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Sen. Gaylord Nelson
"The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around." —Sen. Gaylord Nelson

Forty-four years ago today, April 22, 1970, Sen. Nelson, the Wisconsin Democrat—a longtime environmental advocate—gave the first Earth Day speech in Denver. I would have been there, but I missed it because I was in an Arizona prison camp for draft resisters at the time.

While Earth Day organizers refused checks from Standard Oil, Monsanto and Procter and Gamble, among others, many political activists on the Left viewed the whole affair with suspicion. They saw environmental advocacy in general as a diversion from "real issues," such as poverty, racism, the Vietnam War and the imperialism that engendered it. Indeed, just a week after that first Earth Day, on April 29, the U.S. sent troops into Cambodia and, within three weeks, six students had been killed during protests at Kent State and Jackson State Universities. Environmental matters were for many protesters a low priority.

But Nelson, an avid opponent of the war, didn't see it that way. After the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, he had come up with the idea for Earth Day based on the anti-war college campus teach-ins he had witnessed. He got Denis Hayes—who eight years later would be my boss at the Solar Energy Research Institute—to coordinate Earth Day doings, Instead of putting out a national agenda for Earth Day, Nelson argued that it should be a grassroots affair with activities set in motion in local communities, not by professional organizers based in Washington, D.C.

And that was exactly how it played out. An estimated 20 million people from a broad slice of American life participated in thousands of events across the nation. College students, labor unionists, farmers, homemakers, politicians, entrepreneurs, including many Republicans. There were also a smattering of people of color who joined in, but many of them viewed the environmental movement as needing major refocusing to become relevant to their concerns.

There is more to read below the sustainable squiggle.

One of the latter was Mary Lou Oates. In 1970, she worked for the National Welfare Rights Organization, a new grassroots alliance working for the rights of the poor. In an interview, she limned out what later some would label eco-justice:

"Our biggest fight is to make middle class people see it's not just a fight for clean air, but a fight for every one in this country to live in a personal environment in which he can live like a human being. ... There are environmental problems in inner city areas that are just not generally talked about such as lead-based paints. ... It's not a question of being in [a polluted atmosphere] for eight hours and then going home to Long Island. Middle class people are holding off pollution in a personal way. Poor people don't have this option open to them."

Nelson proved in his Denver speech that he understood what she was talking about:

“Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit. [...]

“Environment is a problem perpetuated by the expenditure of $17 billion a year on the Vietnam War, instead of on our decaying, crowded, congested, polluted urban areas that are inhuman traps for millions of people. [...]

"Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures."

In the wake of that original Earth Day, important legislation was enacted, including the launching of the Environmental Protection Agency. After his Senate career ended, Nelson went on to serve on the board of the Wilderness Society, an organization whose efforts led to the Wilderness Act, passed 50 years ago thanks in great part to Nelson's efforts.  

Six years ago, on the 38th Earth Day, I interviewed Denis Hayes, who not only left Harvard to coordinate Earth Day 1970 at Nelson's request, but also helped rejuvenate it in 1990.

Hayes was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head the Solar Energy Research Institute, a part of the new Department of Energy in 1977. There, he was my boss's boss at SERI, now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where I worked on The Solar Law Reporter. Today, Hayes is the CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, which is focused on sustainable development. Here's my first question from that interview and his answer:

MB: If you could wave your magic green wand and change one thing the environmental movement has done—or not done—in the past four decades, what would that be?

HAYES: First, before answering this one, I want to make clear that I think environmentalism is not near 'death,' or even retirement, and I'm very definitely not part of the camp that wants to "kill" it.  

The environmental movement has produced more widespread, fundamental, structural improvement in America than any other movement in history. The only thing that comes close is the New Deal—and the environmental movement didn't have a hugely popular, 4-term President pushing our agenda. We caused the creation of an EPA and a NOAA; passed a raft of hard-hitting legislation that regulated everything from air and water pollution to endangered species to occupational health to marine mammal protection to biomimickring forestry to banning DDT, lead, ozone depleting chemicals, and a variety of longlasting toxins; and promulgated a set of values that has guided tens of millions of people in their choice of house, car, diet, vacations, job selection, and even the number of children they choose to have.  

Students now study environmental engineering, environmental law, environmental toxicology, environmental forestry, environmental economics, green chemistry, sustainable business, etc.—and have jobs waiting for them when they complete their educations.

Now, to answer your question: If I were starting over, I would have tried harder to instill from the very beginning a concern for economic justice as a bedrock value of the movement, and I would have sought a way to organize the tens of thousands of local groups across the nation into a coherent whole that functioned organically—not just on Earth Day, but around the calendar. Some groups, most notably the Sierra Club, have lots of local chapters, but as a movement we've done too little to have a vibrant presence in all communities.  

In the last few decades, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown significantly. The core strength of the environmental movement is college educated, middle class "haves" (or at least "quasi-haves.') But the movement is underrepresented in communities of color and disadvantaged communities in general. This has many unfortunate implications including (1) many current environmental issues, notably global warming, will have huge economic costs, and the poor need to be represented at the table when those costs are allocated; 2)  most environmental problems impose their heaviest burdens on the very poor; and, 3) these populations are growing faster than other segments of society, so in a democracy they are becoming increasingly powerful.

Earth Day, here and around the world, is heavily focused on growing and diversifying the environmental movement. If you review the march across the podium at the big Earth Day event at the Mall in Washington, D.C., last Sunday, you will see that many of the speakers and most of the celebrities were people of color, and the audience was more than half non-white. We are trying!

This Earth Day, climate change is on the minds of most environmental advocates even if their personal focus is endangered species, water pollution, renewable energy sources, deforestation or the ever-growing corporatist control that works every day to strangle meaningful action across a broad range of environmental issues.

Throughout the world, the poor are going to catch it worst from climate change. They already are. And so far at least, the richest nations have not shown themselves up to the task of ameliorating the impacts from that change. Developing nations have asked for a piddling $100 billion a year to deal with climate change. The rich nations have provided just a few billion. That failure, and the failure to take climate change seriously, really seriously, needs to be the focus of every Earth Day, and, indeed, every day of the year until it's no longer a failure.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Tue Apr 22, 2014 at 09:40 AM PDT.

Also republished by Kitchen Table Kibitzing and Daily Kos.

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