Two years ago, Mark Hertsgaard argued in The Nation that “instead of rallying public pressure for far-reaching reforms, Earth Day is becoming, at least in the United States, a bland, tired ritual that polluters and politicians have learned to ignore or co-opt.” He proposed that an effort to “save Earth Day” should be focused on returning the day to its radical origins:
Frustrated by such cynicism, some environmentalists have called for abolishing Earth Day. But that would be throwing the baby out with the polluted bathwater. Instead, why not recall the real history of Earth Day and revive its original—and much more demanding—vision?
Little remembered today is the fact that even the first Earth Day itself, back in April 1970, occurred amidst vigorous internal debate among environmentalists as to whether it represented a genuinely promising burst of ecological consciousness or was merely a crafty diversion on the part of an establishment eager to redirect the energies of young activists away from the more pressing, more sensitive issues of race, poverty and the Vietnam War. In an April 6, 1970 article in The Nation, the Chicago-based journalist Raymond R. Coffey examined how students and professors active at the University of Michigan’s “teach-in on the environment” that March—the precursor to the first official Earth Day the following month—were deeply conflicted about how quickly mainstream politicians acted to co-opt their event.
Ecology has become a very important issue on campuses this season, and this teach-in was the forerunner—a kind of model—for thousands of college and high school colloquia to be held on April 22, dubbed “Earth Day” by the sponsors. The beleaguered environment is the kind of issue, some think, that might capture the idealistic spirit and the concern of young people as did the Peace Corps and Vietnam….
The attractiveness of environment as a political issue is fairly obvious. An uncompromising stand against dirty air and for clean water should win votes, and hardly hits the same mark on the controversy scale as does taking a strong position on Vietnam.
Coffey then quoted several Michigan students who noted that it was precisely the issue’s attractiveness to politicians which ought to given environmental advocates pause.
“I’m uneasy about why we’re here,” [James] Shapiro, a new hero of the New Left told the crowd of 15,000. “I think maybe we’re here to waste our time. I think some people want us to divert our energy…to forget there is a criminal war going on in Vietnam…to forget that 50 million people in a country that put a man on the moon don’t have enough to eat.” …
Barry Bluestone, a graduate student in economics and a veteran of political movements on the Michigan campus, told a reporter that he believes leaders in the political and industrial establishment are deliberately pushing the environment issue “to take some of the force out of the anti-war, anti-racism, anti-poverty issues.” And even [Douglas] Scott, the teach-in co-chairman who has been largely nonpolitical as a student, said many young people suspect their concerns are being diverted by the environment cause.