Political Animal


April 22, 2013 9:02 AM Memories of the First Earth Day

By Ed Kilgore

43 years ago today, America celebrated the first Earth Day. And in the public high school I attended in conservative Cobb County, Georgia, we had a big Earth Day program, complete with a speech by actor Hal Holbrook, who had identified with the environmentalist cause in some manner that eludes me today.

That amazes me, now that being identified as an “environmentalist” leads so many people to identify one as a secular-socialist elitist. On the first Earth Day, Georgia was governed by none other than Lester Maddox, and my home turf was about to be represented by Larry McDonald, soon to become president of the John Birch Society (with whom Lester was identified as well). But I don’t recall my school or its principal getting any serious flak for spending a good chunk of a taxpayer supported day talking about the damage we were doing to the environment and what we could collectively do about it.

That wouldn’t happen today, for all the talk about union teachers (who don’t, by the way, have collective bargaining rights in states like Georgia) brainwashing children imprisoned in “government schools” instead of being free to attend conservative evangelical madrassas where kids are taught about man’s God-given dominion over the earth. 43 years of progress, eh?

UPDATE: commenter TR and mistermix at Ballon Juice (who also takes on the impossible task of out-mocking my self-mockery about age) make the legitimate point that the environmental challenges facing the country in 1970 were more tangible, immediate and remediable (as subsequent clean air and water legislation showed) than those we are struggling to deal with today.

It’s a fair point, but I still think cultural and political resistance to the very subject of the environment is at an all-time high. Commemoration of the first Earth Day was noisily opposed by Georgia’s then-insurance commissioner, Jimmy Bentley, who was running for the Republican nomination for governor (he noted that it fell on Lenin’s birthday!). He was generally dismissed as a crank, and didn’t make it to the general election ballot (Jimmy Carter eventually won that year). Nowadays one of the most powerful delusions in conservative politics in Georgia and elsewhere is the John Birch Society-generated Agenda 21 meme, whereby zoning and land-use planning are denounced as part of a one-world conspiracy against property rights.

In today’s atmosphere, would federal government action to deal with air and water pollution be as generally accepted as it was in 1970, even in Georgia? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t be certain of it.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on April 22, 2013 9:09 AM:

    Maybe the crazies back then were on to something.

    That Fluoride in the water has had plenty of time to not only harden our teeth, but our heads and hearts, as well.

  • TR on April 22, 2013 9:10 AM:

    Environmentalism was an easier cause back then because the dangers were much clearer. The Cuyahoga River outside Cleveland was so polluted the water caught on fire, while air pollution was so bad that in many cities ( Atlanta even) they had to turn on street lights in the afternoon so drivers could see. It's why a noted lefty like Richard Nixon could create the EPA.

    Ultimately environmentalism's problem is that it solved the obvious problems and now the public is convinced its a waste of time, all about protecting the spotted owl or something. It was weakened by its success.

  • cool on April 22, 2013 9:58 AM:

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  • Jatla on April 22, 2013 10:25 AM:

    Hal Holbrooke had become an Earth Day standard bearer because he had recently starred in a melodramatic made- for- TV movie, which I believe was called "Clear and Present Danger", about a smog inversion apocolypse in Southern California.

  • DJ on April 22, 2013 10:48 AM:

    Actually, it was an episode of the television series The Bold Ones.


  • TomParmenter on April 22, 2013 11:20 AM:

    You can't count on running your car in a closed garage to commit suicide anymore. Modern fuel-injected cars just don't create enough carbon monoxide.

  • Bruce S on April 22, 2013 12:23 PM:

    Earth Day 1970 was a full year before the Powell Memo, which was sort of like the Declaration of Independence for corporate America - a clarion call to the Chamber of Commerce crowd to turn back "the 60s", Ralph Nader, campus activists, liberal-tainted media, etc. etc. This very effective wake-up call gave us The Heritage Foundation, CATO and in it's most important public face, the Reagan Presidency. There was a relatively successful counter-revolution and Earth Day was probably one of the unsettling events that generated a largely successful backlash by the economic elite. So successful that the 1st "environmental" President, Nixon, could no more get nominated by today's GOP than Teddy Kennedy. A different world - one which was created by some serious strategizing, political action, funding, institution building, etc. etc. ad nauseum (literally.)

  • Dredd on April 22, 2013 2:09 PM:

    Do we really face any environmental problems today?

    Don't we just continue to ignore them even though The Climate System is also now clearly dysfunctional?

    The main difference between now and then is that them, with less catastrophes having been experienced, we passed laws.

    Now the deniers have shut down the ability to react to catastrophes we increasingly face.

    I would say we are in grave danger compared to then.


  • Burr Deming on April 22, 2013 2:22 PM:

    Actually, land use and zoning laws are not the only form the Agenda 21 plot has taken. We should also keep in mind the great Colorado United Nations Bicycle Conspiracy.

  • boatboy_srq on April 22, 2013 2:28 PM:

    It's quite true that, when you're not breathing sewage fumes when you're at the beach, or competing with styrofoam refuse when you're swimming, it's a lot harder to sell "environmental cleanup" - especially to the folks who were PO'd that by the terms of the older requirements they might just have to pick up after themselves. The longer this goes on, the more AGCC-deniers sound like the spoiled brats who whined and cried when their parents made them tidy up their rooms.

    The modern type seem to be equally POd that the junkers on their lawns might just be harming the folks next door with all the old oil draining down toward their wells.

    Thatcher's "there is no such thing as society" quote has been adopted as convenient philosophical excuse for libtards to do whatever the BLEEP they please because it's nobody's business/profit/health/lives but their own what happens inside their own survey markers.

    Doesn't anyone else here remember all the whinging about the "Me Generation" back in the 70s, when our elders (and possibly our betters) were complaining about how greedy the last Boomers had become? This seems like just one more instance of the Entitlement of that generation.

  • MichaelF on April 22, 2013 2:50 PM:

    Here in Baton Rouge Earth Day's simply been co-opted. Now it's Earth Day Sponsored by Exxon Mobil. I'm not making that up.

  • mark D on April 23, 2013 7:53 AM:

    When I worked on an assembly line 40 years ago, one of my coworkers was leader of the local chapter of the John Birch Society. When I asked him what "ecology" was, he replied it was a communist plot to overthrow America and free enterprise (he was serious). He said we didn't need any environmental regulations because, if your neighbor dumped poisonous waste down a sinkhole on his property, and it flowed to your well and you got sick, you could always take him to court. Or your heirs could, if you died.