In 2017 the Buffalo Humanities Festival’s theme was “Environments;” HNY’s panel event “Turning the Tide: Communicating Climate Science” included Adam Rome, Professor of History at the University at Buffalo and the author of The Genius of Earth Day. Humanities New York provided initial funds for the Buffalo Humanities Festival in 2014 and has been a proud sponsor for each year since. The Festival is produced by the Humanities Institute at the University at Buffalo in cooperation with Buffalo State College, Canisius College, Niagara University, and SUNY Fredonia as well as cultural institutions including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Burchfield Penney Arts Center.
Rome, Adam. “Postscript.” The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, Hill & Wang, 2014.
I realized early in my work on this book that Earth Day made a green generation, yet I don’t think I really understood why until I was nearly done. Now—belatedly—the explanation seems obvious. Earth Day was an educational experience as well as a political demonstration. That rare combination enabled Earth Day to have both a long-term and short-term impact.
The educational experience was most intense for the thousands of Earth Day organizers. They often devoted months to their task, and they had to answer question after question as they worked out what kind of event Earth Day would be. The assignment for the thousands of Earth Day speakers was easier but still challenging. Few could repeat talks they had given before; the rest had to figure out what to say. Earth Day also challenged attendees to decide where they stood on difficult and important issues, and many took that challenge seriously.
Of course, the Earth Day education was informal. No one graded Earth Day organizers or speakers or participants. The educational process was self-motivated and self-directed. As a result, many people learned something about themselves. How much did they care about pollution or population growth? What were they willing to sacrifice to help the environmental cause? And what might they find fulfilling and even exciting to do? Those questions often proved empowering, even transformative.
None of that was inevitable. Few political demonstrations are powerful educations. Though a rally or a protest march might teach participants something about solidarity or entrenched power, demonstrations rarely are occasions for debate or soul-searching. Their goal is not to educate: Most demonstrations aim instead to inspire action, to channel anger, to give hope, and to express a common will.
Earth Day was different because Gaylord Nelson made two inspired decisions that allowed the event to be a life-changing education for many people. Even Nelson’s greatest admirers have not appreciated how inspired those decisions were. Indeed, the most common way of crediting Nelson as the man behind Earth Day, calling him “Earth Day founder,” actually obscures Nelson’s true achievement. “Earth Day” was not Nelson’s name for the event, and acknowledging that neglected fact is critical to appreciating what Nelson did to make Earth Day so transformative. Nelson envisioned a “nationwide environmental teach-in”—a politically charged educational event—and the teach-in model allowed Earth Day to be far more powerful that a traditional political demonstration. Nelson also decided not to be a micromanager—he did not even object when the national teach-in staff renamed the event—and Nelson’s willingness to let others take ownership of the teach-in made Earth Day even more powerful.
The teach-in model encouraged an entrepreneurial approach to problem solving. That might have been a drawback. The open-ended discussion at most Earth Day events meant that participants did not end up agreeing on a specific agenda. They were not all ready to lobby for antipollution laws or press corporations to account for environmental costs or reconsider the nature of the good life. But the environmental crisis had many causes, which required many kinds of solutions: No single piece of legislation or change in business practice or new way of thinking could address all the issues of the day. The educational structure of Earth Day allowed participants to decide for themselves how they might make a difference—and then to act, in whatever way they saw fit.
The teach-in model also made Earth Day a youthful event, and again that was a potential weakness that proved to be a source of strength. In 1970, students were not a compelling constituency for most politicians: The voting age still was twenty-one, and student protesters had become a cliché. But young people were ideal participants in a do-it-yourself educational event. They were more likely than their elders to internalize what they learned. They still were forming their values, their priorities, even their sense of themselves. They tended to believe that anything was possible. Because they weren’t as constrained by responsibilities, they often could change their plans abruptly without burdening or even disappointing anyone. Earth Day ultimately pointed thousands of young people in new directions.
Nelson might have limited the scope of the Earth Day education, but he chose instead to do the opposite. He let local organizers determine the curriculum. He did not insist that the teach-ins focus on specific issues. Though he was a legislator eager to pass new environmental legislation, he did not insist that the teach-ins promote a specific set of solutions to environmental problems. As a result, Earth Day became a remarkably capacious event, able to attract and inspire a range of people.
Nelson’s decision not to micromanage the teach-in also made the local organizing effort more empowering. Because Earth Day events could take any form, the local organizers were more like small-business owners than franchise managers. They did not just implement a business plan devised by higher-ups. They were responsible for everything, and the breadth of their responsibility ensured that they were tested in many ways.
I did not fully appreciate the genius of the first Earth Day until I compared the 1970 event with the twentieth-anniversary celebration in 1990. The 1990 celebration was organized nationally—the only time that has happened since 1970—and the organizers had ambitious goals. They hoped, in the words of lead organizer Denis Hayes, “to galvanize a new outpouring of public support for environmental values and to enlist a new generation of activists in the environmental struggle.” The 1990 organizers also sought to make Earth Day a global event, and they managed that brilliantly. In the United States, however, the twentieth anniversary celebration accomplished less than Earth Day 1970, and the reasons why the 1990 effort fell short are instructive (1).
Hayes proposed a national organizing effort for Earth Day 1990 in a short essay in the Environmental Protection Agency journal in late 1988. At the time, he was a lawyer in California, but he had worked for years on environmental issues, especially energy. His call to arms immediately impressed the leaders of the major national environmental organizations, who offered their support. Hayes then established a not-for-profit organization to promote Earth Day 1990. He took a leave of absence from his law firm to serve as the organization’s CEO, and he hired a thirty-five-year-old lawyer and political strategist, Christina Desser, as executive director. A $3 million budget allowed Desser to run a remarkably professional operation. In addition to a sizable staff, Desser had the help of a talented group of consultants—and most donated their time or worked at reduced rates. The coordinator of television, print, and radio advertising had created the “Everything you always wanted in a beer. And less” campaign for Miller Lite. Other consultants brought expertise in direct-mail fund-raising, polling, publicity, lobbying, event planning, and merchandising (2).
Desser envisioned the organizational effort as “a national political campaign without the politicians.” The staff used focus groups and test mailings to hone the Earth Day 1990 message. The event had a logo and slogan: “Who says you can’t change the world?” The promotional campaign aimed to match Hollywood’s prerelease hype for blockbusters. “I want Earth Day to be as well known on April 22 as ‘Batman’ was the day it opened,” consultant Josh Baran said. To counter the stereotype that environmentalism only appealed to the privileged, the organizing effort included outreach to labor unions and social-justice groups. Field operatives worked with grassroots groups to produce local events that served the national mission. Though the organizers encouraged students to celebrate Earth Day, they put much more effort into off-campus events: Big turnouts at attention-getting celebrations in community venues would demonstrate the breadth of support for the environmental cause (3).
The organizers stressed the need for direct action. A test of the direct-mail operation, for example, asked a million people to take the Earth Day Green Pledge. Would they promise to recycle, conserve energy, buy products with smaller environmental impacts, and vote for pro-environment candidates? Of course the mailing also asked recipients to support the Earth Day 1990 campaign with a contribution. Though the pledge did not become a major part of the organizing effort, the basic message of the national campaign did not change. “We are trying to generate as much interest as we can for people to start doing things immediately—at home, at work and at school,” communications director Diana Aldridge said (4).
The Earth Day 1990 organizers accomplished all of their immediate goals. The turnout at Earth Day events in many major cities was far greater than in 1970. More than a million people attended the celebration in Central Park in New York City, and a rally and concert on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., drew 200,000. The media gave “saturation coverage” to the environment in the run-up to Earth Day, and the subject continued to receive unprecedented media attention for the next two years. Membership in many national environmental organizations reached all-time highs in the early 1990s. Earth Day 1990 also encouraged millions of people to think about how they could reduce their environmental footprint. The most conspicuous example of the heightened interest in individual eco-action was the astonishing success of 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, a privately published pamphlet that came out just before Earth Day 1990 and soon sold more than 5 million copies (5).
But Earth Day 1990 did not match the long-term impact of the 1970 event. Even Denis Hayes acknowledges that. Though circumstances seemed to be favorable for national legislation to address climate change, biodiversity, and other pressing issues, Earth Day 1990 did not lead to a second “environmental decade.” I am less sure about the institutional and individual legacies, but Earth Day 1990 evidently did not engender the same kind of entrepreneurial activism as the 1970 event. The young people inspired by Earth Day 1990 mostly joined established environmental organizations, agencies, and professions (6).
Why was Earth Day 1990 less successful than the 1970 event, despite a much bigger and more professional organizing effort?
Perhaps the limited long-term impact of Earth Day 1990 was inevitable. Because the idea was not new, the organizing effort largely lacked the freshness of discovery. Some of the national organizers were veterans of Earth Day 1970, and all already had a sense of what an Earth Day event should be. The local organizing effort relied on established organizations, not ad-hoc groups formed to plan Earth Day events.
But the problem went beyond the difficulty of making a sequel more compelling than the original. The organizational effort in 1990 was more top-down and more directive than in 1970. The models were political and marketing campaigns, which fail if they prompt lots of questions. In politics and marketing, the goal is yes or no—a vote for or against a candidate or a decision to buy one product rather than another. Though the Earth Day 1990 organizers did not promote a specific policy agenda, they framed the event in ways that pushed people to make simple, immediate, and conspicuous demonstrations of commitment to the environmental cause. They sought to “enlist” people in a well-defined movement, not to empower them to work out their own vision of how they might make a difference. No one called the discussions at Earth Day 1990 events “soul-searching.”
That was not an accident. Desser argued that Earth Day 1990 needed to be about action, not education. “The challenge in 1970 was educating people that the environment was an issue,” she explained. “The challenge now is: What are we going to do about it? How can I change my behavior? How can I get corporations, the government, to change their behavior?” (7).
Of course, that contrast derived from a serious misreading of what the first Earth Day accomplished. The first Earth Day was about action as well as awareness, and the two were related in ways that the 1990 organizers failed to appreciate. People only change because they have learned something important—and hard-won lessons are the most transformative.
Desser’s suggestion that the time for education had passed also speaks to a more profound misunderstanding. For the 1990 organizers, the only important question was whether people had the will to “change the world.” Yet a willingness to act only is meaningful if people have a clear goal, and the goal of eco-action never is a given. Though human existence ultimately depends on the health of natural systems, humans can survive and even thrive in many kinds of environments, so the kind of environment people prefer always will be a complicated question of individual values, social circumstances, and cultural traditions. Whose preferences count the most also is a critical question. The simple exhortation to save the planet avoids the hard questions that are the foundation of true commitment.
I take no pleasure in criticizing the 1990 organizers. Hayes and Desser have continued to work on environmental issues, and I appreciate their dedication. But understanding the short-comings of the twentieth-anniversary celebration is not just useful in appreciating the genius of Earth Day 1970. The differences in the two great Earth Day celebrations offer insight into the predicaments of the contemporary environmental movement.
Like the Earth Day 1990 organizers, the professionals on the staffs of the major environmental organizations today are much better at leading campaigns than asking questions. They are adept at marshaling scientific evidence, making legal arguments, framing messages, and assessing environmental costs. They also know how to raise money—the sine qua non of not-for-profit advocacy. But they seldom inspire the deep reflection that might make the environmental movement dramatically bigger and stronger.
That sort of reflection begins with questions. What are the most important reasons why we have environmental problems? What environments do we value most? Who should decide how best to use the resources of the earth? What are the most effective ways to build a more sustainable future? As Earth Day 1970 demonstrated, those questions really can change the world. We need to ask them more often.
Photo: Approximately one million people participated in the first Earth Day celebrations in New York City. NYC Dept. of Records and Information Services.
- Robert Cahn and Patricia Cahn, “Did Earth Day Change the World?” Environment 32 (September 1990): 19.
- Cahn and Cahn, “Did Earth Day Change the World?” 19– 20, 36; New York Times (November 12, 1989): F4; Los Angeles Times (October 26, 1989) (online).
- Cahn and Cahn, “Did Earth Day Change the World?” 20, 36; New York Times (November 12, 1989): F4.
- Cahn and Cahn, “Did Earth Day Change the World?” 20; Los Angeles Times (October 26, 1989) (online).
- Cahn and Cahn, “Did Earth Day Change the World?” 37; Ronald G. Shaiko, Voices and Echoes for the Environment: Public Interest Representation in the 1990s and Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 36, 42; Joel Makower, “The Death and Rebirth of ‘50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth,’ ” http://makower.typepad.com/joel_makower/2008/03/the-death-and-r.html.
- For a critical view of Earth Day 1990’s accomplishments, see Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993), 201– 4. Cahn and Cahn offer a more positive spin in “Did Earth Day Change the World?” 39– 40. In an April 25, 2012, comment on a Web blog, Denis Hayes wrote: “In 1990, Earth Day was larger domestically than in 1970— though its impact was not as great.” See http://alltagsgeschichte.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/who-actually-founded-earth-day/.
- Los Angeles Times (October 26, 1989) (online).