, and the impact it had on my suburban town.