Earth Day 1970: That was then, this is now

A photo montage and notes of hope and despair

Anneat11yrsold-fIt was spring, 1970.  Apollo 13 had just barely made it back safely.  We were about to invade Cambodia. The Beatles had just disbanded. Men wore ties so wide you could use them for napkins, mini-skirt lengths were finally coming down. I was 11, a 6th grader, tall, lanky, nerdy, awkward, and really worried about our planet — already.  Fresh memories of the tumultuous sixties lingered in the air, as did the pollution.  It hung over DC like stale cigarette smoke.

Our assignment was to clip relevant news articles, and be ready to talk about the significance of the first Earth Day in class.  I recently unearthed my class project in storage and decided to show-and-tell, 40 years later.

Guest blogger Anne Polansky has a blast-from-the-past repost — her version of “The Wonder Years.”

Anne is a long-time friend and colleague who applies her training in the Earth sciences and public policy to effect positive change in government and the marketplace, with a strong focus on global climate disruption and sustainable energy policy and practices.  The photo is a school pic of Anne at ~11 yrs old.

Gone are Gaylord Nelson and Ed Muskie, but founding organizer Denis Hayes, bless his soul, is still with us!  After an entire career devoted to environmental protection, it’s hard not to assess progress, admit defeat.  We did manage to get some strong laws on the books (e.g. Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act), raise awareness, but it hasn’t been enough.  Mother Earth is still choking, dying, it seems.  Meanwhile, enviros still hold rallies, polluters still pollute, blatant green-washing still abounds, and we continue to log in more devastation, destruction, degradation.  Where is the hope?

Welcome to my personal scrap book, a photo montage of my 6th grade Earth Day One homework assignment.  A pretty cover page was always the key for a good grade – looks like I threw in some extra credit too.  Strangely, I recall the feelings I had back then, as a pre-teen, clipping these articles, absorbing all the Earth Day hype, feeling hopeful and excited but also concerned.

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This clip is about students engaging in grassroots Earth Day stuff.

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If you can’t make out the tag line for the cartoon, it says “the effluent society” and it shows a snarly traffic jam near the US Capitol (leaning as if about to topple), smoke stacks, and a jet with a nasty black contrail, totally exaggerated and unrealistic but it gets the message across.

The opening paragraph would incite the anti-Earth-anti-liberal-anti-science-anti-IPCC crowd, providing rich material for another big attack-dog-style media go-round.  Recall the recent spate of attacks on presidential science adviser John Holdren for even mentioning the need to start thinking about limiting population growth in a 1970s book co-authored with Paul Ehrlich?

Montgomery College Students will be asked on April 22 to pledge that if they marry they will produce only two children and if they remain single, they will limit their offspring to one.  Promoting the pledge is a student organization at the suburban Maryland college that has become concerned about dangers to the earth’s environment, including overpopulation.

Another quote from this article is a real jaw-dropper:

What has been accomplished so far by the movement, whose support comes largely from the white, middle class, is to generate concern.  But there seems to be no clear focus for action on a mass basis.

Wow. Racial and socioeconomic profiling, plus a wildly inaccurate prediction, wrapped neatly in one paragraph!  Wash Post staff writer Herbert H. Denton really ought to write a retraction of that one!   (by the way, I looked him up to see if this is actually possible, but, RIP, he passed away in 1989.  His obituary says he was “one of the first blacks to reach a position of authority in the newsroom of the Post,” he died at the early age of 45 from AIDS. This discovery is a story all by itself…)

Let’s move on to the next one.

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Washington Post icon Colman McCarthy posts “Hard Facts About Dirty Facts” on the editorial page.  The cartoon is of a business man wearing a gas mask, the arrow on the sign says “Oxygen 5 miles.”

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Here are a few juicy excerpts:

The lede:

AFTER TONS of adjectives and the leg-work of a thousand advance men, today sees the arrival of Earth Day — so named because a few earth people are beginning to worry.  The basic dread is simple:  the dirt and waste is everywhere, we are running low on — if not out of — clean land, air and water, and nobody gets a transfer when the planet stalls in mid-air.  [Blogger’s comment:  Does anyone else recall farmer-types legitimately objecting to the word “dirt” to describe pollution, since it’s synonymous with “soil”?]

Third paragraph:

Trying to end the evil of pollution may meet many of the frustrations found earlier in the civil rights and antiwar movements: first, like racism and war, pollution has been going on unquestioned so long that suddenly putting on the brakes is more an act of alarm than actual stopping — the way a speeding car needs over 400 feet of braking before forward motion is killed. Second, ending pollution means that somebody will get hurt:  profits must be cut, comforts reduced, sacrifices endured.  As in all human struggles, the powerful and monied will fight the hardest to be hurt the least.

Blogger’s comment:  So, McCarthy just puts it out there, plain and simple. In 1970 he nails the two most inconvenient truths of the environmental movement:  power and money.  And he essentially tipped off the US Chamber of Commerce who had their marching orders for the next several decades (and is still running strong).  Colman McCarthy knows of these things:  he has spent his entire life fighting the rich and powerful in a life-long struggle against violence and war, and has built a rich peace activist legacy.

His concluding remarks:

The question raised by an earth suddenly turned cesspool, after millions of years of grace and purity, is forcing a definitions of man:  is he a co-creator or a violent destroyer?  The hope of Earth Day is that we are the former, that survival, even self-improvement, is still possible.  But even here the evidence is mixed.  The very signs, posters, buttons and pictures used to dramatize April 22 will become tomorrow just more piles of junk and garbage to be hauled off to the burning ground — as much a pollutant to the air and earth as any Detroit smokewagon guaranteed to be damned more than once today.

Blogger’s comment: He has a point.  It’s the same thinking that causes some to accuse IPCC scientists of polluting the air in the dozens of commercial flights they take while doing their research and attending meetings and others to accuse Al Gore of living in a gluttonous mansion just outside Nashville.  At the big rally this Sunday the 25th, how many will travel via SUV to get there?  How much litter will be left behind?  In the scheme of things these offenses amount to tiny misdemeanors, but, walking our talk is part of the deal.   How many of us do it?

OK, onward.

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Here, Washington Post staff writer Spencer Rich reports on a US Senate hearing held on April 21, 1970, to address solutions for cleaning up our nation’s surface waters.

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The hearing was a key part of the national dialogue that would culminate in passage of a seminal environmental law then known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, later to be known simply as the Clean Water Act.  Just the summer before, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio had caught on fire, again.  It was notable not because it was the first time oil slicks had burned on flowing river water, but because the public paid attention this time, and a growing number of us decided we wanted our lakes and rivers and streams to flow clear and clean again, as they once did.

The discussions in the hearing are eerily similar to the intense battle we’re now witnessing between those who would cap CO2 emissions (but allow for trading of emissions rights) and those who would simply slap a rising price on carbon to discourage escalating greenhouse gas emissions.

On this spring day in 1970 Democratic Senator William Proxmire from Wisconsin is testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water, chaired by Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine.  Alongside Proxmire as a hearing witness was Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel. Proxmire is championing a bill that would charge a fee for water effluent discharges and thus raise revenue for waste water treatment facilities and regional water plans.  Chairman Muskie is skeptical of the idea, not because he’s against regulating water pollution emitters, rather, he’s concerned that such a scheme would result in industry viewing the law as a “license to pollute” especially if the fees were set too low.  Sound familiar guys?  Muskie went on record as preferring “water cleanliness standards” for effluents (essentially, a cap on pollution), with a back-up alternative to send polluted water straight to the treatment plant and to pay for the service.  How amazing is that?  The very same dynamic is in play at this moment, as the US Senate works through its schizophrenic stance on climate and energy policy leading up to major legislation addressing climate change.  So back in 1970 we were seeing an earlier and wetter version of Cap-and-Trade vs. Price on Carbon.

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Moving on…

Hey, is this a great photo, or what?

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Taken in a US Senate hearing room on April 21, 1970, the photo shows (left to right), Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) and Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) talking with Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel, during the hearing mentioned above about how best to regulate water pollution. (Marylanders especially will recall that Mandel was found guilty in 1977 of mail fraud and racketeering and served jail time; President Reagan commuted his sentence.)  Muskie and Proxmire each earned notable legacies as pioneers of pollution regulation and the environmental movement.

Sen. Gaylord Nelson, not shown here but chairing the hearing that day, was a primary force behind envisioning and implementing the very first Earth Day.  Years later he was asked about the its enormous success as a grassroots movement:

We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.

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On April 22, 1970, Earth Day was breaking out all over the place.

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In high schools, colleges, churches, community centers all over the DC area – and in towns and cities nationwide — speakers were invited to talk about the nascent environmental movement and the many environmental challenges ahead.  Locally, Senators Bill Proxmire (D-WI), Bob Packwood (R-OR) and Birch Bayh (D-IN) — notably, father of Indiana’s current Senator Evan Bayh — made appearances, along with Reps. Gilbert Gude (R-MD) and Brock Adams (D-WA).  And on the national mall near the Washington Monument, there was song and dance:  among others, legendary folk singer Pete Seeger performed. I’m sure my parents didn’t know who he was, and if they did, they deemed me too young to go.  If I could live my life all over again, I’d make sure my folks took me to see Seeger.

Here’s Pete on Earth Day, in an archived photo from the Smithsonian archives:


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Somehow the montage wouldn’t be complete without the voice of industry, the ones being asked to clean up their acts while maintaining our quality of life, our GDP, our right to a certain lifestyle….

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This is Alcoa, taking out a full page ad on Earth Day 1970, to brag that it has already taken serious action to cut pollution.

This is what the ad says, verbatim:

Our Environmental Controls Division has developed a new air pollution control system for aluminum smelting plants.  It’s the most advanced system of its kind.  It removes nearly 100% of the pollutants collected.  And it has the added advantage that it doesn’t trade air pollution for water pollution, as all the older systems have had to do.

Alcoa’s process removes fumes and particles from the gases gathered during production of the primary aluminum so that virtually none escape into the atmosphere.

If you make aluminum, we’ll be very happy to license the system to you.  To help you lower your costs and brighten your skies.

This is an example of early greenwashing.  In 1967 the Air Quality Act was passed and Alcoa knew that passage of major amendments in the form of the 1970 Clean Air Act was all but a done deal; the law passed a few short months after Earth Day.  So the company decided to create a new business opportunity.  Of course, Alcoa is a lot more sophisticated today about communicating their pro-environment (read: greenwashing) operations, with an online sustainability report.

But the facts tell a different story.  For example, in 2008 Alcoa was listed as one of the ten most polluting companies in the United States, as one of the “Toxic Ten.”  Its aluminum smelters release over 6 million pounds of air pollution each year, and its power plants (though few) are among the dirtiest in the nation, on a pollution-per-megawatt-produced basis. In 2003, George Bush’s Department of Justice ordered Alcoa to shut down three out of four Texas power plants, noted by the US EPA to be the dirtiest in the nation.

We really need a truth-in-labeling law when it comes to communicating environmental performance of both private and publicly owned corporations and businesses.   I hear the SEC is pursuing this, good for them!

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So… is there more hope than despair?  Power and money and a few bad actors (can anyone say “Tea Party”?) are attempting to throw us back to the good old days before Earth Day, before all these pesky environmental regulations, before true accountability to and responsibility for stewardship of Earth’s natural systems, the ones that sustain life for conservatives and progressives alike.

Fourty years and a few wrinkles and battle scars later, we’re all trying to keep hope alive.  I’ll be on the national mall on Sunday with thousands of other folks.  But I plan to ride my electric motorbike and haul out my own trash.

— Anne Polansky

15 Responses to Earth Day 1970: That was then, this is now

  1. Epictetus says:

    Excellent post. And good job on your Earth Day 1970 report. Not only were your clippings relevant but your aesthetic use of colors in the title page deserves admiration as well!

    Good Earth Day to you and yours.

  2. Anne says:

    Thanks for posting this Joe, and good Earth Day XL vibes to one and all. Let’s make sure the next 40 are at least as fruitful and productive as the last! :)

  3. Bob Wallace says:

    Pete Seeger- we should have cloned him long ago and gotten some Little Pete’s started up.

    We’ve got no one around these days doing the job Pete has done for so long.

    Deaf, frail and he’s still kickin’ butts.

  4. Jay O'Hara says:

    Love the retrospective! Well, to show that today’s earth day wasn’t a lost cause, check out with the kids in Massachusetts were up to!


    And here:

  5. Anna Haynes says:

    Inspired by Sharon Begley’s Newsweek piece “Buying green and changing personal behavior won’t save the planet” (link) (“green activism has gone seriously off course as it has spread a gospel of personal change rather than collective action. Of the Nature Conservancy’s five recommendations for Earth Day, four…involve individual behavior… [despite the reality that] every example of major environmental progress…has been the result of national legislation or a global treaty. “)
    …I did a survey at today’s local Earth Day event, held on our community college campus. I asked ~15 people, mostly students, “what’s the most important thing someone can do to fight global warming?”

    And pretty much 100% of them cited personal-lifestyle-greening actions, or getting your friends to engage in such actions.

    We got a communications problem here, folks. And since there’s unlearning to do first, it could be difficult.

  6. Leif says:

    An interesting tutorial on how mushrooms can save the world. An 18 minute video.

  7. Dan B says:


    You learned a lot and accomplished a lot.

    Sitting here in my African-American, African, Asian, Central-South American neighborhood – kid you not – [snip] guilt.

    Get out and get ‘dirty’. Majora Carter and Van Jones (and I) do it every day.


    [JR: Anyone who doesn’t feel guilty for participating in the Ponzi scheme, doesn’t understand what is going on. You don’t know Anne or her motives, that is for certain. Now if you’d like to submit a post about all the terrific things you are doing, that’s great. I run posts by and about people from all walks of life and backgrounds, including the terrific Van Jones.]

  8. Anne says:

    Dan B —
    I’m taking this as a formal invite to “get out and get dirty” with you, Majora Carter, and Van Jones. When do we start? Also, my ‘hood is just as diverse as yours and you might be surprised to know my true feelings about rich white folk! So, when, and where? You can find me at

  9. John McCormick says:


    Thank you for sharing thoughts, pix and successes of your environmental activist career. I respect you and what you are
    accomplishing very much.

    John McCormick

  10. Aktiv-Bio says:

    thanks for this very interesting article. hope you had a happy earth day yesterday.

  11. Larry Gilman says:

    Great stuff!

    “Does anyone else recall farmer-types legitimately objecting to the word “dirt” to describe pollution, since it’s synonymous with “soil”?”

    No, don’t recall this . . . Wouldn’t really make sense, anyway, since “dirt” is synonymous with “soil” in only one of its several legitimate English senses. Basically, any material that is out of place is “dirt.” Blood is nice one’s veins, but is “dirt” in the laundry. It’s not offensive to human dignity to refer to a shirt splattered by a nose-bleed as “dirty.”

    Hey, it’s all just verbal quibbling, but I can’t help it — I’m an editor.

  12. Adam Sacks says:

    Kudos to Anne, but I don’t quite agree with this:

    “‘But there seems to be no clear focus for action on a mass basis.’ . . . a wildly inaccurate prediction.”

    There has been a focus of sorts for mass action, but it’s been wildly off-target. The evidence for that – our increasingly degraded life-support systems, with token clean air/water improvements along the way – screams at our plugged ears. But we’re so convinced of our own enviro propaganda that we seem to be unable to look at the reality.

    The environmental movement has been a catastrophic failure, because the central issues have to do with exponential growth and exploitation of resources. We have to change the very way we live on earth and severely limit our population (starting with industrialized countries, whose population pressure far exceeds that of the third world). The “movement” has never faced that, and is still not facing that, imagining that we can substitute our way out with presumably somewhat less destructive technologies.

    It’s rapidly getting worse, when do we catch on?

  13. Chris Winter says:

    A great reprise of history, Anne — thanks for posting it.

    For what it’s worth, I bet all those articles are on file in what used to be called a newspaper’s morgue. I looked up the Colman McCarthy editorial; it can be bought for $3.95. Anyone interested can go to the Post’s archives, click on “Advanced search” for dates older than 1987, and fill in author and title. It would probably speed things up to restrict the date range.

  14. Chris Winter says:

    Anne Polansky wrote:

    “And on the national mall near the Washington Monument, there was song and dance: among others, legendary folk singer Pete Seeger performed. I’m sure my parents didn’t know who he was, and if they did, they deemed me too young to go. If I could live my life all over again, I’d make sure my folks took me to see Seeger.”

    It may not be too late. Of course it is for the concert mentioned in the 2 March news item on this site:

    But if you can get to the Beacon, New York area this summer, you might find him in some other local concerts. Two dates are listed here:

  15. Rick Covert says:

    I remember my first Earth day when I lived in a New York bedroom suburban community in New Jersey called Hazlet. I remember talking with the neighbor kids about it and getting a bit depressed about how, well we just called it air pollution back then, was going to have devastating effects on the health of the public. I also remember American Steel’s little comic book fliers we got in 4th grade in 1972. Even then the schools were being propagandized by the major polluters. Of course US Steel is a shell of its former self and uses electricity, yes sourced partly from coal, instead of coke, a form of coal, in it’s steel factories. It turns out electricity was more efficient than coke in the first place which just goes to show you that the resistance to renewable energy is going to benefit everyone, accept the coal industry and the railroads who transport it, and it will not destroy the economy with the exception of Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s bank book.