The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberal activists have to think broadly and unite across lines

The forgotten environmental action that pointed the path forward for the left

Jane Fonda (C) participates in a protest in front of a gas depot following a Fire Drill Friday climate change rally in Wilmington, Calif. on March 6. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Fifty years before Greta Thunberg inspired youth across the globe to demand immediate action on climate change, students at the University of Michigan formed Environmental Action for Survival (ENACT) and organized a massive four-day Teach-In on the Environment from March 11-14, 1970. These campus activists popularized the slogan “Give Earth a Chance” and held more than 125 rallies, symposia, workshops and protests on the campus and in the surrounding Ann Arbor community. The ENACT Teach-In successfully focused public attention on the environmental crisis, paving the way for the national Earth Day demonstrations that mobilized 20 million participants on April 22, 1970.

The ENACT Teach-In highlighted the principles of ecological sustainability and environmental justice and played a key role in expanding the mainstream environmental movement beyond its traditional emphasis on white middle-class issues such as wilderness preservation and suburban quality of life. The Earth Day campaign included many civil rights activists who connected urban pollution to racial and economic discrimination and called on campus-based environmentalists to bridge the gulf to the inner cities. Contrary to conventional wisdom, organized labor also played a central role. Barbara Reid Alexander, a Michigan graduate who served as the Midwest coordinator for Earth Day in 1970, insists that the strong support for radical environmental policies by Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers has been “lost in recent years for the progressive agenda.”

The first Earth Day had a national rather than a global scope, but the fundamental message and organizing strategy applies to today’s global movement: everything is interconnected, and environmental justice and sustainability require grass roots mobilization and confrontation with power.

ENACT utilized a campus teach-in model that had started almost exactly five years earlier, also at the University of Michigan, when a faculty group organized an all-night event to debate and expose the escalating U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Teach-ins against the Vietnam War spread quickly to other universities in the spring of 1965, based on the philosophy that academic expertise and intellectual discussion would generate public awareness, connect campus activists with community-based movements and force politicians to change course. “Knowledge is power,” prominent ecologist Barry Commoner declared at the ENACT kickoff rally in March 1970. The ENACT Teach-In and the broader Earth Day crusade “represent a very serious political force that will mobilize public opinion on the environment,” with the potential to “change the whole character of American politics.”

Graduate students in the sciences founded Environmental Action for Survival in the fall of 1969, amid a growing sense of environmental crisis triggered by the Santa Barbara oil spill, Cuyahoga River fire and extreme air pollution in metropolitan centers. They began planning the University of Michigan events a few days before Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin issued a call for a nationwide series of environmental teach-ins, the direct inspiration for Earth Day itself. Doug Scott, an ENACT co-chair, served as the liaison to Nelson’s national steering committee and recognized that “we were in the forefront of something very big,” responsible for establishing the prototype for the envisioned April 22 mobilization. ENACT warned that “man has so severely despoiled his natural environment that serious concern exists for his survival … Meeting this challenge requires immediate and direct action.”

The deliberative nature of the teach-in format appealed to university officials and business leaders who believed in technological solutions for environmental problems. ENACT even raised funding from Ford Motor Company, Detroit Edison and Dow Chemical, which brought conflict with antiwar radicals at Michigan who were protesting Dow’s manufacture of the “ecocide” napalm. George Coling, a member of ENACT’s planning committee, responded that their agenda was “say yes to the environment, no to the war” and recalled that the “actual work of organizing the teach-in was a counterpoint to the insanity of the war.”

On March 11, 13,000 U-M students and community members attended the ENACT kickoff rally held in the Crisler basketball arena. Nelson and Gov. William Milliken addressed the crowd, followed by performances from folk singer Gordon Lightfoot and the cast of the musical “Hair.” In the keynote, biologist Barry Commoner linked the expansion of ecological consciousness and activism to the antiwar and civil rights movements, condemning U.S. policy in Vietnam and arguing that African Americans in the urban centers were the “special victims of pollution” and must be welcomed into the environmental coalition moving forward. Ed Fabre, the leader of the Black Action Movement at the university, also addressed the overwhelmingly white rally and insisted that environmental organizations acknowledge and prioritize the crisis of urban pollution, racial discrimination and poverty.

The four-day teach-in featured direct action protests as well as academic panels and ENACT designed numerous programs to build connections to the Ann Arbor community and increase local awareness of environmental issues. Among the highlights: a large crowd attended a Car Trial and cheered the destruction of a 1959 Ford sedan, found guilty of causing air pollution and discriminating against the urban poor. Students and community allies marched to the local Coca-Cola bottling plant and dumped 10,000 nonreturnable cans on the front lawn. Elementary and high school students even got involved and joined Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine and former Sierra Club director David Brower in the Huron River Walk to demonstrate against the pollution of waterways.

By design, the ENACT Teach-In raised hard questions about corporate power, governmental inaction and racial and economic discrimination. At the “Root Causes of the Environmental Crisis” symposium, the crowd heckled Ted Doan, the president of Dow Chemical, when he explained that enlightened industries were developing technologies to clean up the environment. Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers, responded that “marketplace values” were the problem and demanded anti-pollution regulations on automobile manufacturers and other corporations. At the closing events, consumer advocate Ralph Nader decried industrial pollution as “corporate violence” and promoted his recently launched “Campaign GM” to force the automaker to clean up the air and support urban mass transit. Richard Hatcher, the African American mayor of Gary, Ind., concluded the proceedings by urging the environmental movement to make common cause with “minority groups and the urban pollution they face.”

According to Elizabeth Grant Kingwill, ENACT’s community outreach leader, the organizers of the Teach-In “were those idealistic 1960s students who believed in the democratic process, with inclusivity of ideology, individuality, and creativity … Everyone who heard the message that our environment was endangered also got the message that THEY COULD DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.”

And they did. The ENACT Teach-In, and the unprecedented grass roots Earth Day mobilization that soon followed, demanded legislative action to protect the environment and launched new forms of community activism that emphasized environmental justice and sustainability and reverberated in local, state and national politics over the next decade.

Immediately after the Teach-In, the student leaders of ENACT opened the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor to promote ecological sustainability and connect campus activists to community-based environmental campaigns. ENACT and the Ecology Center joined with groups statewide to lobby for the landmark Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970, which defined the environment as a “public trust” and enabled citizens to bring lawsuits against corporations and government agencies. Going beyond the recently enacted National Environmental Protection Act of 1970, this provision shaped the more ambitious federal environmental laws passed by Congress during the early 1970s. The Ecology Center also established a pilot recycling initiative in Ann Arbor and became a linchpin of the statewide coalition that passed the nation’s most aggressive recycling program by voter referendum in 1976.

The coalition that came together during the ENACT Teach-In persisted too. In July 1970, delegates from ENACT and other environmental organizations gathered at a conference hosted by the United Auto Workers to launch a coordinated political campaign for clean air and water. This alliance led to the creation of the Urban Environment Conference in 1971, with a mission to shift ecological politics beyond suburban quality-of-life concerns by addressing the disproportionate pollution faced by racial minorities, industrial workers and the urban poor.

Half a century after the Teach-In at Michigan, former ENACT co-chair David Allan recalls that his generation of campus activists recognized that “capitalism was the root of all evil,” but they also really believed that their crusade to save the environment could forge a new political consensus. It worked, for a time. Business and conservatives eventually responded with a counterassault against environmental regulations that has exacerbated the ecological crisis across the globe and made the work of the environmental sustainability movement ENACT helped to launch even more pressing today.

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