washingtonpost.com
Born in 1970, event has cause for celebration -- and a midlife crisis

By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 22, 2010; C01

Before Earth Day became what it is -- a national ritual halfway between a street party and a guilt trip -- it was a bunch of 20-somethings working in an office over a diner in Dupont Circle.

It was 1970. They worked 15-hour days. They stuffed a lot of envelopes.

And, at first, they didn't like the name.

"Who in the hell do they think we are, the Grange?" Stephen Cotton recalled about reading the name an advertising agency had proposed for their national protest. Earth Day sounded like an event for farmers. "But it grew on us."

Earth Day turns 40 on Thursday, making its founders 60-somethings. To this group of about 20, both the day and the country look very different now.

In those four decades, the angrier, more ambitious environmental movement that sprang out of Earth Day made vast changes in Washington. New federal laws took on dirty air and poisoned water -- and won.

But today, American environmentalism is struggling in a new kind of fight.

The problems are more slippery: pollutants like greenhouse-gas emissions, which don't stink or sting the eyes. And current activists, by their own admission, rarely muster the kind of collar-grabbing immediacy that the first Earth Day gave to environmental causes.

"I don't think we've come up with a good way in the conservation movement of making it real for people," said Arturo Sandoval, who was 22 when he organized activities across the West on the first Earth Day.

In 1970, "you could say, 'Have you been down to the river lately?' And people would say, 'Oh my God, I don't even let my kids go there,' "said Sandoval, now 62 and still working on environmental causes in Albuquerque. "Global warming, to most people, is an abstract issue."

A 'human jam'

Earth Day's 40th anniversary will be celebrated across the globe Thursday: There will be children studying pollution in Baltimore Harbor, volunteers cutting down invasive ivy in the District, a coral-reef cleanup in the Virgin Islands, a concert in Rome.

On Sunday, a climate-focused rally on the Mall will include performances by Sting, John Legend and the Roots.

The day's beginnings were much humbler, but not that far away. The first Earth Day was organized from an office at 2000 P St. NW that smelled like hamburger grease and teemed with flies.

"Every so often, someone would go berserk and dash from room to room" swinging a fly swatter at the swarms drawn by the oily fumes rising from the diner downstairs, said Cotton, then 23, who was the press director for the group. "Since we were budding ecologists, we had an unspoken rule against using bug spray."

He and the other young people were working on an idea from then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), who died in 2005. In August 1969, Nelson had visited a huge oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif. He wondered: Why not hold a "teach-in" -- like the campus discussions that focused on the Vietnam War -- on the environment?

Nelson hired Denis Hayes, 25, a graduate student at Harvard and a former student-body president at Stanford. The rest came from a variety of other liberal causes: a veteran of Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, an organizer of antiwar protests in Mississippi, an anti-hunger activist.

At the time, the Potomac River was choked with pollution-fueled algae blooms. Cleveland's Cuyahoga River had recently caught fire. Smog was so bad that, in 1966, a vast cloud of it was blamed for killing more than 150 people in New York City. And even the bald eagle's population had fallen below 1,000 nesting pairs in the continental United States, ravaged by the pesticide DDT.

On P Street, the group mailed out suggested Earth Day activities, called college campuses to set up events, talked to dozens of newspaper and TV reporters.

It worked: On Earth Day itself, there was a "human jam" that filled New York City's Fifth Avenue, a rally near the Washington Monument, a march against a foul-smelling sewage plant in Albuquerque. There were events at college campuses and in classrooms around the country: By one estimate, one in 10 Americans participated.

"A disease has infected our country," one ad for Earth Day said. "It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man."

The days after

In the four years afterward, the Environmental Protection Agency was founded and Congress passed a series of landmark laws. The Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 set new limits on pollutants. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 provided new protections for vulnerable animals. And the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 set new restrictions on what could come out of taps.

Today, EPA estimates that the Clean Air Act -- amended in 1990 to crack down on acid rain -- has prevented more than 220,000 premature deaths from air pollution. Other legislation led to pollution cuts that have made both the Cuyahoga and the Potomac run cleaner.

And, with DDT banned, there are now more than 9,700 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the Lower 48.

"We won the argument that the environment needs to be protected," said Michael Brune, the modern-day executive director of the Sierra Club. "The conversation is now about at what pace do we need to reform, what are the most effective policy solutions we need to put in place, what the costs are going to be."

Environmental issues gained a foothold on campus: Williams College established one of the first environmental studies programs in 1967. Now, according to the National Council for Science and the Environment, the number of interdisciplinary environmental programs has reached about 1,235.

Another sign of the group's impact will come Thursday, with Earth Day itself.

The organizers wanted it to be one-time event, but it has become an annual, global celebration. The first one cost about $122,000 to put on; today, the Earth Day Network, which oversees Earth Day worldwide, boasts an $8.5 million budget and a long roster of corporate sponsors, including Underwriters Laboratories, Siemens, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, AT&T Mobile and Procter & Gamble.

In 1970, students at San Jose State buried a car as a protest against consumerism. In 2010, there will be Earth Day events in Washington put on by Chevrolet and Ford.

Facing the future

The group of organizers disbanded after that first Earth Day and went on to careers in law firms, foundations, environmental groups, state government.

They look back now with pride, in both the environmental and psychological changes the day set off. "A lot of people got out of prison that day, and saw a different world ahead of them," said Fred Kent, a New York City organizer in 1970, who now runs a nonprofit.

But since then, they and other observers have seen the American environmental movement struggle to rebuild its momentum. With rare exceptions, like in the 2006 defeat of then-House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), the environment rarely serves as the defining issue in national campaigns.

Public opinion polls show that, while Americans care about the environment, they generally rank it behind other priorities like jobs, terrorism and health care. And, on climate change -- the environmental movement's defining issue now -- polls show Americans seeming less concerned, not more, than in previous years.

"I don't think the environmental movement is deep enough, broad enough, to have the impact we want," said Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, who, like many of today's most prominent environmental leaders, took part in Earth Day events in 1970. "We're a strong interest group, but we have yet to have the kind of political clout you really need in today's political world."

In fact, many also seem to have absorbed the lesson that the best thing for the environment is to buy things.

This year, a poll conducted by professors at George Mason, Yale and American universities showed that respondents who were most alarmed about climate change were more than eight times more likely to express their concern through shopping for "green" products than by contacting an elected official multiple times about it.

From the anti-consumer bent of the first Earth Day, "we've gone to the opposite extreme. We're too respectful of business," said Adam Rome, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies environmental history. He said that Americans have continued to buy more goods and use more energy in the past four decades -- and that, in many ways, American pollution was outsourced, as manufacturing moved overseas.

"Is our environmental footprint smaller than it was in 1970? The answer is no," Rome said.

The best example, and the modern environmental movement's biggest challenge today, is climate change.

When the Earth Day Network began planning this year's events nearly two years ago, organizers thought they would be celebrating the signing of a global climate agreement last December in Copenhagen. That didn't happen. And in this country, efforts to pass a climate-change bill have been mired in the Senate. The group will hold a rally on Sunday, which League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said "will be the catalyst to pass the climate bill. That's our goal, and that's the challenge we face."

Hayes, who now runs a foundation in Seattle that works on environmental causes, says he remembers the time when the environment was an issue on which "people were winning and losing elections."

Nate Byer, the Earth Day 2010 campaign director, said that's the kind of potency activists want to reclaim. "We want to invigorate the movement this year. We're trying to guide the destiny of this movement, and make it what it was in 1970."

Post a Comment


Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company