April 22, 2010

Earth Day At 40!

(This post is a gift--an odd one, granted--to my sweetheart, Dody. Her birthday falls on April 22.)

The immediate trigger that got me writing this was a Facebook post by Koba Sounds, in which he waxed irritable about Earth Day: “Happy corporate-sponsored congratulatory self-back-patting removed from its contentious political roots on this Earth Day.” Initial comments, including mine, echoed or outdid his initial sarcasm.

Rereading the thread, though, I found myself slipping on my cranky, old, I-was-there-kiddies persona to lay out a little background.

Today is, of course, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The first one came just eight days before the campuses of the US erupted into the May, 1970 storm of anti-war, anti-racist protest which virtually shut down higher education in the US, even before the murder of four students at Kent State University on May 4 turned up the heat.

In 1970, Earth Day was regarded with extreme suspicion by the large cohort of revolutionary-minded young people coming forward out of the struggles of the ‘60s. Its main advocate was a politican, Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI). (I recommend Bill Christofferson’s excellent biography of Nelson, The Man From Clear Lake, for a deeper understanding of the importance and the limits of electoral politics in this country.)

Earth Day was pushed by national and local politicians, media pundits and school administrators alike. Many of them made no secret of the fact they saw it as a nice--and I use the word advisedly--alternative to all the political activism running like an underground fire through the country, erupting into open flames again and again.

And that first Earth Day seemed to prove our critique. In New York City alone, the mayor closed Fifth Avenue and opened Central Park to a crowd estimated at a million people for an event that was one part consciousness raising to two parts be-in to about zero percent actual protest.

We, the young revolutionaries and budding commies, saw Earth Day, and by association, the whole environmental movement which Earth Day helped unite and jell into a single force, as a diversion from the growing anti-imperialist struggle. We were right about what the ruling class was trying to do, but we missed some very important things (not the only things we missed in those heady days.)

We missed the fact that for all the establishment bucks and approval, this was a huge spontaneous movement far broader than its sponsors ever dreamed; hundreds, thousands, of Earth Day events took place across the country. We failed to acknowledge the varied threads of struggle that flowed into it, many of them sharply anti-corporate. We forgot that concern about the environment was an inherent part of the ‘60s upsurge, as captured in the very first verse of the Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1970 indictment of the system, “What About Me?”

And because we missed all this, we couldn’t see what was about to happen. Among other things, thousands and thousands of those college and high school kids--not the street fighters--the nice ones who took part in Earth Day in 1970 and in the years that followed, became schoolteachers. And a new generation grew up hearing in class about clearcutting and toxic wastes and rainforests and endangered species and recycling and how indigenous peoples lived in harmony with land.

By the late ‘80s, the result was hard to miss: their elementary school students had themselves reached college age and the Student Environmental Action Coalition burst onto the scene to become, for several years, the largest radical student group since SDS in the ‘60s. Among other contributions, SEAC trained a cadre of young folks in organizing and struggle, a body of activists who helped create Seattle and the No Global movement, and who today people the environmental justice movement, the trade union movement, and a dozen others.

And a bunch of them became teachers! Right now, a whole new cohort of K-12 kids is learning about climate change and mountaintop removal and species interdependence and the dangers of factory farming and the huge sea of plastic in the Pacific.

Thus, the effort by the ruling class to divert the anti-war movement and other struggles of the ‘60s into the “safer” arena of Earth Day proved to be a case of what the great revolutionary thinker and fighter Mao Zedong called, “lifting a rock only to drop it on one’s own feet.”

Like the Martin Luther King holiday, Earth Day was born of people’s struggles. Sure, the powers that be will try and denature and co-opt it. That’s what they always do, and in times when the struggle is at a low ebb, it may even seem like they have succeeded. Screw that! It’s up to us to claim and to reinforce and to build on the ineradicable kernel of revolutionary sentiment at the heart of the day--capitalism and a living planet are incompatible. One must die!

Or, as Koba Sounds put it later in the thread he started:

of course rather than just a bout of cynicism, celebrate Earth Day, every day, in every way that matters.


jk said...

As often happens, you nailed it, Jim.

I certainly had the "more radical than thou" attitude you spoke of in 1970, but hadn't thought of all the later ramifications. (Raised a few of those later generations myself.)

Just a little younger said...

"Nice" kids of 1970? Yeh, I and my whole high school cohort were among those who participated in the first Earth Day. We cleaned beer cans and other trash from the banks of a local river while wearing "Our Planet -- Love It Or Leave It" teeshirts. Of course those around today who still recall the chauvinist slogan in support of the then current imperialist rape of Vietnam that this slogan was echoic of will not be surprised by the fact that our clean-up project got no press coverage.

And when a month or so later the local high school shut down over student rights issues (and coincidentally in solidarity with the student victims of the Jackson State and Kent State massacres) that walk-out was largely led by these same "nice kids." That summer we began an extended "underground newspaper" project, publishing for the next two years a newsletter that editorialized against the war and in support of the NLF-PRG.

And yes, as part of their new-found radicalism, college kids who shut down their campuses came back to "teach" locals about the war and were overwhelmed (as well as confused) to find an existing local anti-racist/anti-war movement. And this had grown out of that first "non-confrontational" Earth Day.