Earth Day at 50 Calls for Diversity of Tactics

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, environmentalists are debating the day’s true meaning. Find out why “diversity of tactics” is a better approach.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I can’t claim to have taken part in the first one back in 1970. These things tend to pass you by when you’re nine years old.

I did start getting involved in Earth Day in the 1990s. For several years, the local environment group of which I was a vocal member handed out little trees for families to take home and plant on April 22. 

People Liked to Show Their Kids How to Plant a Tree

It was a popular outreach activity because people liked to pick up a tree with their kids and show them how to plant it. It was an easy way for parents to mark the day.

I also remember taking part in more activist Earth Day demonstrations in Guelph. The highlight from those days was everyone’s favourite protest group, The Raging Grannies.

As always, they dressed up in old-fashioned clothes, even for women their age. I don’t recall all of the parody songs they performed, but I do remember the line “You can’t leave it up to us grannies, you’ve got to get off your fannies,” sung to the tune of the old standard Side by Side.

Earth Day Tends to Have Two Sides to It

Earth Day tends to have these two sides to it. On the one hand, you have the fun family activities like planting a sapling in the backyard that don’t mean much politically. On the other, you have more radical activism in which most everyday people aren’t comfortable taking part.

That would fine if people didn’t choose up sides and argue with one another about “the true meaning of Earth Day,” as if it’s an either/or proposition. Backbiting saps the energy out of environmentalism and diverts attention from getting the message across to the broader public.

For example, this morning, we see climate change journalist Emily Atkin on her blog Heated saying this. “Growing up, I remember Earth Day being largely about ‘parties for the planet’ and tree planting and clothing swaps. These faux-‘celebrations’ always seemed more about making already-comfortable people feel good about one day of individual action, rather than inspiring a lasting commitment to environmental justice.”

“Making Already-Comfortable People Feel Good”

Paul McCartney might ask, “What’s wrong with that? I’d like to know.” John Lennon might reply with, “Power to the People!” For her part, Emily Atkin declares that her “faux-celebrations” are “not what Earth Day is supposed to be about.”

The very first Earth Day in 1970 arose from both perspectives. 1970 was smack dab in the middle of the student protest movement of the times. The Viet Nam War and black civil rights dominated the agenda in those troubled times.

Those movements involved a growing focus on what protestors called “the establishment.” It was only a matter of time before this anti-establishment point of view would start taking on pollution resulting from corporate greed.

Rachel Carson Kick-Started Environmental Movement

Many activists credit Rachel Carson with kick-starting the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book, Silent Spring. It’s probably closer to the truth to say that Carson was the right author at the right time. Silent Spring was the spark that ignited a fire of awareness under ideal conditions.

The person we usually credit with starting Earth Day is Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. He had been pushing environmental causes for many years. Bill Clinton honoured him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the 20th Earth Day in 1990. 

As he put it, “The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy.”

Three Months Later Nixon Created the EPA

It accomplished that and much more. Just three months later, Republican President Richard Nixon, an indifferent environmentalist in private, signed an executive order creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

He also approved environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Nixon took more interest in foreign policy. Yet the broad-based participation by people of all walks of life on that first Earth Day persuaded him to act decisively on the environment. 

Environmental awareness had become mainstream in the United States. Yet, Emily Atkin portrays the first Earth Day differently. She draws upon the recollections of Aaron Mair, the first black president of the Sierra Club.

“Have Humanity Look at Environmental Degradation”

He told Atkin that the organizers of the first Earth Day intended to “engage in righteous civil disobedience, righteous group mass action, to have humanity look at environmental degradation and the degradation of lives of individuals.”

We can see both perspectives from the very beginning in the groups who celebrated that first Earth Day. Over 20 million Americans were part of a range of diverse activities during that inaugural event.

Some of them were campus radicals who held rowdy demonstrations at over 1,000 colleges. Many others were what we would call soccer moms today, holding Atkin’s “faux-celebrations,” teach-ins and letter-writing campaigns.

Middle-Class Women Played a Significant Role

Middle-class women played a significant role in the environmental movement at the time of the first Earth Day. They were at the forefront of conservation campaigns. Inspired by Rachel Carson, so-called housewives had led the charge against pesticides, water pollution and nuclear weapons.

So, right from the beginning, we see the radical activist approach of groups such as the Sierra Club and the early Greenpeace movement. Equally important, we observe the fight from inside the establishment by local community groups and members of Congress.

Earth Day has always been that way. I still remember a very campy Earth Day TV broadcast watched by millions of people. It starred Bette Midler as Mother Earth and aired on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990. 

Earth Day Broadcast Starring Bette Midler as Mother Earth

Everybody who was anybody in the 90s took part. Did it lead viewers to commit their lives to radical activism to transform our planet?

Well, no, but household interest in the 3-Rs of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle rose sharply in the years that followed. Children who watched that broadcast are in their 30s now, and their millennial generation is far more ecologically conscious about the climate crisis than their boomer parents.

Also, this morning, because of social distancing, I’m invited to an online “climate strike.” In place of a demonstration, organizers are offering me the opportunity to take a picture of myself alone in my house, holding up a sign about global warming.

I’m Invited to an Online Climate Strike

Then I’m supposed to post my sign-selfie on social media. I believe I’ll pass. The Green Party Caucus is holding an online Earth Day teach-in that feels more like my style.

On this day, of all days, Earth Day 2020, the environmental movement needs to speak with one voice. We need to learn to stop judging one another and focus on protection of the planet.

There’s no need to prove whose approach best reflects what “Earth Day is supposed to be about.” Nor should we judge the efforts of those we deem to be too tame or too radical of being “faux.”  The fancy term Atkins and her ilk need to look up is “diversity of tactics.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:
Emily Atkin Heated Earth Day Open Thread
The First Earth Day
Richard Nixon and the Rise of American Environmentalism 
Earth Day: Linking gender equality and environmental protection
Mass Extinction Happening Again
Climate Crisis Becomes Undeniable
Habitat Destruction Spreads Novel Diseases


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