Forty years after it began, Earth Day again at a crossroads

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By Shermakaye Bass
Green Right Now

Some of today’s younger greensters may not realize it, but on April 22, Earth Day is officially two generations old. That’s older than many who are organizing and promoting the holiday’s global events this year — events that are expected to draw more than one billion participants world-wide, including a mass gathering on the National Mall on Sunday, April 25.

The purpose of the Washington, D.C. , demonstration, marking Earth Day’s 40th Anniversary, is to push Congress to pass a 21st century climate bill — which is bringing the holiday full circle, returning it with razor-sharp focus to what spawned the first celebration in 1970: a cry for long-term political change on American environmental policy.

Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a founder of Earth Day
Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a founder of Earth Day

That first Earth Day started at the end of a violent and disjointed decade, with a call from progressive legislator Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson (1916 to 2005). Most people agree that Earth Day grew out of Nelson’s observation of an oil spill on the beaches of Santa  Barbara in the summer of ’69.  As archival material from Nelson’s 25-year-plus political career puts it, the senator saw college students staging Vietnam-related teach-ins and thought: Why not do that with environmental issues? Why not create awareness and eco-education platforms, backed by a grassroots community?

When the first Earth Day rolled around several months later, thousands of colleges and schools participated. In fact, an estimated 20 million Americans demonstrated in some form, whether among throngs of thousands in New York or Philadelphia or in some individual way, making it by many accounts the largest demonstration in U.S. history.

As Nelson marveled after the fact, Earth Day “organized itself. …”  The senator, who twice served as Wisconsin’s governor, had the innate savvy to make the Earth Day contingent a big tent, encouraging people to acknowledge the fledgling holiday “in any way they want.”

That first Earth Day spawned a decade of ground-breaking policy change, including formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December, 1970; and passage of the Clean Air (1970) Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). (Yes, these were the  Nixon years, a period of environmental advancements.)

Forty years later, activists and climate experts believe Americans are at a similar cross-roads. As pro-environment legislators and President Barack Obama strive to tighten environmental regulation and others try to thwart it, Earth Day organizers are promoting the holiday as a clarion call: a demand for policy change and political action.

They want a strong 21st century climate/energy bill that reduces greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change and reduce demand for energy. They want it soon, from Congress, where the U.S. Senate is considering a controversial climate bill that seems in danger of pleasing neither environmentalists or climate change opponents.

Pushing for Climate Action…

Sen. Nelson hired Denis Hayes to help organize the first Earth Day
Sen. Nelson hired Denis Hayes to help organize the first Earth Day

Passage of a strong bill that would seriously curb carbon emissions, remains the hope of environmentalists, youth groups and many others who want climate change addressed.  They see it is imperative that our country quit talking and sand-bagging and enact a comprehensive bill that will include ways to solve climate change, be that a cap-and-trade system, carbon taxing or other measures.

Climate activists point to rising carbon in the air, which scientists say is triggering chain reactions that will bring catastrophic consequences — the floods, drought, desertification and damage to water systems and oceans we’ve all heard discussed.

People like Earth Day co-founder and one-time national director Denis Hayes, along with many other veteran activists, believe that this particular president and Congress need to act now on climate change, despite a large degree of polarity in American society.

They hope this Sunday’s demonstration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., brings a groundswell for change that goes well beyond recent years’ commemorations of the revered secular holiday (the most celebrated, according to multiple sources, in the world).

Traditionally, the event has been unifying and symbolic, an effective awareness campaign marked by local fairs and festivals. But this year’s intensity and intent are different.

Earth Day, 2010 won’t be just a quick feel-good moment of turning off the porch lights, unplugging coffeepots or forgoing the lawn sprinkler for a day. It’s a full-on push for legislation, action, say organizers.

As Hayes, director and CEO of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation , wrote on April 15 in a Yale University magazine, the environmental movement of the past few years (decades, even) has tiptoed around big-money interests and dirty-fuel purveyors, diluting the substantive non-partisan alliance that marked the movement in the early 1970’s.

This year’s Earth Day, then, is pretty much like no other.

Denis Hayes, still active in environmental issues
Denis Hayes, still active in environmental issues

As Hayes puts it in the Yale Environment 360, the 2010 holiday coincides with the most serious Congressional climate-bill debate in years. The debate involves several options, including Hayes’ preferred path, the Cantwell-Collins bill (introduced to the Senate in December, 2009), as well as the better-known Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill, now before the Senate (more detail below).

Not to dismiss the many global events occurring on April 22, but Sunday’s gathering on the National Mall is epic in its implications and its power to effect change.

Hayes and others who founded the movement say this election year, this era, is a game-changer — not just for the country at large, but for its elected officials.

“…The only way that Congress will act intelligently and boldly on this issue is if we give it no choice,” Hayes writes. “A large block of Americans must make the climate disruption issue an initial voting screen. If a candidate is okay on climate, then we will look at the rest of her record. To move this issue forward, our voices must be as loud as those hollering for the right to carry a Colt into Starbucks or for saving Granny from death panels. …”

….Effective Climate Action

Along with others who support genuine (as opposed to token) reform and no-holds-barred legislation, Hayes believes the best path is the Cantwell-Collins plan.

“Most experts I know agree, in private, that the Cantwell-Collins bill in the Senate is the best climate legislation that has yet been proposed. In fact, it is the only option under consideration that would make a meaningful dent in greenhouse gas emissions in the near term. It places an absolute cap on carbon where it enters the economy; auctions 100 percent of carbon permits; and returns the revenues to the public on a pro rata basis. Moreover, it’s just 40 pages long, while the competing bills contain another thousand pages of loopholes, special interest exceptions, and bad baggage.

“But the so-called eco-pragmatists have one powerful argument against it. They say it can’t be passed. A prominent green leader told me, ‘To pass any climate bill at all, we have to appease coal-state Democrats, shovel as much money as necessary to pro-nuclear Republicans, and buy off the electric utilities.’ That is an apt description of the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill now making the rounds in the Senate.”

Continues Hayes in the 360 article:

“This sentiment has been broadly, if reluctantly, embraced by most of the large, mainstream national environmental groups working on climate as well as by the Obama Administration. … But it appalls virtually every environmentalist who lives outside the Beltway. The environmental movement has spent more than a billion dollars trying to pass a cap-and-trade bill, and it is feeling some desperation. The people who contributed all that money expect some results. The pressure to pass something — almost anything — that arguably puts some sort of cap on carbon is intense.”

Hayes concludes that many in the environmental movement are tired of spending money, hope, faith and energy on broken promises, and watered-down legislation that tries to make everyone happy — but ends up disenfranchising almost everybody.

“. … Every draft of the climate bill is weaker than its predecessor,” he writes. “Every draft does a poorer job of putting a reasonable price on carbon. Every draft is larded with more taxpayers dollars for socialized, centralized nuclear power and for “clean coal.” Every draft carries more sweeteners for the utility industry, the automobile industry, the coal and oil industries, and the industrial farmers and foresters.. Politicians who try to ignore climate disruption — and that’s a whole lot of them — need to start losing their jobs next November,” Hayes declares in the opinion piece. “Instead of weakening the bill, we need to change the politics,” he says.

Like his mentor Sen. Nelson probably would have, Hayes (who became Earth Day’s national director in 1990 and took the holiday to global proportions) sees that Earth Day 2010 represents a completely different socio-political environment than existed during that first one in 1970.

Why Earth Day Circa 1970 Worked

Back then, Earth Day was able to unite political opposites and reconcile ideological polarities in the face of one, singular issue: cleaning up the mess that humans had made and passing legislation that would safeguard the environment, and people, for generations to come. Believe it or not, in 1970, members of conservative and liberal camps, rural lifelong naturalists and ivory-tower activists, union movements and corporate CEO’s, Native Americans and bonafide cowboys, if you will, all rallied behind Earth Day.

As Bill Christofferson Nelson’s biographer writes in the progressive Uppity Wisconsin blog’s fascinating history of Earth Day: “That was the genius of Earth Day – tapping the wellspring of environmental concern that was bubbling just below the surface of the national consciousness.”

“When it happened, “It was truly an astonishing grassroots explosion,” Nelson later said. “The people cared and Earth Day became the first opportunity they ever had to … send a big message to the politicians – a message to tell them to wake up and do something. It worked because of the spontaneous, enthusiastic reception at the grassroots. Nothing like it had ever happened before. While our organizing on college campuses was very well done, the thousands of events in our schools and communities were self-generated at the local level.”

“…Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize twenty million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself,” Nelson said

Eventually Nelson achieved the highest honor an American civilian can receive. In 1995, he was awarded in the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. Among  his many legislative achievements during an18-year tenure as U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Mr. Nelson helped pass the following:

  • The 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail Preserve
  • Stronger government regulations and controls of mining, including strip mining.
  • Fuel-efficiency standards for American automobiles
  • Bans on the use of the poison DDT and the defoliant 245T, a.k.a. Agent Orange.

Granted, Sen. Nelson’s accomplishments took place over more than a decade, but the major federal bills he helped push through – – The Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts — were passed over three short years.

Earth Day organizers remind us that Nelson’s legacy is not just an indication of what can be done in relatively short order; it is proof positive that comprehensive change can happen quickly. Given that most international scientists now agree our globe is undergoing dramatic climate change (as Hayes describes it in his Yale Opinion, “we’re cooking the planet”), Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, and the mass demonstration planned for Sunday, April 25, can’t come a moment too soon.

We know from the past that such grassroots movements can be their own tipping point, pushing change far beyond anyone’s crystal ball could conjure. We also know that, 40 years after the first Earth Day, the world is facing an urgent issue that wasn’t even on the radar back then.

The lesson? Change is possible.

  • More information about The Climate Rally this Sunday, April 25, at the National Mall can be found on our site and at the Earth Day Network website.

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