Earth still needs a chance

May 10, 2010

Erik Wallenberg explains how the 1960s environmental movement took shape--and the lessons it offers for today's struggles.

APRIL 22, 1970, was one of the largest days of protest in U.S. history, including a march in Washington D.C., with the slogan, "Give Earth a Chance," taken directly from the antiwar slogan of the time, "Give Peace a Chance."

With the passing of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, it's no small irony that this day might now mark a new anniversary of environmental destruction. What's looking to become one of the largest single ecological disasters in modern U.S. history--the explosion of BP's deep-water oil rig and the spewing of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico--only highlights how far we still have to go in creating a world where ecological integrity is a priority.

Some 20 million people are estimated to have participated in some action on the original Earth Day. More than 1,500 colleges held teach-ins across the country. One action, which would seem appropriate for today, included a group pouring oil into a reflecting pool outside Standard Oil's headquarters in San Francisco.

A picture of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill approaching the coast of Louisiana, taken from the NASA Space Observatory
A picture of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill approaching the coast of Louisiana, taken from the NASA Space Observatory (Jesse Allen)

Earth Day came at the end of the 1960s radicalization, but its origins date back to the late 1950s and early '60s. In the shadow of this latest ecological disaster, it's worth considering what gave rise to the coordinated collective action of Earth Day. We've come a long way since 1970, and yet in some ways, we're right back where we started.

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon signed executive orders creating the Environmental Protection Agency and strengthening the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. The 1980s and '90s gave rise to the environmental justice movement demanding the cleanup of environmentally destroyed urban landscapes. And last week, we witnessed the biggest offshore oil rig disaster in a generation.

In 1969, less than a year before the original Earth Day, there was an oil spill six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., on a Union Oil company rig. Photos of oil-covered beaches and wildlife were broadcast across the country, causing outrage that sparked attacks on Union Oil-owned gas stations and a bank with strong ties to the company.

A group led largely by women from the Santa Barbara area started an organization called GOO, or Get Oil Out, to advocate an end to the practice of offshore oil drilling on their coasts.

And they won. All remaining oil rigs off the California coast in state waters--within 200 miles of the shoreline--date from before 1969, with the exception of one. And the federal government hasn't authorized the building of new oil rigs in waters they regulate off the California coast--over 200 miles from the shoreline--since the 1980s.

NOW, 40 years after the original Earth Day, in the Gulf of Mexico off of the Louisiana coast, 11 oil rig workers are missing, now presumed dead, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil continue to flow from the sea floor into Gulf waters.

BP's negligence isn't surprising to many, but the federal government's lack of strict and enforced regulation should be.

The long-term effects of the disaster will begin to unfold, as hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil flow into the Gulf waters creating a huge dead-zone. The oil washing up on shores will have ill effects on wildlife for years to come. Further side effects will develop as fisheries tank, taking the livelihoods of thousands of people with them.

The Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska provided a glimpse of the Louisiana Gulf Coast's future. This is yet another blow to the coastal environment and the millions of people who live here who were just beginning to recover from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which included oil spills and slicks and chemicals that washed into the bayous as a result of flooding.

All this comes within weeks of Obama taking up John McCain and Sarah Palin's mantra of "Drill, baby, drill" in his promotion of expanding offshore oil drilling along the East Coast, Gulf of Mexico and Northern Alaskan Coast. The one place the administration couldn't and wouldn't start new drilling is along the California Coast, where public opposition remains strong.

No one should see this recent disaster as an automatic trigger to put an end to offshore drilling. The only way there's a chance of that happening is if activists do what thousands of others did in 1969 and pull together to demand a change in policy, and make their voices heard by whatever means they can muster. Those lessons are seen in the creation of GOO, but also in another source of the activism of the 1960s--the movement to stop to the U.S. war machine.

The connections activists made between war and environmental destruction were key to building the environmental movement of the 1960s.

This movement was led mostly by women, and its origins can be traced back to the anti-nuclear movement of that era. In 1961, 50,000 people marched to Congress, calling for an end to the arms race in what was dubbed the "Women's Strike for Peace."

The main organizer of Earth Day was a student from Washington state who said he was inspired by the 1969 Vietnam moratorium strikes that shut down thousands of campuses in protest against the Vietnam War.

Also in 1969, the first person in the U.S. was killed in an environmental protest. Again, it might sound like a familiar story, as the 40th anniversary of the killing of college students by the National Guard at Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi just passed.

In this case, the National Guard was called in to clear People's Park in Berkeley--land owned by the university that students and community members had turned into a park. The National Guard shot and killed a young man who wouldn't cede the park to their development plans.

TODAY, WE'RE sold green. We're inundated with the notion that we can consume our way to a green future. The idea of collective action and struggle, the core of the original Earth Day, can feel long since gone.

In 1970, the organizers of Earth Day said they intended to build a movement. Dennis Hayes, the main student organizer, told the gathered crowd in Washington, D.C., on the original Earth Day: "I suspect that the politicians and businessmen who are jumping on the environmental bandwagon don't have the slightest idea what they are getting into. They are talking about filters on smokestacks, while we are challenging corporate irresponsibility."

These are words we desperately need to remember today, as today's Earth Day celebrations come sponsored by the likes of BP and Dow.

Another speaker that day went even further, stating:

We must begin to talk about the decision-making process of our society. Pollution and the Vietnam War are symptoms of misplaced priorities and a warped conception of human values. To many of us, it seems that individuals have lost control over their lives, that they are manipulated by s system with an inherent death wish rather than one in which enhancement of life is the primary goal. The major symbol of this death culture is the institutionalized violence perpetrated upon people and the land by corporations such as General Electric.

However far we might be from this high point of the environmental movement, today there are glimmers of hope.

While the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen was a failure in terms of putting forward an agreement for cutting carbon emissions, many individuals and groups from around the world took a stand and exposed the lack of action and lack of democracy of the major polluting powers.

Four months later, the World People's Conference on Climate Change for the Rights of Mother Earth met in Tiquipaya, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to put forward a people's agenda, not unlike the World Social Forum that have been organized as an alternative to the world economic forums.

We need to rebuild an environmental movement to challenge Obama's new energy policy and lack of environmental policy. While he promotes the expansion of offshore oil drilling and building new nuclear power plants, these ideas, which many believed were long-since dead, are being branded as the new "alternative."

We would do well to learn our history and fight for a different kind of energy future. This latest oil spill disaster should give pause to those who argue that nuclear power is a safe alternative.

We need new energy alternatives. So instead of sending miners into unsafe conditions to pluck coal from underground, instead of sending oil refinery workers into dangerous waters to drain wells of oil, we need to be fighting for new forms of safe and clean energy. More importantly perhaps, we need to remind people that the biggest single consumer of energy in the world is the U.S. military machine.

Building a future with new forms of alternative energy and putting an end to U.S. imperialism are two sides of the same coin. While corporations have invested billions of dollars into this energy system in the form of infrastructure and extractive industries, they have also invested heavily in the U.S. war machine.

Our fight is to challenge the whole setup of this profit driven system. That starts with taking a stand against offshore oil drilling now. If we can win that, we can fight for alternative energy forms, challenge the status quo and open the door to even more alternatives to this upside-down world.

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