Earth Day 1970: a Forgotten Key to the Green New Deal

This country ought to recover the memory of the first Earth Day: a 20-million strong grassroots demonstration that won basic environmental policy as we know it.  

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The Green New Deal’s rise to the top of the political agenda has revived debate on the original New Deal and the wartime mobilization that closely followed it. What did it take to bring about its unmatched scale and sweeping vision? What will it take to force its second coming while avoiding the original’s weaknesses? With an eye toward the historical record, commentators are proposing recipes for these outcomes, and asking whether the climate movement is up to task.

The general prognosis seems grim. Sunrise Movement, master of conversation-setting and politician-targeting, has put forth a plan which aims to “reach the millions of young people who are scared about climate change.” Most other organizations in the climate movement have likewise taken up the GND as an opportunity for coalition building and popular participation. Some democratic socialists warn that Sunrise’s preferred strategy, though powerful, will fall short: “While confrontations with elected elites are certainly a step in the right direction, they won’t be sufficient to win a GND on the scale—and at the pace—we so desperately need.” A New Deal, they claim, is outside the realm of possibility without “a mass revolt of the working class” that divides capital and makes “the costs of inaction so high that political obstruction becomes cost-prohibitive.”

Eric Levitz, columnist for New York Magazine, is even less taken by another of the climate movement’s preferred  historical analogies, the “WWII-scale economic mobilization” or  “Victory Plan for the climate,” premised on the shared status of the Axis powers and climate change as existential threats. Victory for the Axis powers, Levitz argues, immediately and clearly threatened the overseas investments of American capitalists, and so taking a short-term hit to win the war was clearly in their interests. Climate change poses a slower and more diffuse threat, and a rapid state-led decarbonization effort would not exactly pay off for some of the most influential sectors of U.S. business. If it took repeated occupations of Nancy Pelosi’s office for a portion of Democratic legislators to support a Green New Deal, it makes sense to ask, as Levitz does, if anything short of a social revolution could win “100 percent renewable social democracy atop the ruins of the fossil fuel industry” in this country.

All of this may risk sapping the valuable motivation of activists, but the movement can benefit from offerings of historical perspective. Here’s another: the making of the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and a suite of other lesser-known environmental statutes in the 1970s is as important to understanding the work ahead as FDR-era class politics. Not only are these laws the foundation for existing climate policy; there are now efforts to revive guarantees for clean air and water, which through environmental racism and agency corruption, were never fully realized. Perhaps on the premise that these guarantees have faded, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez centers her GND program on the promise of clean air and water. And, like the New Deal, the environmental policies of the seventies did not issue from the political ether, or even from a handful of sparse protests in the coastal cities. It took a mix of top-down coordination and bottom-up mobilizations of record-breaking magnitude.

“The most famous little-known event in modern U.S. history”
Earth Day wasn’t always a routine observance on which the Lisa Simpsons of the world collect green merchandise and kill the lights for an hour, amid eye-glazing commercial tokens of environmental concern. The first Earth Day, which fell on April 22, 1970, was and is the largest political demonstration in U.S. history. Twenty million people—ten percent of the U.S. population at the time—participated in grassroots-organized teach-ins and actions at schools, colleges, streets, and outside corporate headquarters and government buildings. Adam Rome, Earth Day’s de facto historian, describes it as “the most famous little-known event in modern U.S. history.” An extraordinary event in which a tenth of this country took part has been wiped clean from its collective memory.

Earth Day celebrations in Union Square Park included cleanup crews composed of school children. From NYC Department of Records and Information Services

Earth Day celebrations in Union Square Park included cleanup crews composed of school children. From NYC Department of Records and Information Services


Earth Day was a big-tent phenomenon, with a level of political inclusivity and diversity that would seem strange today. It demonstrated a long-building popular consensus of environmental concern in the U.S.: Hosts and speakers hailed from existing environmental groups, socialist organizations, schools, civil rights organizations, unions, churches, women’s organizations, the household, government, but also Republican organizations and chambers of commerce. Its breadth, though, did not translate into greenwashing or corporatist uniformity. Instead, the mobilization was full of debate, openness, and dissension against existing “sham” pollution policy. There were large marches presided over by high-profile speakers, but they shared the day with more contentious activity. Protestors crashed a General Electric shareholder meeting, and delivered “dead, oil-soaked ducks” to the Department of the Interior. A paranoid President Nixon had sent the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to spy on the college mobilizations, resulting in a ridiculous memo which, labeling the event “very benign,” was left to report on the participants’ style of dress.

Environmentalism itself was sometimes an object of interrogation. Rome writes that in one of the Earth Day gatherings at University of Michigan, during what was called a “scream-out,” “participants debated whether the environment would deflect attention from the Vietnam war, the civil-rights struggle, and the movement for woman’s liberation.” The announcement for Earth Day had brought environmental organizing to areas like like the South, where difficult questions began to reveal themselves. In Birmingham, where much of the working class were employed in the coal and steel industries, the question of pollution control as a cost to industrial production, and therefore as a threat to investment and employment, was confronted directly by activists and working families. These newly opened tensions attest to the fast expansion of environmentalism far beyond the contexts where it was a convenient and uncontroversial cause.

An uncontrolled explosion
Earth Day’s grassroots quality rings even stranger considering that it came about through the initial efforts of Gaylord Nelson, an environmentally-minded U.S. Senator from Wisconsin. Hoping to pull off something similar to the mass teach-ins against the Vietnam War, Nelson announced the plan for a national environmental teach-in in the fall of 1969, rented a headquarters in D.C., assembled a staff of volunteers, gathered up funds from unions and conservationists, and began publicizing the event in the media. But this was about the extent of Nelson’s control. Rome, in a radio interview, recounts:

The genius of Nelson was he rejected advice to create a top-down organization and just said, ‘Let’s do something that everyone who wants to participate in can. They can do whatever they want.’ He wasn’t a helicopter parent, even though he gave birth to this (idea). That unleashed the creativity and vision and the energy of thousands and thousands of people at the grassroots (level).

Nelson struck at a counterintuitive hybrid of leadership and decentralization, and Earth Day got the most out of both. As Rome wrote in an article, the planning rapidly shifted from top-down to bottom-up.

The original idea was that the national staff would help local organizers by providing ideas and contacts. But the flow of information quickly reversed. In many communities, organizers already were at work before the national office opened. With each week of publicity, more people became involved around the country, and the national office became less a center of organizing than a clearinghouse for the media—the quickest place to find out what people were planning in Biloxi, Dubuque, Hartford, San Antonio, and Walla Walla.

The result was a proliferation of actions unique to each community, without the need for readymade messaging, targets, visuals, or slogans, and with no particular policy or declaration to get behind. Images from that day show young people basking in expressive autonomy, in the novelty and scale of the crowd, and in the opportunity to communicate a grave and urgent appeal. Each teach-in and action took weeks or months of dedicated DIY organizing. The process, as Rome documented, armed thousands of new activists with the ability and the networks to continue environmental organizing beyond the teach-in itself. They would go on to build layers of environmental protections, organizations, institutions, and knowledge throughout the country. As this happened, U.S. polls registered a twenty-five fold increase in environmental concern between 1969 and 1971, and a decade of massively transformative environmental laws followed.

A second coming?
This is not a call to restore Earth Day itself to its original scale and spirit. Today, the “mainstream” or “white environmentalist” coalition it produced is not only impossible but undesirable. Its guarantees of clean air and water were mostly reserved for the white middle class. The climate movement, now guided by a recognition of environmental injustice, must take every opportunity to stand behind black, brown, indigenous and other frontline environmentalists. But we can still learn from Nelson’s hands-off, inclusive approach and apply it to the climate movement as it stands today.

Contemplating the difference between local industrial pollution and climate change in 2010, Nelson’s top organizer, Denis Hayes, reasoned that back in 1970, “...Pollution was a visible thing that you could taste and you could smell and was linked to rivers catching on fire…[this] was something that you could mobilize people around much more easily than you can an invisible gas that has no smell, has no taste. I mean heavens—every time we breathe, we emit carbon dioxide.”

But beyond the pollutants at issue, we are working with a civil society vastly different, even unrecognizable, from the mass politics that Earth Day organizers harnessed. First, there is of course an experienced countermovement with agents of obstruction and denial infesting the federal government. Second, the U.S. environmental movement has completely transformed over the last half-century: the “nonprofit industrial complex” (NPIC) has reshaped in the image of the firm. Previously radical and grassroots environmental movement has ossified into a highly professionalized, expert-driven expanse of 501(c)3s controlled by boards and executive directors, producing mission statements, model legislation, and annual reports instead of manifestos and propaganda.

Activism has entered an age of mechanical reproduction. The public is invited to “plug in,” in narrow, impersonal, and repetitive ways while getting little say in the direction of most organizations. Our inboxes pile up with calls-to-action on one hand and brands selling products on the other, but the two are often hard to tell apart. Both the mass organization and brand promotion offer a catchline and a list of selling points, with a level of hyperbole just sensational enough to desensitize. Both link to a Squarespace page where you can click one of three buttons and dispense with some of your money, or else “plug in” to the next big thing in an endless cycle of next big things. Our eagerness to provide streamlined services that facilitate civic participation risks actively repelling the mass enthusiasm and creativity commanded by Nelson’s hands-off approach.

What comes closest today to his permissive style of leadership might be that of Greta Thunberg. Her approach turned out 1.5 million students worldwide, more than any climate organization in recent memory. But she is the exception. Today’s national and international climate movement is a diverse set of discrete, mostly top-down campaigns, each with its own entrepreneurial policy vision and strategic formula. These groups vie to individuate themselves and demonstrate their success in contrast to the alternatives. The ability to create new organizations, or to have a say in the existing movement, is out of reach for the vast majority of people.

For various structural and cultural reasons, the temptation for vertical control–“helicopter parenting,” as Rome calls it–has come to dominate climate organizing. Even campaigns powered by unpaid volunteers and small-donation crowdfunding make maximal use of centrally-directed marketing efforts. This produces actions and initiatives that look and feel unmistakably uniform, but it also risks draining  mobilizations of bottom-up and grassroots vitality. Such tendencies affect most climate groups, from 350.org to Sunrise to Extinction Rebellion.

Aesthetic nostalgia aside, the more basic problem for the climate movement is one of interorganizational competition. Almost every week, a different campaign is leading a national day of action. I suspect this produces fatigue among the general public. With these staggered, short-cycle and under-coordinated efforts, we won’t reach the rate of protest participation that was key to winning radical national policy in 1970. If the first Earth Day is any guide, we need a long buildup to a single event. We need an open invitation for all to participate in planning, whoever and wherever they are.

Protest size is not the only measure of a movement’s success and strength, and it isn’t the only consideration informing the decisions of climate organizers. They are working in a challenging environment and playing a longer game. They should be proud of their breakthroughs, from flipping seats to court victories to hegemonic change, which–considered together– bring the possibility of radical policy closer with each passing day. But if we all agree that scale matters, and if our movement as a whole intends, as it often claims, to mobilize millions or tens of millions at once, we need to make adjustments.

In a sense, the stars are aligning for an echo of the massive 1970 mobilization. The invisibility of carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect are giving way to the glaring and ever-present signs of ecosystem collapse, extreme weather events, and infrastructural breakdown. There exists rapidly broadening demand for environmental policy that has not been satisfied through federal action.

This was not so just a few years ago. In 2014, the People’s Climate March, organized by the Climate Justice Alliance as well as big greens and labor unions, drew half a million participants worldwide, the largest-ever climate mobilization up to that point. It was more choreographed than Earth Day in 1970, involving a single march per city or town instead of a wild aggregation of teach-ins and actions. But it also lacked the tireless support of high-profile politicians or heavy coverage from the press that led up to Earth Day in 1970. Today, the movement’s newfound allies in public office and increased press attention could combine with an adoption of Nelson’s strategy and produce something orders of magnitude bigger. Our Senator Nelson might be found in Ocasio-Cortez or her Green New Deal co-author Sen. Ed Markey, if like him, they work not to control but to announce.

Scaling up a mobilization is no science, and Earth Day’s organizers were surprised by the numbers they drew in 1970. But we can’t really know the limits to popular participation until we unite and give their strategy a try. I invite experienced climate organizers to look back at Earth Day 1970 and consider how we can use existing movement infrastructure—today’s constraints and obstacles in mind—to attempt a mobilization of millions. With history as my guide, I suggest that as a movement we aim for coordination without hierarchy, that we agree on a single day far in advance, and that we throw out the tools of narrow control and self-marketing. We must find ways to redistribute ownership of our movement to all people. Only thus will we win the Green New Deal and save our life-sustaining climate from perdition.

Lola Jusidman Shoshana is a politics grad student at NYU and a longtime student activist for divestment, climate justice and decarbonization.


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