The First Earth Day: 1970

The following is an excerpt from my book, The Global Mind: Beyond the Limits to Growth (New York: Mason/Charter, 1976).

The important thing to understand about Earth Day is that it was not the celebration of the birth or maturation of the environmental movement in the United States, in the sense that the first Fourth of July was the celebration of the birth of a nation. It wasn’t the environmental movement that created Earth Day, but vice versa. The old conservation movement had historical roots that went back more than a hundred years. The groups and organizations that would be identified with the environmental movement after Earth Day — the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, ZPG, and so forth — all existed before. Yet there was no environmental movement in the United States before Earth Day or even on Earth Day. It was only after Earth Day that the movement began.

The environmental movement is a phenomenon almost unique to the twentieth century, a cybernetic spectre that was born as an “idea,” composed almost entirely of “bits” of “information,” and which only subsequently acquired substance. A Harvard law student, who was one of the group in Washington that orchestrated the first national celebration of Earth Day, told me later that the environmental movement was a sham, that the whole thing had been “created by the media.” So I discovered that the environmental movement, like the National Football League, had literally been created by television. At first this was disillusioning, but I later came to realize the environmental movement was not only not less “real” for being a child of the mass media, but that, on the contrary, the movement was endowed thereby with the most powerful kind of “reality” an entity can enjoy in this cybernetic age. From an ontological point of view, the environmental movement may have been (and may yet be) as much of a wraith as Mr. Nixon’s “new majority.” But if the dynamics of our social-political-economic-ecological system behave as if it were “real,” then that is as real as it need be or can be.

For me, the pollution of Los Angeles was the proximate cause of my emotional sense of an environmental crisis, but it was the cybernetic event of Earth Day that led me to conceptualize and articulate that diffuse of crisis and thereby become part of a movement rather than being merely another member of a disaffected crowd.

A turning point as significant in the intellectual dimension for me as my first experience of bad [L.A.] smog had been in the physical and emotional dimensions occurred on a day in early April when I was browsing through a books-and-records store in Westwood and spontaneously decided to buy a new book called The Environmental Handbook…. [Suddenly] I could see more clearly just how screwed up the world really was. I could begin to perceive more accurately the kinds of things that needed doing. The ecological crisis was far more than just “dirty” air, water, and mounting piles of garbage…. It was a total, global system, a system that was mindlessly chewing up the Earth, her resources, and her inhabitants and spitting them out as growing gobs of “entropy.”

If the cure for this pathological system was not yet evident, it was clear even then that the system could not be amended by mere cosmetic patchwork. No, the system that created the ecological crisis could not be reformed. If there were to be any real hope for planetary survival, it would have to be totally dismantled and replaced with an effective operating system for Spaceship Earth….

Earth Day, 22 April 1970, was a typically sunny day in Los Angeles. I spent the afternoon on the campus of UCLA, manning a table and handing out literature for one of the student environmental organizations. But mostly I just observed and took part in the general activity. The walk in front of Ackerman Union was lined with the tables of various organizations, each with its own assortment of buttons, balloons, posters, bumper stickers, leaflets, and books. Some blamed the ecological crisis on the “capitalist pigs” and advocated a socialist revolution to protect the Earth. Others took the opposite view, blaming pollution on government interference with the free market and asserting that strict return to laissez-faire and private ownership of all resources was the required solution. While one group was promoting free abortion, another was attacking all forms of birth control as “genocide.” Beneath the superficial solidarity that would come to characterize that first Earth Day — the sense of unanimous determination to halt the scourge of the Earth — one could already detect the beginning of the inevitable choosing up of sides. Still, the carnival atmosphere was dominant; it was exhilarating and inspiring. The sense of a “movement” was inescapable.

I walked over to the wide lawn on the other side of the ROTC building where blue-helmeted phalanxes of Los Angeles police would soon sweep back and forth in pursuit of a vast crowd outraged by the Nixon invasion of Cambodia. But the scene this day gave no augur of the coming storm of protest. The crowd of several hundred sat quietly on the grass, eating sandwiches and hot dogs under an arcing string of black balloons while speaker after speaker went to the microphone to describe yet another parameter of the ecological apocalypse and to make yet another impassioned plea for action to save the planet. As I got there, a Hopi medicine man was performing incantations to the Great Spirit, after which a fellow Indian congratulated us whites for having finally begun to understand what his people had always known.

I got home that evening in time to catch the news on TV. The avuncular face of Walter Cronkite came on the screen. Over his shoulder was a picture of the Earth with an enormous hand reaching out to grasp it, both overlaid with a giant question mark: “Can The World Be Saved?” Thus did “environment” suddenly become a household word. Thus was an entire movement electronically synthesized. Thus was the ecological crisis certified as “real.”

© 1976, Lewis J. Perelman

Image: NASA

Originally published at