Some Notes on its Origin with a View to the Future
By Pennfield Jensen
[editor’s note: Pennfield Jensen is a recovering environmentalist and until now he has been a frequent contributor to The Ryder.]
Earth Day 2020. Fifty years gone by, and the next fifty trending badly. I hate to say it, but I feel today exactly as I felt when John McConnell launched Earth Day at my conference back in 1969. Let me explain.
The venue was the first UNESCO “Man and The Environment” conference, a three-day affair, November 23-25, held at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. It was set as a precursor to the Main Event of the same name to be held three years later in Stockholm. I call it “my” conference but that’s a stretch. The organizer was Huey Johnson, at that time the director of the Western Region of The Nature Conservancy. I was his de facto assistant. As gofer-in-chief, my task was managing the Sargasso of minutiae any conference of that magnitude entails. For example, John McConnell.
John was not on the roster of conference speakers. He wanted to be, desperately, and badgered me whenever he could find me, which was often, begging to find him a time slot somewhere, anywhere, but the schedule had been set in stone and I had no control over it. That said, no one had any serious objection to him being there. And “there” he was, bounding around pestering anyone who would listen to his idea of an Earth Day. He found supporters, and why not? Eventually he found the ear of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, an avowed environmentalist. The very next year, 1970, Earth Day happened. San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto sanctioned it; New York Mayor John Lindsay sanctioned it. Millions of people took to the streets around the country and around the world. A movement had gathered force. Yes!
Then something else happened. In early 1972 John came by my office. By virtue of a side trip co-founding Earth Times magazine under the tutelage of Jann Wenner and the editors at Rolling Stone, I had founded Clear Creek, “The Environmental Viewpoint.” In 1972 we were going strong, having played a significant role in getting unleaded gasoline legislation passed, and were now gearing up for the ’72 Stockholm conference.
The Creek offices were on the top floor of the old Reynolds Tobacco Building at One South Park, a seedy corner of San Francisco. These days it is one of the hippest neighborhoods in San Francisco. In those days we shared our environs with crack addicts, gang conflicts, and marginal businesses. The corner office window was graced by a bullet hole the size of a golf ball. The building had bronze Indian heads under the eaves of the roof and a large LSMFT logo in the lobby (“Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.”) We got to step on it every day. We were a team of researchers, writers and artists. An amazing watershed of bright, wonderful people.
John McConnell was ever and always the kind of person whose strength of personality and honest enthusiasm was contagious and fun. But on this day he was distraught, and he was seeking our help. Specifically, he wanted editorial backing in his dispute over the “illegal” appropriation of Earth Day by senator Nelson and his aide Denis Hayes as “their” idea. We listened sympathetically. But we had no dog in John’s fight.
As journalist-environmentalists, our goal was to raise consciousness for environmental awareness as an ethic, not just a once-a-year event, then ho-hum back to business as usual. Earth Day seemed to trivialize that larger vision and to diminish the urgency of a much-needed environmental ethos. Second, there was Denis Hayes. Harvard educated and charismatic, Denis had been hand-picked by Senator Nelson to head up Earth Day as an international operation. All apologies to John McConnell, but case closed. John had been inspired in the Sixties by a ‘great idea,’ but frankly, I did not think, nor do I today that Earth Day was any one person’s idea. Earth Day is one of those inevitable ideas, like Stonehenge and the autumn equinox; its time had come and it belonged to everybody.
Or perhaps nobody.
In Indianapolis the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day is scheduled to be held on Saturday April 25th at Military Park. An array of 122 exhibitors, a beer garden and photo ops with various corporate mascots such as Roundup-Redi Kilowatt are planned. Should be fun. Bloomington hopes to cheer on our lonely blue marble beginning at 1 PM at Switchyard Park on Saturday April 18th. So we’ll have at least two weekends’ worth of sudsy gaiety and ominous warnings to look forward to. I had personally hoped to print up bumper stickers that read “I [Heart] Earth Day,” and organize volunteers to stick them on the windshields of every SUV they could find (which is every other vehicle I see) until Steve Cotter, a Bloomington Earth Day organizer, put the kybosh on it by saying “great idea, Penn—until someone gets shot.” Right.
Earth Day has become an icon for ‘earth awareness.’ That’s a good thing. My problem with Earth Day 2020 is that it shows only too well how miserably we, as environmentalists, have failed. The unchecked global rapaciousness that has pushed global warming past the tipping point of no return has created an irreversible fate for “Man and His Environment.” The 2015 Paris Accord to curtail global warming by controlling greenhouse gas emissions, was signed by every UN participant save Turkey and Iran. An end-game of sorts for the initial UNESCO conference in 1972, the Accord offered hope. It still does, even though Trump pulled the U.S. out of it and China never acknowledged it. That leaves the others to set the bar while the two largest polluters on the planet party hearty in open and arrogant defiance of irrefutable truth.
The science is good. What it tells us is not. We have failed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. We have failed to curb population growth. We have set in motion the demise of ecologies world-wide. Ultimately, we face a perfect storm of impending catastrophes that will be both as unavoidable as they will be horrific. Take pollinators as a random example. Thinking bees? And the global devastation they are undergoing? Their fate pales in comparison to the vast numbers of non-industrial insects, birds, and mammals that pollinate the grasses, flowers, and fruit trees on which we depend. Think ocean ecosystems coping with increased heat, acidity, and micro plastics, the “blanching” of the great coral reefs worldwide and the myriad creatures lost thereby. And of course melting glaciers, hellish droughts, damning floods. The consequences reach far beyond a few litigious millionaires whose oceanfront villas get swept away by rising tides. Sorry, but good riddance to what shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
The contingent sad truth is that there are no viable technological solutions to global warming, overpopulation, or the loss of ecosystems. A lot of attention is paid to solar power, wind power, tide power and sustainable growth. Those alternatives may slow the march to oblivion, here and there, but they won’t stop it. I think of the rage of Australian bush fires, and of the Wuhan coronavirus that as I write is wiping away trillions of dollars of global wealth and shuttering borders around the world. I don’t see these as once-in-a-hundred-years anomalies; they are the advance guards, nasty harbingers of what’s to come.
When tens of millions of people face bitter famine, convulsive war, and imminent death, their desperation will crush all hope. I hate writing this, but it is what terrifies me the most: losing the basic humanism that, up until now, has guided mankind through all of its darkest days. What happens when we turn against each other to save ourselves?
On the nominal Earth Day 2020, April 22nd, approximately 1,000 children will be born in the United States. Around 360,000 children will be born world-wide during those 24 hours.
Looking fifty years on down the road to Earth Day, 2070, I can’t imagine what those grown-up children will think of us.
And that’s tragic because never has any species achieved such a profound understanding of this incredible world which we inhabit, and of the universe in which we play such a small and insignificant part, yet only we it seems have the ability to comprehend. The wondrous truths that have been brought to light stagger the imagination. We cannot in a lifetime begin to appreciate it all. But we should try. We should work to “see” the world as it truly is. And we should teach others to do the same, otherwise we turn the lights out on life.