For Earth Day – Plus 50 – April 22, 2020
By Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute
The first Earth Day was the idea of and championed by a United States Senator, Democrat Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin on April 22, 1970. Fifty years ago!
Let’s also celebrate his life (1916-2005) and the environmental movement he helped to launch as we observe Earth Day 2020.
For those of us who were not around back in the day, I will also offer up some background for you as we celebrate the 50th Earth Day.
Why Earth Day?
In 1970, there were too many assaults on the nation’s environment. On Our Good Earth with air, water, soil polluted – in many parts of the nation, we were really heavily polluted! (There are still SuperFund sites being cleaned in many states.)
The American landscape was rich with manufacturing facilities and processing plants, located in every state. Our manufacturing and processing exports in the post-WW II period comprised fully one-quarter and more of all world trade.
The generosity of the U.S. in creating the Marshall Plan to help our former wartime enemies build up their economies and our WW II allies’ economies fueled the exports of American-made goods.
Even today, U.S. manufacturing (really cleaner!) accounts for half of U.S. exports. U.S. manufacturing today by itself makes up the world’s 10th largest economy (ahead of China, Japan, Germany and many other manufacturing centers). But back in the day…
The Importance of U.S. Manufacturing in the Post War
After World War II, the U.S. was the dominant manufacturing center of the world. Germany and Japan factories were coming back on line, having suffered tremendous damage [to each country’s industry].
Early in the post-WW II period many European companies began setting up factories in the U.S. (chemicals, pharma) — and many of those companies were serious polluters here, as they were in Europe. (One reason why European investors were early adopters of ESG approaches – not often discussed.)
In 1951, “re-armament” was in full gear and the Cold War was on. Military production was greater than for consumer goods – and that meant many more plants would be turning out goods without necessarily protecting the environment around the plant. (“In the national interest…”)
Solvents used for manufacturing would go into the ground. Emissions from toxic fumes, into the air. Solid and liquid waste – into ground, or waters (streams, bays, rivers, oceans). As consumer goods manufacturing rose, a “Guns & Butter” economy emerged in the U.S., with the factories running in two or three shifts. Out put steadily rose. So, too, nasty byproducts.
The steady assault on Mother Earth by industry and governments steadily rose.
Among the catalysts for action after two decades:
The Cayuhoga River, flowing through Cleveland, Ohio, the industrial city on the Great Lakes, caught fired and the junk on top burned. (Noontime, June 22, 1969 – a five story fire flashed out of the river in the downtown!) Info at: https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/63
A huge oil spill just offshore fouled the beaches of Santa Barbara, California. January 28, 1969 – 3 million gallons of crude spilled off the shoreline of the beautiful city by Union Oil (now Unocal), leaving an oil slick of 35 miles in length along the California shores…killing bird, fish, mammals (and tourism!). 1,000 gallons of oil per hour flowed for a month.
The federal government had relaxed the regulations on casing around the drilling hole and an explosion ripped the sea floor. (Sound too familiar in 2020?)
The federal government did stop offshore drilling for a few years (in the state’s waters) but then that restriction was relaxed and The Los Angeles Times (which has covered the story for five decades) says today there are 23 oil and gas leases in state waters.
The California spill is considered a catalyst for the modern environmental movement. Richard Nixon was a California native — then sitting in the Oval Office — and was moved to action shortly after the spill.
The LA Times coverage is at: https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-santa-barbara-oil-spill-1969-20150520-htmlstory.html
In the eastern U.S., the trees on mountaintops were constantly seared and leaves gone, branches standing naked of greenery. The “acid rain” coming from parts of the nation to the west wafted high up and denuded New York and New England mountaintop greenery (that was SOX, NOX, etc from smokestacks carried far to the east on the higher winds).
Those with light color cars would be scrubbing the dark stains running vertically on the vehicle. Acid rain streaks. We saw those on our homes (the white paint, the rain gutters, these would be streaked with black stain).
As a boy, heading in the car to Manhattan or Brooklyn with family, I remember being curious about the large black, brown, yellow clouds hovering above the Empire State Building or Chrysler Building in midtown. Wafting along, at leisurely pace. You could “smell” the city as you approached. There was often a coating of soot on my shirt or coat when I returned home.
“Smog” enveloped many American and European cities. (Fog and smoke.) I have written a few times about my flying through or over city smog. Looking down below from the cockpit, thick yellow clouds often blanketed Manhattan on hot summer days. Flying through (at lower levels) I would be on instruments until I was safely over New Jersey’s rural parts heading west. And clean air again filled the cockpit!
You could always see the bellowing smoke coming out of New York City’s electric generating plants, furnaces fired by coal in those days.
For a time, to build flight hours, I flew around the city and suburbs on weekends broadcasting as “Captain Hank, Your Eye-in-the-Sky” for radio stations WGBB and WGSM. Checking on traffic to the beach, open spaces Jones Beach parking fields, fishing offshore, surfing at Gilgo Beach, and the like. Quite often I would be dodging in and out of smog banks that drifted eastward.
Up in Connecticut, driving one day along a river road, I was startled to see “rubber rocks” along the river bank. A large rubber tire company’s outflow of waste from the factory to the river had coated the rocks before heading downstream into Long Island Sound and then to the Atlantic Ocean. Everything would just disappear into the seas, right? (Prevalent thinking of certain business leaders at the time – externalize the crap and let someone else pay for results.)
Up in The Bronx (boro of New York City) and the northern parts of Manhattan, trucks would idle for hours as they picked up or dropped off food at the terminals…the children of minority populations living there had high rates of asthma. Part of the payment for the necessary local industry that employed their parents.
New York City – the Manufacturing Center!
It is hard to believe here in 2020, but New York City was once a mighty manufacturing city for goods now produced in Asia — apparel, footwear, jewelry and accessories. Also, for food and beverages (local beer manufacturers, sugar processing factories, colas). The Brooklyn Navy Yard produced mighty battleships and repaired aircraft carriers damaged in battle (the USS Enterprise).
Manufacturing is still big in Gotham City – but it is far cleaner, safer, more responsible in operations — by many magnitudes. https://nycfuture.org/data/manufacturing-in-nyc-a-snapshot
City of Transportation
New York has a magnificent harbor. The shorelines of Manhattan and Brooklyn boasted of many ocean shipping terminals for both passengers and cargo. Railroads ran along the shoreline (one abandoned line is now the High Line, an important Manhattan tourist attraction). The line brought carloads of meat to the west side, and then on to giant cruise ships of yesteryear.
Trucks ran uptown and downtown (my father owned a local trucking company and I would ride along on school breaks). The driver would back a truck up to the dock, load it, run around the city to deliver and pick up, bringing freight to the waiting rail cars along the docks, which would go on large barges over to New Jersey and out to the nation.
All of this activity pouring engine emissions into the air of New York, and with drip-drip-drip from transport machines (oil, gas, fluids) tricking down into the sewers and out to the rivers and out to the ocean.
This was at the height of 20th Century industrial America, the Arsenal of Democracy of World War Two. From east to west coasts and all through the heartland, factories poured out war materiel, and then shifted to peak production of peacetime goods for 1950s and 1960s consumer purchase. Along with Cold War materiel. Guns & Butter.
We were the world’s major manufacturing exporters, then, not China.
But at a cost. And so the rivers burning, smog choking the cities, creeks and bays and inlets and rivers and then oceans polluting.
Earth Day Helped to Change All of This – Looking Back, Rather Quickly
Senator Nelson was impressed by the 1960s “social revolution” with protest across the country as especially young men and women voiced their opposition to the status quo. Sit-ins were staged at universities to protest the draft and the Vietnam War. Marches took place in the south despite the marchers suffering beatings and arrests.
The senator was fascinated with civil rights sit-ins at southern soda fountains and marches by both black and white leaders — including many clergy and public officials. By the early organizing efforts to protect and ensure the rights of females and passage, state-by-state of the ERA – the Equal Rights Amendment (which failed to reach the votes to become part of the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution).
According to the Earth Day origin story, Senator Gaylord Nelson was thinking to himself: “If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student ant-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda.” And he did!
He set up an “Environmental Teach-in” (like civil rights counter “sit ins”!) to tell the story of the environmental degradation of the country and send a call to action to college campuses and schools. (Hey, let’s do that again today — so many youngsters are at home in the digital classrooms during this virus crisis!)
The result in 1970 was that 20 million people — roughly one-of-10 citizens — participated that first Earth Day (and that would be like 33 million people celebrating Earth Day today, out of our 330 million population!).
The midterm elections of 1970 saw many long-standing members turned out and a new wave of consciousness sweep the country. President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Congress on January 1, 1970 moved to pass the National Environmental Protection Act – which created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Then came passage of Clean Water Act (1972), Clear Air Act, Endangered Species Act, RCRA (waste), SuperFund (CERCLA-1980), Wilderness Act (1974) and many more federal and state regulations.
The good news is that while Senator Nelson hoped to kick off a movement, he did — and observance of Earth Day took hold – the year 1990 (20 years in) saw the peak participation in the U.S. and by 2000 some 184 countries held formal observances. There’s interesting background at: http://www.nelsonearthday.net/earth-day/
Alas, here in April 2020 we are homebound and not able to march or gather in groups. But we do have our electronic platforms of all kinds – so let’s connect and celebrate Earth Day that way.
We only have one (Earth) to protect and in the spirit of Senator Gaylord Nelson and those early organizers, let’s say we are still here, still with you in spirit, and there is much work still to be done!
Happy Earth Day, Mother Earth!
You might be interested in the environmental movement perspectives here from March/April 2005, my column from the former journal, Corporate Finance Review. “Popular Movements: A Challenge for Institutions and Managers” – explaining the emergence of ESG and the Sustainability Movement.
When Sustainability Movement Champion Michael Bloomberg was Mayor of New York City, in April 2007 he delivered a wonderful speech – “A Greener, Greater New York” – presaging his wonderful work in helping many of the world’s cities make their environments safer and more sustainable. This is what great mayors do!
One of the influential voices following the lead of Senator Nelson in our time is Bill McKibben, whose books and extensive writing have helped to influence the more recent sustainability movement. He was interviewed by the Times Union (Albany , New York) newspaper for this year’s celebration.
You can follow him on Twitter.
Can’t get into the streets today to help celebrate? Earth Institute at Columbia University offers some suggestions on sheltering in place and celebrating.