Earth Day 2012

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By Otis L. Graham, Jr., Ph.D.

Otis is an historian of modern America, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a CAPS Board Member. He is the author or editor of 19 books and numerous articles on the history of the United States, with a focus on American reform movements, political economy, environment and immigration.

The writer's views are his own.

April 30, 2012

Impressed by the reform energies and media coverage generated by campus anti-war and pro-civil rights protests in the late 1960s, Senator Gaylord Nelson began to plan for a “national teach-in on the environment.” Against all odds, “Earth Day” took place across the country on Saturday, April 22, 1970. Students at an estimated 2,000 colleges and 10,000 high school campuses as well as other urban settings hoisted banners, listened to speeches, held panel discussions, flattened automobiles with sledge hammers, held mock burials of the internal combustion engine, threw birth control pills to crowds, and passed around replicas of a green-blue globe.  Estimates of participation ran to 20 million Americans, suggesting that it had been the largest national protest demonstration in our history.

Earth Day has become an annual event, and prominent among the “save the planet” themes from the beginning was the central importance of ending human population growth.  “What is the message?”, shouted thousands of students as British philosopher C.P. Snow addressed them at a Midwestern university campus.  “Peace, food, no more people than the earth can take!” Snow responded, the crowd repeating it as mantra.

From its founding in 1986, CAPS recognized that we had to be there at every year’s Earth Day, where so many Americans brought and shared their concerns about our common environment, and searched for remedies.  Our small organization has over the years carried its message of population limitation to Earth Day events across California—when possible sending not just our literature but CAPS staff, as well as boar and rank-and-file members.

This year was in some respects the same—large crowds (San Diego counted 70,000, Santa Barbara 36,000, Thousand Oaks 5,000, rows and circles of tent booths, music and speeches, children passing balloon-earths overhead. But CAPS Executive Director Jo Wideman and staffer Melinda Johansson noted a welcome difference from the past few years. While the materials displayed in the CAPS booth again stood almost alone in giving attention to the growing population impact on the environment and its immigration component, our staff estimated that 90 percent of the visitors to the tent engaged in conversation and most “were supportive of our position.” Those who were not seemed to linger longer than in recent years and displayed no hostility along with their (often factually uninformed) opinions on the population/environment connection.

One other difference this year was in the content of displays and tent-booths, pointed out to us by historian Roderick Nash, author of the classic study “Wilderness and the American Mind” (1967) and veteran participant in the early Earth Days back to 1970. The emphasis in the early years and for a long time after was on protecting the wilderness—redwoods, wild life, clean air and water, he recalled. The emphasis in 2012 had decisively shifted to technological fixes—water filtration systems, electric cars, bicycle maintenance, home gardening.  We at CAPS enjoyed learning about those innovations, but kept alive C.P. Snow’s fundamental goal:  no more people than the earth, including America, can take.

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