Apr 21, 2020
This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we
take a look at the origins of Earth Day 50 years ago this week, and
the two high profile environmental disasters in 1969 that helped to
inspire it, the Santa Barbara, CA oil spill and the an oil fire on
the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH. Environmental activists took
advantage of the media coverage of the events to form organizations
like Greenpeace and start an annual conscience raising event called
Earth Day. In the years that followed, the US enacted landmark
environmental legislation ranging from the Clean Air Act to the
Endangered Species Act. But contemporary efforts to roll back these
regulations imperil the environment and public health.
Feature Story: The Birth of Earth Day - 50th anniversary
On April 22, 1970 – 50 years ago this week – 20 million
Americans gathered in places all across the nation to commemorate
the first Earth Day. This event was inspired by two high profile
environmental disasters that took place the year before in
But before we dive into those stories, let’s first step back to do a quick, History of Environmentalism 101. While there were earlier environmentalist moments in US history, what we would recognize as environmentalism began to emerge in the late 19th century. And as it did, it represented the beginnings of a major shift in how Americans viewed private property rights.
So, what do I mean by that? Well, from the colonial period through to the late 19th century, most Americans shared the belief that private property rights were almost sacred. A person could do anything they wanted with their property and no government should have any say in the matter. And that was fine so long as the nation remained rural and its economy based in agriculture.
But it didn’t. A little thing called the Industrial Revolution happened and that raised all sorts of questions about property rights. Some Americans began to develop a critique of the absolute sanctity of private property rights. And they did so in response to mounting evidence that unfettered private property rights in a modern industrial capitalist setting had seriously negative consequences for society. They noted, for example, that complete and total freedom from regulation left property owners free to engage in strip mining of mountain ranges for coal, or clearcutting forests for lumber, or hunting various animals into extinction. Unrestrained private property rights also left them free to dump their toxic waste into the waterways that ran through their private property or into the air that hovered above their private property—even when this meant the waste would ultimately end up on someone else’s private property.
These critics were not anti-capitalist radicals. Rather, to make their case, they invoked a key republican ideal: the common good. They argued that societies and governments needed to protect other things besides individual private property rights. They noted the uncomfortable fact that one person’s freedom to use their private property any way they wanted could easily threaten another person’s freedom to live free of poisons. Or, put another way, they noted that individualism and the common good often came into conflict. And so they developed a philosophy that emphasized what has become a key idea in environmentalism – the idea of connectivity, that people are connected to each other and to the larger ecosystem. That one person’s actions, therefore, have consequences for others, and this fact needs to be taken into account as societies develop their laws and public policy regarding the economy and environment.
The first attempts to protect the environment mainly took the form of conservation—essentially saving the wilderness from economic development. People like Theodore Roosevelt believed it was essential to preserve large tracts of wilderness to allow future generations of Americans to enjoy it by hiking, camping, and hunting. Few people in the late-19th and early 20th century raised concerns over water pollution, air pollution, or endangered species.
By the mid-20th century a few concerns over the environment emerged—things like smog and roadside trash—but these were rare. The first significant change in public attitudes concerning the environment, the shift from merely supporting the idea of conserving nature in wildlife reserves and national parks, came in 1962 when Rachel Carson published her book, Silent Spring that revealed the devastating environmental effects of the widely used pesticide DDT, especially on birds.
Carson’s book became a bestseller and it led to the introduction of more than 40 bills to control pesticide use in state legislatures across the country. Another impact of Silent Spring was that it inspired many Americans to become environmentalists or to use the term more in vogue in the 1960s, ecologists. But it’s important to point out that environmentalism in the mid 1960s was still a fringe movement, one associated with hippies and tree huggers. But Silent Spring had planted a seed that would later blossom with the events of 1969.
Now let’s turn to the story of the two environmental disasters of 1969 that helped officially launch the modern environmental movement: the Santa Barbara oil spill and a fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH.
Let’s start with the oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA. It began on Jan 28, 1969 when workers on an oil rig forcefully extracted a drilling tube that had become stuck in the ocean floor. In so doing, they inadvertently created five gashes in the ocean floor. Over the next few weeks, more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into Santa Barbara channel. It took weeks to stop the gusher, and in that time, the incident drew significant television and newspaper coverage. Americans began to see for the first time what are now familiar scenes to us: oil-soaked birds, dead fish, and miles of blackened beaches.
What’s interesting is that this spill was not especially large, even for that time. And it’s absolutely tiny in comparison to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But even though it wasn’t that big, the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 sparked widespread public outrage. Significantly, the anger focused on the lax government oversight of the oil rig, and on the callous attitude of the executives of the company involved, Union Oil. The President of Union Oil, for example, told a TV news reporter. “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds”
This statement not only reveals the mentality of oil executives at this time, but also the power of imagery in social reform movements. Think about how abolitionists used illustrations of auctions and whippings of enslaved people to draw supporters to their cause. Or how pioneering photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine used their cameras to draw attention to horrific slum housing and child labor. History is clear on this point: social reform movements need pictures.
And in 1969 the fledgling environmental movement got their first compelling images.
Out of this controversy arose a number of groups committed to environmental activism, including Greenpeace. It also prompted a group of citizens in Santa Barbara to write and issue “The Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights,” an environmental manifesto modeled on the Declaration of Independence. It began, “All men have the right to an environment capable of sustaining life and promoting happiness.”
That same year Americans witnessed another environmental disaster. This time it was a fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland was one of the main oil refining centers in America and its waterways showed it. In fact, the Cuyahoga River had caught fire many times, but these fires were treated as little more than curious incidents. That finally changed when the river caught fire on June 22, 1969. It lasted only 30 minutes. But as with the Santa Barbara oil spill five months earlier, this fire came with photographs and video. It captured the attention of the national media. Time magazine ran a story in its August 1, 1969 issue - “Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” The coverage of the fire and the subsequent attention it drew to the dreadful condition of the river led to a famous photo of reporter Richard Ellers holding up his hand after having dunked it in the river. It looked like he’d dipped it in black paint.
The Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River fire helped launch the modern environmental movement, beginning a process that would move environmentalism from the fringes to the center of American society and political discourse. They inspired a small number of environmental activists to stage what they called conscience-raising events, which in turn inspired a major one they decided to call Earth Day. It had many “fathers,” but most people agree that Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin got the ball rolling when he proposed the first nationwide environmental protest to, in his words, “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.” The idea caught on and on April 22, 1970 some 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day, which was marked by large rallies, cleanup efforts, and teach-ins.
Earth Day became an annual event and one of its most important effects was that it brought together lots of disparate groups that shared concerns about the health of the environment. These included people concerned about air pollution in cities, wildlife and endangered species, protection of wetlands and forests, and cleaning up toxic landfills.
Earth Day also raised public awareness of environmental concerns and slowly began to make them mainstream political issues. As with so many social reform movements, over time these environmental activists managed to transform their goal from a radical idea to mainstream one.
And some of the most important results occurred relatively quickly. The period from the late 1960s to the early 1970s saw the most environmental legislation passed in the nation’s history. Everything from the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. These and other laws have had an extraordinary impact over the past 50 years, leading to a more healthy environment and the saving of many endangered species, including most famously, the Bald Eagle.
But American businesses and property owners have never liked these laws. They claim they hurt business and infringe upon the liberties of property owners. And they’ve waged an unrelenting war on environmental regulations. They achieved some success in the 1980s with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and in the 20-oughts with George W. Bush. But the most serious and successful efforts to roll back 50 years of environmental protection have occurred under the presidency of Donald Trump. Nearly 100 environmental rules on everything from toxic chemical emissions to fracking have been revoked or seriously limited. These moves all but guarantee that we will have greater environmental damage and harm to human health in the coming years. And because this administration has been mired in controversy from Day 1, few people seem to have noticed.
The story of environmentalism and Earth Day remind us that history does not move in a straight line of progress. One generation’s achievements can be undone by a later one. That’s why it’s never enough to just win a victory for voting rights, or equality before the law, or a healthy environment. Those victories must be maintained and protected by constant vigilance. Otherwise they can be rolled back.
So what else of note happened this week in US history?
April 20, 1914 – The Ludlow Massacre takes place in Ludlow, CO. Hundreds of Colorado national guard soldiers and a private security force employed by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company - a company owned by the richest man in America, John D Rockefeller - attacked an encampment of 1,200 striking miners and their families. More than 20 people, including wives and children of the minders, were killed. This massacre set off a spiral or violence that left somewhere between 69 and 200 people dead in what came to be called the Colorado Coalfield War.
April 21, 1980 – 40 years ago this week – an unknown runner named Rosie Ruiz stunned the world by winning the Boston Marathon and doing so in record time. That is until it was revealed that she ran only the last half mile of the 26.2 mile course. Ruiz was stripped of her medal 8 days after the race.
April 22, 1864 - The U.S. Mint issued a 2-cent coin which was the first US currency featuring the slogan, “In God We Trust.”
And what notable people were born this week in American history?
April 21, 1838 - Environmental activist and conservationist John Muir
April 23, 1791 – President James Buchanan
April 26, 1822 – landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead
April 26, 1900 - seismologist and physicist Charles F. Richter
The Last Word
Let’s give it to the pioneering conservationist and environmental activist John Muir, who was born 182 years ago this week:
Here’s a passage he wrote that seems remarkably in sync with the idea behind Earth Day:
“Man must be made conscious of his origin as a child of Nature. Brought into right relationship with the wilderness he would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole. He would see that his appropriation of earth's resources beyond his personal needs would only bring imbalance and beget ultimate loss and poverty for all.”
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)
Sergey Cheremisinov, “Gray Drops” (Free Music Archive)
Pictures of the Flow, “Horses” (Free Music Archive)
Ondrosik, “Tribute to Louis Braille” (Free Music Archive)
Alex Mason, “Cast Away” (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “Multiverse” (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “Memories Renewed” (Free Music Archive)
Dana Boule, “Collective Calm” (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, "Pat Dog" (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer
Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci
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© In The Past Lane, 2020
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© In The Past Lane 2020