The first Earth Day was a red letter day in the long, hard struggle to make being good to the environment … to the Earth … normal instead of a fringe idea held only by quirky college professors and stoned-out hippies. This year, the first significant health care insurance reform bill was passed and it will be a red letter event in a long, hard struggle to make universal quality heath coverage and care normal instead a fringe idea held only by Kenyan born socialist Negros from Chicago. Or whatever the teabaggers are calling it now. So today, at the beginning of a true change in how we do things, we can look back and reflect on another, similar (yet different) change in the way we do things.
If you listen to the right wing republican rhetoric just long enough to hear the topic shift a couple of times, the environmental movement will inevitably be brought up, in bitter tones. If you are below a certain age, you may hear this and wonder about it sometimes. Well, for years, the right wing fought environmental regulation tooth and nail. They fought it at the local and state level, the fought the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), they fought environmentally friendly activities by all other government agencies. And they lost. Not a first. At first, they marginalized environmental conservation, demonized it as socialism and communism, explained how the apocalypse would come if we started to regulate industry. At first they held their ground. But eventually, they lost.
And they came to the debate armed and dangerous. The exact tactics of anti-environmentalists of the day were not the same as the teapartiers of today, but one got a very similar feeling. When a major national park was dedicated in northern Minnesota back in those days, a family of Yahoos living next door, who had opposed the park simply on the grounds that all gummit activities were evil, chainsawed a dozen or so thousand year old virgin white pines that were on their land and visible in the background of the dedication ceremony. So the dedication ceremony itself was carried out to the sound of a Bachmanesque fugue of chain saws and falling trees … trees that would have otherwise never been cut down, that would have stayed standing for hundreds of more years were it not for this Libertarian spite. Freedom trees. Dead freedom trees.
The right wing has never forgiven the progressives and liberals for the EPA and the massive shift this country underwent with the environmental movement.
And guess what. Progressive liberals old enough to remember have generally not forgiven the right wing for making the transition we all knew had to happen take 20 years instead of five.
And, of course, the transition is still needed, and is still underway. What we did then was important and under appreciated today: The air and the water are significantly cleaner now than they were in 1970. Had industry not been regulated, with increasing demands on manufacturing, things would have only gotten worse, and today, while things are better in the US and many other Western countries, we know that a significant amount of this extra demand is being met with dirty third world industry.
My first Earth Day was the first Earth Day. I remember those days well. I was a child warrior for the environment. I remember being disgusted with the river we lived near, which was always covered with dead fish and an oily slick, turgid, smelly, occasionally on fire. I remember being disgusted with the smoke belching out of the large apartment buildings we lived next to. I remember watching SUNY Albany Professor Robert Reinow, on Sunrise Semester, showing photos and films of Gary Indiana and seeing the haze outside and realizing, because the meteorology was good enough to know this, that some of the cause of my mother’s complaint about gray whites and dull colors if she hung her laundry out to dry came from the Rust Belt, between 500 and 1,500 miles away and upwind.
It all seemed so hopeless, yet there were things that could be done.