It is possible that this is the most important Earth Day. Earth Day is part of the process of broadening environmental awareness and causing positive change in how we treat our planet. We are at a juncture where we must make major changes in what we do or our Grandchildren, to the extent that they can take time away from the daunting task of survival in a post-Civilization world, will curse us.
I wrote a massive multpart blog post about Earth Day a four years ago, and here I’m giving you a slightly modified version of it, covering just a few aspects of the thing, and telling a couple of personal stories. There are politics, explosions, and folk singers. So put on your Love Beads and your Tie-Dyed MuuMuu and enjoy. Or not enjoy. This is not really for your enjoyment.
The First Earth Day
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 Negro 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, they 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. Well, OK, it never really caught fire, but it could have. 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.
Pete Seeger joins the Nature Conservation Club (NCC)
The flames were so hot that we could feel it on our faces over 300 feet away as we stood near the corner of Delaware and Whitehall avenues. At first we gawked at the burning factory from about 100 feet away, but a large explosion caused us all to turn and run. But not too far. While watching from some 200 feet away, the police came by and pushed us back to the 300 foot mark just before several explosions in a row came along. The stuff that came down on us out of the sky was cooled enough to not burn, and some of the bits were recognizable as small fragments of brightly colored billiard balls.
It turns out that billiard balls are highly explosive, as are many of the materials used to make them. We’re talking modern, synthetic billiard balls, not the ones made of ivory. I believe the synthetic billiard ball was first manufactured by the Albany Billiard Ball factory (though not the exact one that we were watching in the state of total immolation) back in 1868 or so, much to the relief of elephants everywhere. Early versions of the billiard balls were highly explosive and occasionally blew up during an actual game of billiards. One such event apparently started one of the famous gun fights out west back in cowboy days. I’m not sure when the factory was moved to Delaware Avenue, but there it was, as I was a kid, around the time that the first Earth Day was declared, burning.
Out Delaware Avenue a few blocks, the relatively urban neighborhood I grew up in suddenly stopped and gave way to forest and farmland. The boundary of the city was the Normanskill, a creek who’s valley is one of the many claimed to be the Vale of Tawasentha. We used to go down to that creek to play, cutting off the newly built Delaware Avenue and taking the old “Yellow Brick Road” (yes, a road made of yellow brick exactly like in the movie), past the Old Witches house (yes, well, sort of, she was the Avon lady but her house looked kinda scary and we were insensitive kids) to the old Whipple Wrought Iron Bridge on one path, and the brick bridge on the other, and eventually back up to grade at the ice cream shop in the next town over. And along that road was where the Albany Billiard Ball Factory dumped their industrial waste. So we would scour the ditch along the road below the waste dump looking for fragments of billiard balls, hoping to find fragments with the numbers on them, hoping to eventually collect a complete set (which no one ever seemed to manage).
And now, standing some 300 feet back from the factory, fragments of the billiard balls were falling on our heads. But only a few, and none with numbers, and they were mostly burned. And, when the police noticed certain bits and pieces of the landscape around us starting to steam with the cooking heat, realizing that we were all standing in a gas station’s parking lot, we were eventually shoo’ed too far away to make standing around watching worth it. So we went over the the school yard and sat on the swings listening to the occasional distant explosion and the more frequent siren of this or that emergency vehicle.
That same summer or the one after (forgive my memory) the sloop came to town. The Clearwater was a replica of an old Hudson River sloop. Built to original spec, it was too tall to pass under one of the Albany bridges unless the crew ran back and forth across the deck in perfect timing to cause the tip of the mast to bow lower than the base of the bridge’s i-beams, as the captain churned the boat forward at just the right speed. At low tide. Which was funny to watch.
Anyway, there was a big party because the Clearwater, built by hippies, staffed by hippies, funded by hippies, was going to sail up and down the Hudson River brining awareness of the plight of that river and many other’s like it until the river was cleaned up.
So at the big party, I had an inspiration. I got some paper and some crayons and I made membership cards with tear-off receipts for an organization I invented right then and there on the spot. I called it “NCC” for “Nature Conservation Club.” And as soon as I invented the club, I went looking for its first member. And it could only be one person: Pete Seeger, the folk singer who was a friend of Woody Guthrie and mentor to Woody’s son, Arlo. The man who wrote “Where have all the flowers gone” and “If I had a hammer” and “Turn, turn turn” and that one about the guy who was stuck on the train but his wife made him lunch every day. He was there at the party, of course, along with Arlo. I found Mr. Seeger, politely explained my goals to clean up the planet and stuff, and asked him to be the first member of my organization, the “Nature Conservation Club.”
He agreed instantly, signed on, and …. well, the rest is history.1
The Clearwater sailed up and down that river again and again despite severe opposition from the Right Wing. Who fought the Clearwater and who fought every effort to stop the cleanup.
It took years, but the Clearwater did its job and you can now catch a live striper in the Hudson after decades of that being impossible. You will still likely get cancer if you eat too many of them, but that’s a start.
Arlo Guthrie Falls Through The Ice Because Of Global Warming
So, it seems that Arlo Guthrie was hauling firewood or something with his tractor out at his place in western Mass, and he took the usual shortcut across the pond. The pond was too deep for the tractor to drive in unless, of course, it was frozen, as it always was in mid January. And, as Arlo drove his tractor across the pond, in mid January, the ice gave way bit by bit, in stages, and his tractor went in. Somewhat comically, or so he tells it.
Arlo blamed that event on anthropogenic global warming.
So, a couple of years after that happened, when I asked him to write an article for the “Global Warming Special Edition” of a monthly newspaper I was editing, that was the story he contributed.
In the same issue, I wrote a lengthy story about global warming, explaining why we thought global warming was happening, making the then-confused (in the public’s mind) distinction between the “ozone hole” and global warming, and so on. That would have been back around 1991 or so, and I swear to you, there is almost nothing in that article, written for the general public, that I would need to change to day to keep it accurate.
Yes, ladies and gentleman, Arlo and me, and most climate scientists actually, knew about global warming back then, and even today, 20 years later, we are having a hard time convincing our friends in the right wing.
Because they’re morons or because they are paid off by industry. Take your pick. Either way, they’ve got a lame excuse.
You’d think they were getting paid enough by the health care industry to finally let the environment alone for a while.
Earth Day is I Told You So Day for a lot of us.
In the US, political parties have what is called a “platform” which is a list of assertions … “we want this” and “we want that” sort of assertions. The “platform” is made up, quaintly, of “planks” with each plank being about one issue. Like for my local Democratic Farm Labor party unit, one of our Planks a few years ago was to get the damn road fixed over at Devil’s Triangle, a particularly bad intersection down on Route 169. That’s a local plank, but if we go to a party event, and a gubernatorial candidate is answering questions, she or he is expected to know what the heck is being talked about if someone brings up “Devil’s Triangle.”
“… No, no, it’s not in the Caribbean. It’s in Maple Grove …. At the lights, on 169 …. you know, that place with all the traffic…”
You often hear that party platforms are not important, but nothing can be farther from the truth. Once an issue gets plank status, that issue is on the table and can be brought to the floor even if you are not a chair. In other words, any Joe Sixpack or Sally Minivan can bring a plank issue up at a committee meeting, public meeting, whatever, without looking like a dork or a crazy person by saying “I’d like to refer to an item in the state convention’s platform… bla bla bla”
This is because the planks are given credibility by the process. They are suggested and voted on at caucus meetings, and then passed on to committees, and eventually combined and winnowed down, and voted on again, and so on and so forth (it’s complicated) so that many hands have touched them, similar ideas have been combined, and the ideas have been refined.
That’s the Minnesota version. Every state has its process, some more accessible by the average citizen, some less so.
I have three reasons for talking about planks and platforms and such on Earth Day.
1) Parties have platforms. Independent candidates do not, and some parties like the Independence Party don’t either because they don’t believe in them. But platforms are good. Party politics is potent. If you have believed the oft repeated rhetoric and think parties are bad or dead or old hat or ineffective, then you’ve been convinced to get out of the way and let others do the policy building for you. Don’t be chump. Decisions are made by those who show up. At your party’s platform meetings!
2) Which simply leads to the conclusion that you must think globally and act locally. On this Earth Day, please spend some time finding out what you need to do to become involved locally with your party. Local planks become district plans which become state planks and some of those planks go to Washington DC. No kidding. If enough people in your state organize (and this can be done with 20 people or so if they know what they are doing) they can get a plank to the national convention that says “No genetically modified crops ever, for any reason.” Or “Fund homeopathy as well as you fund regular medicine.”
3) Which leads me to my third and final point: When it comes to woo, there is a significant parallel between the environmental movement and health care. Well, to be exact, there is a lot of woo in both places, and it exists in these political discussions that happen locally and that make a difference. But you can manage that problem. If you are a supporter of science, you need to become a locally active politically operative person.
Get involved in the plank building process, and build meaningful planks that will persist. Also, support candidates for office that make Climate Change either THE number one issue for their campaign, or equal to one or two other number one issues, and who are serious about it. We don’t have much time, and we have to keep the Carbon in the ground, and it is up to you to do this.
For the Earth.
1Obscure, lost history of no consequence, but history nonetheless.