For many reasons, not the least of which is the current lockdown strategies of Covid-19, I’ve been thinking of Earth Day. Yes, it’s the 50th anniversary, which is somewhat surprising in how it ages me. For it was 50years ago while working for the Denver Post that I helped cover the initial Earth Day celebration at the old Auditorium.
Some are old enough to recall those times when a nasty, grayish hazy smog was so heavy in most major cities, including Denver, that it was difficult to breathe. Just the year before the Cuyahoga River erupted into a blazing fire raging through downtown Cleveland, and out in Santa Barbara an oil spill spewed three million gallons of crude oil into the ocean to create an oil slick some 35 miles long. It now ranks as the third worst oil spill in human history. No longer the worst, but third worst!
There was no EPA. Here in Minnesota, there was no MPCA. Mats of algae and sewage was so prevalent and thick pundits jokingly suggested people could walk bank-to-bank across the Mississippi between St. Paul and Hastings. A year later, and just a month before the initial Earth Day, a huge soy oil storage tank ruptured at the Honeymead Soybean Products in Mankato sending 2.5 millions gallons of soy oil into the streets and the Minnesota River, eventually reaching the Mississippi downriver where just a month prior to that an oil plant rupture in Savage had already sent about a million gallon of crude oil into the two rivers. Into all that algae and sewage.
Environmentally the world was a damned mess. A mess that a lone senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, used to motivate activists across the country to organize that first Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970. There were a couple of bands and numerous speakers, and seated in the front row was a fellow I wouldn’t have expected being there. When I uttered my surprise, he said, “Why wouldn’t I be? This is important.”
His presence and comment gave me just enough impetus to view the story with an added importance. Since I have found some way to celebrate subsequent Earth Days, be it a column written for my former country weekly, or a picture and caption with reference to the significance of the day. Twice my “Art of Erosion” photojournalistic effort was featured in Earth Day exhibitions, which includes 20 large canvases depicting dirt erosion along with several educational panels. Somewhere through the years, and it might have been at the initial Denver celebration, it was mentioned that there is “no Planet B.” There still isn’t.
Seemingly this singular message has either been lost or ignored by many, including our current president, his advisors and too many members of the Republican Party. Sometimes I think of Gaylord Nelson and wonder what he would think now, some 15 years after his death, of how the many safeguards and efforts to slow the degradation of the environment have been cast aside for basic greed. That lack of environmental goodwill sadly continues to erode and come under attack by President Trump and his cronies. But, I digress …
A few years after the initial Earth Day, Nelson was the keynote speaker at a National Farmers Union convention in Laramie, Wyoming, which was consequently hit by a blinding blizzard during the first night of the event. NFU president John Stencil after the evening events opened his suite to Nelson, Walter Mondale and other key figures, and offered me an invitation.
Although we had a wonderful time, especially late in the evening when Nelson and Mondale started swapping stories from the Senate and Washington, as we stood by a food tray I asked Nelson if those Earth Day efforts had met his expectations. Nelson, who was both gracious and quick with a smile, said he was surprised by the initial response which reportedly was celebrated by some 20 million people from grade schools to large community events like the one in Denver.
He explained that he had initially met with some of the more influential protest leaders in Madison, where he had served as governor before being elected to the Senate, and the strategy was established that the key to success would be for it to be a grassroots effort coordinated in local areas rather than something being originated from Washington. “We needed to convince people that we were facing an environmental crisis,” he said. “What has happened to date is hopefully just a start.”
In a later interview he told a reporter, “We felt if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda. It worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators who participated from thousands of schools and local communities,” he said, before adding, “That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
And led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency nationally, and consequently from state to state formations of departments like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency … all of which are seemingly targeted for being dismantled by the Republican Party.
Meeting and covering Nelson helped inspire my own environmental consciousness. Soon afterwards I would interview Dr. Stephen Schneider, then with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, for a story in which he explained a scenario that would later be termed “global warming.” I don’t recall where it was “played” in the paper that following Sunday, although it didn’t make the front page. About that time Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” landed in my lap, adding a poetic background to my becoming a “tree huggin’ environmentalist.”
I might add that this is a label I thoroughly enjoy and take seriously. It is also a path that led me to become a long time board member of CURE (Clean Up the River Environment), a Minnesota Master Naturalist as well as an artist with an intent to capture what remains of the last one percent of the native prairie and its natural wetlands in what was the most thorough and devastating dismantling of an ecosystem on planet earth. Perhaps this lifetime journey began with covering that first Earth Day 50 years ago, and a friend who said, “Why wouldn’t I? This is important.”