I was there for the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. I’m here to tell you how bad things looked back then, and how far we have come. And why I’m worried now.
In spring 1970, I was managing editor of our high-school newspaper in Kingston, N.Y., a small city in upstate New York, tucked between the Hudson River and the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. I was also a Boy Scout and avid explorer of the high Mountain Top region of the Catskills, where my mother’s family was from. At 17, I already had a keenly developed sense of what I saw as the rapid destruction of the natural world around me.
When I was little, we lived just outside Kingston next to a fruit and vegetable farm worked by the local Kraus family. I loved tromping through nearby swamps and overgrown fields. By the time I was 12, we were living by a strip mall, rows of cookie-cutter houses and a busy highway. We hadn’t moved; the stuff just grew up around us. Kingston was then very much an industrial town, making cement, bricks and asbestos products. Sometimes on still days, the air for miles around coagulated into a grey miasma. In summer, we swam in that mighty river, oil slicks and all, even though we knew it was probably full of poisons. Recycling was then a figment of the future; roadsides were carpeted with junk thrown out car windows. Federal, state or local regulation of almost anything was rare. This was all just normal in 1970.
Somehow, I got the idea that everything could be fixed if someone would just point out the problems, inform others, and establish action points. Indeed, many people were waking up to the costs of modern technology and post–World War II economic boom. The downsides of miracle substances like DDT were revealing themselves. The previous year, an oil spill had ravaged the California coast. A river in Ohio spontaneously caught fire. With growing public pressure, U.S. politicians—of both parties—signed on to the idea of an Earth Day, and a commitment to follow up.
That spring, there were teach-ins at our school, and community cleanups. The legendary folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, one of my few heroes, led a concert by the Kingston waterfront; he landed aboard the newly launched sloop Clearwater, whose declared mission was to clean up the Hudson. Spurred in part by all this, I recruited a dozen fellow students and a few sympathetic adults, and organized a special Earth Day newspaper about our area, called Environment ’70.
We reported on what we could see, because that was what we had to go on. My own piece covered air quality. I noted soot pouring from open burning at local garbage dumps and building incinerators—including those at the YMCA and Kingston High School itself. Surrounding towns were hearing citizen complaints that industries were violating even scanty state regulations. Some claimed that the Nitrolite company, out on rural Rt. 32, was tripling production at night so that neighbors wouldn’t see the smokestack output. A local engineer helping us out volunteered to measure the fumes from the Arrow Line diesel buses plying Broadway, our main drag: 4 out of 5 on the Ringelmann Smoke Chart, a scale developed in the 1860s by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Kingston had only a vague smoke ordinance, which provided little penalty, and was supposedly enforced by the fire department.
Beyond city limits, Kingston quickly petered out into hilly country roads. Some of my friends working for the newspaper fanned out with black-and-white cameras to document junked cars, piles of tires, piles of dead chickens, and heaps of plain old household garbage along these otherwise picturesque byways.
As for the river, one prime polluter cited by the Ulster County Health Department: the State University College at New Paltz, which was operating a sewage treatment plant at double its capacity. On Earth Day, high schoolers and teachers tested various points along the Hudson for ammonia, a toxin introduced by fertilizer runoff, sewage and industry. As we reported, all the samples came back ranging from questionable to crazy.
Even in 1970, we knew that pollution kills. But we didn’t know the half of it. The ammonia test was easy for teens to do—but not tests for PCBs, heavy metals and other substances that soon entered public consciousness. We definitely didn’t know about greenhouse gases, and where they would lead us down the road. But we knew we wanted to act.
For our little newspaper, my friend Mary Kay Lannen drew a human hand grasping the planet. Next to it was the motto from the first official Earth Day poster: “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” Yes, the hand and the motto are now both old saws. But old saws become old saws because they start as sharp truths.
One Saturday a few weeks after Earth Day, a bunch of us ganged up to clear out a giant trash pile that had accumulated off a steep mountain road—a small bit of direct action, with immediate gratification. At some point, an older lady in improbable formal skirt and high heels tripped her way down the crumbly dirt slope. It was Virginia Smiley, whose ardently conservationist family had owned the nearby Mohonk Preserve, a famous resort kept in its wild state since the 1800s. She had come to thank us. Here was an adult who thought like a young person! She invited me for tea, and we became fast friends. After I went to college, Mrs. Smiley and I corresponded. One day a few years later, I received a letter from her secretary that she had died. I never forgot her.
As part of our newspaper report, we took an unscientific poll on what people thought needed further doing. Suggestions ranged from the familiar to the quaint. Stop littering; reuse plastic bottles; compost; if you must drive, form a carpool; shop using reusable bags; buy organic; boycott dry cleaners who won’t take back metal hangers; have only two children; shame polluters; and relentlessly lobby public officials.
It’s hard to say how much the feel-good back-to-the-earth actions delivered. But collective pressure on government delivered. The U.S. Environmental Protection Administration and the federal Clean Air Act came into being in 1970; president Richard Nixon signed. The Clean Water Act came in 1972, the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The Superfund law was created in 1980. States and municipalities created their own robust environmental laws and authorities. These actions enjoyed near-unanimous bipartisan support.
Recycling, deposit-bottle laws, vehicle emissions controls, more efficient cars and appliances, industrial waste limits, improved sewage-treatment plants, the end of lead additives in paint and gasoline, bans on DDT and asbestos, protections for rare plants and animals, cleanups of toxic-waste dumps all followed. When I moved to New York City in 1974, the air sometimes burned my lungs and blurred visibility after a few blocks. Today, you can see for miles. The once-filthy Hudson is largely clean. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles, once near extinction, can be seen spotted. It’s easy to take these things for granted if you don’t remember what it was like before.
My high-school experiences helped guide me into a journalism career that has given me the privilege of visiting far-flung places across the planet and reporting on what we are learning about it. At one point, I actually became handy enough with a guitar, and was in the right place at the right time, that I got invited to take the stage with Pete Seeger himself during a riverside concert. (I admit: It happened only once!) I like to think I’m performing a public service now as a university press officer, helping explain the insights of scientists who work every day to better understand our world, and our interactions with it.
Of course the job of saving the world—yes, another old saw—is never done. Climate change is not so easily understood nor addressed as a pile of roadside trash. And today the U.S. government is not just denying this reality and thwarting efforts to take action, but trying to undo everything we did earlier. Removing curbs on industrial dumping; reducing efficiency for vehicles and light bulbs; reversing bans on dangerous chemicals; turning protected public lands over to mining and drilling. Even attacking the scientific methodologies that form our bedrock understanding of the environment and human health. Forget going back to 1970: they’ve stopped enforcing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
We fought, and, on many fronts, we won. Now the enemy is clawing back ground. If we don’t stand up again now, we might have to again say: We have met the enemy, and he is us.