The founder of Earth day, Gaylord Nelson, was a passionate advocate for the environment throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He knew that A modern environmentalism had to include federal regulations and protections for the nation. He called for sweeping, immediate government regulation—including bans on pesticides, the end of the internal combustion engine, bans on ocean waste dumping, and even a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that "every person has the right to a decent environment."
A new website launched for the Earth Day 40th anniversary, Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Environmental Movement, describes how the idea of a national celebration of the earth came to pass:
As a senator, Nelson contributed to important liberal reforms but struggled for years to interest his colleagues in environmental protections. So he turned instead to the people, proposing April 22, 1970 as a day for Americans to speak out about the environmental crises they faced. Earth Day's massive public support forced politicians to see the severity of the problems and the extent of public concern. The first Earth Day galvanized Congress into creating some of the most important U.S. environmental legislation. Gaylord Nelson earned environmentalism a lasting place in national politics.
As for me, have always been very concerned with the negative effects of pollution and overpopulation on the planet’s interconnected ecosystem. When I was barely ten I had a membership to the National Wildlife Federation and I read their rather dense magazine from cover to cover every other month. James Fennimore Cooper’s lush descriptions of this country in the days when the east coast was still the birthright of many flourishing Indian tribes always enthralled me; but the books also filled me with a wistful melancholy, as if I were born too late to understand the full majesty of this continent before our American corporations had a blank check to deforest the mountains, poison the streams and rivers, and smog up the atmosphere in an effort to supply us with the good and services we were rapidly consuming in the name of the American Dream.
The documentary was interesting because it was told from the perspective of today’s leading environmental activists, who described, with the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom that age brings, about the mistakes that were made in the movement’s infancy that prevented them from capitalizing on all of that early enthusiasm after the first Earth Day. At that time, lawmakers had to respond to their constituents who were loudly protesting as they realized that we were poisoning ourselves. The large corporations and the local governments were not going to take care of us, we needed sweeping regulations to protect us from this unfettered rape of the landscape and its resources. President Jimmy Carter was a strong advocate for the environment, but his successor Ronald Reagan campaigned on a platform to make America strong again after the recession, and when he won by a landslide a stake was driven into the heart of the movement. He weakened or removed many of the regulations that had been put in place in the prior 10 years, and once again, corporations were free to pollute and rampage with impunity. As Stephanie Mills put it in Earth Day, when Reagon was elected, “we lost 30 years.” Interestingly enough, Gaylord Nelson himself lost his reelection bid in 1980, the dawn of the Reagan era, as did many of his liberal colleagues. Although he did pass some environmental legislation, during the Reagan era, the EPA was cut to 44% of its 1970s budget and many of the existing laws were weakened in the pro-industry boom years of the 80s.
Again from the Nelson website:
Earth Day was a watershed moment for environmental politics, kicking off what is now termed the "Environmental Decade" of radical legislative reforms. After struggling to pass legislation through the 1960s, which he did but without widespread public support, Nelson was now deeply involved in many of the most important environmental protection legislation: the Clean Water Acts, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Federal Pesticides Act, the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Education Act, the National Hiking Trails and the National Scenic Trails Acts, and the establishment of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.Fast forward forty years and here we are. The Green Movement or whatever you want to call it, has gone global in a way that those early pioneers could only have dreamed. Today many ordinary folks regularly recycle, purchase organic local produce, and think before keeping extra lights on in the house. They think about gas mileage before they purchase a car, and not just to save money. Many have even, as I have done, eschewed meat altogether in an effort, to remove themselves from one of the greatest sources of global climate change, methane from cow flatulence due to their modern diet of corn rather than the one they were evolved to thrive on: grass . Add to that that there are too many cows grazing on land that should be growing staple crops to support hungry people throughout the globe, and the Western Diet of abundant meat is not only polluting, but starving, the planet. I could not find a way to justify its consumption in light of those reasons and also because of the way the animals are bred, housed and slaughtered, so I chose to opt out and become a vegetarian. Large scale industrial farming has also made our food supply unsafe, whether you eat tainted meat, or tainted spinach grown downstream from the industrial farm, for more on this, read this fascinating article from The New York Times.
I went to school in Boston in the 90s and worked at Harvard, so I spent a lot of time in Cambridge which was far ahead of the curve in terms of the environmental movement. As an extension of concern about our effect on the planet, is a concern for what we ourselves consume. Again, its not just how your food and cleaning product choices affect the interconnected ecosystem, but more directly how those choices have immediate and long-term consequences on your health. After I graduated, my roommate, a somewhat reclusive lesbian who also worked at Harvard, taught me a lot about thinking before you throw something in a landfill. She was a very resourceful re-user and recycler, but the massive stone rental house was filled to the gills with her stuff.
These days I counsel friends that when you buy something, whether it be a shake at McDonalds, a razor at CVS, or take-out from a restaurant, you have created the need for packaging that you now own and are responsible for reusing or recycling. You can’t just throw it out, at least if you want to be invited back to my place for dinner. When we throw stuff out it does not just disappear. Even more resources are used carting it off to a dump where it decomposes and often creates polluted runoff or releases VOCs into the air. Not only that but we are running out of places to put this trash. It becomes a problem for not only us but for future generations. It can take 450-1000 years for your plastic container to decompose. Think about it before you buy that bottle of water.
In the early 90s I shopped at Bread and Circus and Fresh Fields and experienced how much better I felt consuming organic produce and products without refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup. The first Fresh Fields stores did not even carry any products containing refined sugar but when they were bought by Whole Foods in 1996, the standards were relaxed a bit to make room for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and some other darlings of the organic movement. I had to wait a number of years after I moved back from New England in 1995 for those trends to pick up steam in the City of Brotherly Love. And as it were there was a lot more of us Philadelphians to love, as it was one of the fattest cities in the US, and still is, though we have gotten much better. It seemed that there were no convenient ways of finding healthy options, and I was engrossed in bodybuilding at the time and thus obsessed with food. Eventually the movement caught on even in Philly and I was able to find better food choices, and of course make my own. I converted many friends and lovers over the years to understand that these choices are not only better for your health but better for your palate as well; that is once you wean your taste buds off excess sugar, unhealthy fats, and processed grains so that they can appreciate the true flavor of high quality ingredients. It gets to a point where you can’t even eat that crap again, and wonder how you did. Ask Michael Pollan. Or Mark.
I became the recycling Nazi, known to open trashcans and pull clearly recyclable items out of them with a calm admonishment and instruction—the first time. At work I have set up a menagerie of recycling bins in the kitchen so I can take my coworkers plastic (#1 #2, and #5 for the time being), cans, paper, and used batteries to the appropriate locations for recycling. I am in the process of ordering biobags to replace the plastic and insist that our cleaning company use only biodegradable earth friendly products. My obvious zeal for conservation prompted some talk in our last company meeting.
I pointed out that I had switched the toilet paper to a better brand so we could use less of it, to which Jeff quipped, “You use toilet paper? I thought you used leaves.”
“Only when camping” I shot back, over the laughter of my co-workers.
But it does illustrate one point I have learned from doing this for years, you can’t drag the ignorant kicking and screaming into this arena. I work in the field of construction, and ignorance and apathy about the effect of our industry’s practices on the earth run rampant, especially since it is a male-dominated field and throughout history it is the men who have done most of the rape and pillaging, you can’t argue with history. At the meeting where I introduced the new recycling options; Matt, who makes a career out of trying to expend the least effort possible in whatever he does, stated loudly, “I can’t be bothered to recycle, that is such bullshit and a pain in the ass!”
This really pissed me off, especially since I was the one carting his crap away in my car. He only had to find the correct bin and drop the freakin’ bottle from his clammy little hand.
“Not when someone if offering to take your recycling out for you! I make it really fucking easy for you Matt!” I yelled, staring right at him. At that point everyone shut up and Matt stood down.