Teach-in On The Environment

Teach-in On The Environment

 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. 


Ann Arbor, Mich. It was on the front steps of the Student Union building at the University of Michigan, on an October day in the campaign of 1960, that John F. Kennedy first described the Peace Corps. The spot where he stood has a marker sunk in the cement, and to the left of the main doors the old red brick Union there hangs a bronze plaque memorializing the occasion. It was also at the University of Michigan, in the spring of 1965, that the first "teach-in" against the war in Vietnam was conducted. Thus there was a special appropriateness out the almost exhaustingly massive ‘teach-in on the environment" held here March 11-14.

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 me idealistic spirit and the concern of young people as did the Peace Corps and Vietnam.

And it is an issue whose political potential has already, and obviously, been recognized by politicians. "We got calls from so many politicians who wanted to speak at the teach-in that we just couldn’t possibly accommodate them all,” said Douglas Scott, a 25-year-old graduate student from Portland, Ore., who was one of the co-chairmen of the Michigan program. Several political figures did make it to the stage, however, they included Sens. Edmund S. Muskie and Gaylord Nelson, the two leading Democratic environmentalists and two of the more attractive spokesmen for a party that these days, does not find itself hip-deep in magnetic Presidential possibilities. Both were quite warmly received, except for a bit of low-key heckling from SDS-style radicals.

The Republican Governor of Michigan, William Milliken, appeared on the bill; the Nixon Administration was represented by C. C. Johnson, consumer protection chief in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the House Government Operations Subcommittee on Conservation and Natural Resources, headed by Rep. Henry Reuss (D., Wis.), even held a hearing at which student teach-in participants told of their environmental research. "How can you declare such charming feminists out of order?" Reuss asked, turning on IES own charm, when a band of coeds interrupted the hearing to chant a grisly song in support of legal abortions. 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 con- controversy scale as does taking a strong position on Vietnam. But, as also became plain during Ann Arbor’s four-day siege of seminars, speeches and demonstrations, environment could turn out to be a tougher proposition for the politically ambitious than it first appears. In their speeches, both Muskie and Nelson recognized what is perhaps the chief misgiving young people have about their own enthusiasm for the issue. That is a concern that environment may divert attention and political commitment away from more sensitive issues such as Vietnam, race and poverty. Edwin Fabre, a black law student, told the opening night rally that blacks generally were boycotting the teach-in because it was a diversion, just a "new toy,” that helped white middle-class students ignore the fact that fewer than 1,000 of Michigan’s 35,000 (students are black. And some of the most vigorous applause of the whole four days went to James Shapiro, a ‘brilliant 26-year-old Harvard geneticist, who was a member of the team that recently announced it had isolated a pure gene from a bacterial virus.

"I’m uneasy about why we’re here," 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.’.." Shapiro, who has renounced science to became a full-time political activist, declared that a Socialist revolution was the only solution to environmental and other problems.

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 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. Senator Muskie met this question by telling his audience that he hoped environment would not become a "smoke screen" obscuring the "unmet challenge of equal opportunity," and that "there appears to be good case for concern" that this might indeed happen. Americans, Muskie said, "cannot afford to correct our history of abusing nature and neglect the continuing abuse of our fellow men. The environmental conscience nay be the way to turn the nation around,” but it must operate "not only for our air, our water and our land but also for the future of people, searching for ways out of poverty, hunger and neglect."

Senator Nelson, who is credited with first having the idea of a nationwide environmental teach-in, drew even more cheers and applause than did Muskie when he attacked the war as a "mistaken enterprise." He added: "Bluntly put, anyone who thinks the environmental issue is a neat way to avoid facing the tragic problems we have caused the black man in America is going to be sadly mistaken."

Another thing that became evident during this preliminary teach-in is that the radical or militant student is moving in on the issue if that continues, the ‘environment could become a cause no more comfortable for politicians than Vietnam and other student issues that have produced major campus unrest. The student leadership, the environment issue is at the moment politically very moderate. "Let me give it to you straight," ‘said political science Prof. Joseph Falkson, who is identified with the more politically active student element: "These people are Republicans." Current leaders, like Scott who started out as a forestry student, and his co-chairman, David Allan, a zoology major, run more to the "engineering, natural resources" kind of student than to the more ‘ "politicized" ‘sociology and political science types active on other fronts, according to Prof. Sam Warner.

But even these students may become tougher for the politicians to deal with if their new environmental enthusiasm is frustrated Scott, who says he was born ‘a Republican, now finds himself "moving Left politically." So far, he says, the political response to the environment crisis has been "mostly public relations," of which young people are "bound to be skeptical."

Scott, for example, criticizes President Nixon for spending money to fly himself and a platoon of top Administration figures to Chicago to declare war on the pollution of the Great Lakes. That strikes Scott as cynical, when the President, then cuts $250,000 from the budget for the Great Lakes Laboratory of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries-an economy which, Scott says, "will seriously jeopardize the work of the lab." He also believes "There are people in government, industry and the offices of university presidents who think this [the environment enthusiasm] is going to keep kids quiet on the campuses. They are terribly wrong."

The more radical students, as they move in on the environment issue, also see the prospect at what the politicians fail to do about it will radicalize many more young people. Marty McLaughlin, 19, outgoing president of the student government council and an I "international Socialist," said in an interview that the environment crusade at the moment amounts to a kind ‘of do-good, "reformist" movement. It will fail, he said, as McCarthy-for-President failed and as the anti-war movement failed. "And that will be good," because it will sour many more young people on "reformist" politics and push them toward something more drastic.

Bluestone also believes that the environment issue may very well backfire on Nixon, "because he won’t be able really to solve it, any more than LBJ could win the war." And when Mr. Nixon fails, as Bluestone and others of his position see it, "that can’t help but turn a greater and greater number of people into radicals."

Without getting into the question of whether the environment enthusiasts may’ ultimately be radicalized by frustration, Professor Warner, a historian, sees the new enthusiasm as a good thing. Most of the current leadership on the issue, he said, comes ‘ from "a lot of engineers and conservationists" in the student body "who now want to enter the political and social world. They want to shop ‘making bombs, and I think that’s marvelous.’, But, he suggested, as this kind of young person does become more politically and socially aware, he is also likely to make tougher demands on his political leaders. None of the foregoing, however, could obscure the fact that the teach-in here strikingly demonstrated the broad popular appeal the environment issue enjoys at the moment. It was by any reckoning an extraordinary happening, a marathon of speeches. seminars, panels, skits, films, hikes, demonstrations–more than 125 events crammed into four days.

And its patrons included Got only students but the middle-aged, the elderly, high school youngsters, labor leaders and corporations presidents and academics. Boy Scouts were involved and the League of Women Voters. Militants smeared tar and feathers on the steps of a building where recruiters were interviewing students for jobs with Atlantic Richfield Co., principal developer of the Alaskan North Slope oil fields.

One group was circulating "Pledges of Social Responsibility," asking, people to promise-and permit publication of their names in newspaper ads–that they would limit their families to two children. The university’s president, Robben W. Fleming, found himself taking part in a program (the university helped finance the teach-in) that included demands for student-faculty participation in voting the university’s 27,000 shares of Generals Motors stock, to make sure the company stops polluting the environment. There was manifest fervor about it all. Some of the stunts– such as sledge-hammering an old auto- ,mobile into junk after convicting it of pollution in a mock trial-seemed on about the level of panty raids, but panty raids with a conscience. And much of the activity was a good deal more sophisticated than that.

Perhaps remembering Kennedy’s first announcement of the Peace Corps, Governor Milliken proposed in his speech the creation of a vacation-time "clean earth corps" to give students a chance to work on environment problems. Miliken, it seemed clear, thought this the key part of his speech. It landed on his young audience with a thud, got no response at all.

In the prepared text of his speech, Senator Muskie had included a suggestion far a ”national survival corps." He left that part out when he delivered the speech, and it was probably as well. The students) are watchful, they remember the fate of their other causes and they will riot let the politicians slip past the the environment issue with easy, do-it-yourself solutions.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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