My Turn: 50 years of environmental conscience

  • Hundreds of young people gather in New York City to listen to Earth Day speakers on Wednesday, April 22, 1970.

For the Monitor
Published: 4/22/2020 8:00:32 AM

April 22, 1970. The first Earth Day was an event championed by one of the iconic leaders of the early environmental movement, Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin.

At that time, I was a sophomore architecture student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The times were, as one historian from the University described them: “Tumultuous times in higher education, including Miami. The spring of 1970 was the low point of student morale and the high point of student distress during the Vietnam War.”

It is difficult to separate the anxiety over the war from that created by environmental crises of the time. There was a culture of protest on most college campuses around the country and a general mistrust of government.

Earth Day events, seen in this context, were part protest and part educational opportunity. For me it became a way to channel youthful energy into something that was more constructive. We organized a “teach in” and had numerous science faculty give talks about both the scope of our water, air and land pollution problems, but also about solutions.

Some of us took leadership roles in initiating campus programs such as recycling and waste reduction. My student colleagues in the architecture department built a “city” out of rented scaffolding and tie-dyed banners over the main pedestrian walkway through campus, Slant Walk. The builders called it “Slant City.” It drew big crowds and became a hub for talks, music and awareness about Earth Day. I suspect we all worried it would be a “one off” event, unlikely to be repeated.

Of course, less than a month later, Earth Day was overshadowed by President Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia as an expansion of the Vietnam War. Protests, some violent like that at Kent State at the other corner of Ohio, enraged millions and dominated the headlines.

Even though some 20 million people came out across America for Earth Day, a couple weeks later it felt like an event of modest importance that might be quickly forgotten.

In the following year, Denis Hayes, later to become a leader in the renewable energy field, created the Earth Day Network, and built on the success of the first Earth Day to make it an international event. Dozens of books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle became best sellers. The political winds shifted strongly in the direction of addressing environmental problems and we saw the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and others addressing problems from pesticide pollution, to toxic waste and endangered species. These laws were passed with bipartisan support, occasionally nearly unanimously.

Whether or not Earth Day should be credited with starting this wave of environmental consciousness and problem solving is hard to say. But it was the focal point for many young, idealistic students like me. Wikipedia now cites it as “the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year.”

Earth Day was a turning point in my college career. Rather than continue exclusively with my passion for architecture, a new fervor for environmental work inspired course work in ecology and biological sciences. I’m afraid I baffled some of my friends and professors with my insistence that architecture had to be more environmentally responsible, or what today we could call “sustainable.”

Graduate school took me away from architecture and into a new program in environmental science, also at Miami. It was an extraordinary journey, with many new insights on the complexity of environmental problem solving and the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration.

In the years immediately following college I’ll admit to having been something of an environmental fanatic. I got involved in a host of organizations and causes, some of which were, in hindsight, a bit extreme. Subsequent years working to solve real problems and then teaching at the college level rapidly tempered my approach.

Learning how to work with stakeholders who have varying opinions and interests to develop consensus solutions has been perhaps the most important lesson. Lasting solutions never come from one group imposing its ideas upon others by exercising its political muscle, because political muscle comes and goes. Building collaborative solutions that bring all the interests to the negotiation are the only programs that stand the test of time.

After a decade teaching environmental science at the college level I was offered a dream job in land conservation with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. It turned into a nearly 30-year career working with people of all kinds toward achieving their goals of conserving the land they loved while at the same time helping protect the natural resources and scenic beauty that make our state the special place that it is. During that career, the Forest Society protected or helped protect nearly 400,000 acres of New Hampshire’s working forests, farms, scenic places and wild lands.

I retired from the Forest Society and what I call “paid employment” in environmental conservation five years ago. Now I tell people that I do a lot of the same work “for free.” I’m back to being a volunteer with conservation nonprofits in the cause of creating a more sustainable future for my town, state, nation and world.

As I look back on Earth Day, I credit it with both the awakening of my and millions of other Americans’ environmental conscience. It led to major progress toward solving many difficult problems. But we’ve clearly not yet figured out how to put the future on a trajectory toward sustainability and a stable climate, perhaps the biggest challenge humanity will ever face.

Earth Day 2020 is another milestone in the long road toward solutions to the environmental crises of the century, especially climate change. We must all redouble our commitment, both to embracing more sustainable lifestyles and creating societal and political change. It’s no cliche to say that we need to make every day Earth Day.

(Paul Doscher of Weare is a conservation adviser.)

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