By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
Even 52 years later, the dynamic energy of the first Earth Day that swept downtown Chicago on April 22, 1970 is still vividly remembered.
“Give earth a chance!” demonstrators chanted as they chain-danced in the streets, while denouncing polluters. Some of them wore gas masks to protest smoggy skies and bashed autos with sledgehammers. They vented anger, peacefully, over beaches too filthy for swimming and water too contaminated to drink. Some spent the day picking trash out of rivers and streams.
The biggest demonstration in the nation’s history, an estimated 20 million Americans took part in the carnival-like celebration dedicated to environmental protection. Workers and students took the day off to conduct curb-side or classroom teach-ins to identify and explain the kinds of pollution that tainted the air, land and water across the nation. Broadcasters gave the story their full attention.
Ethics and social justice
A clean environment is a matter of ethics and social justice.
This first citizen uprising against pollution focused on pollution that was visible in our skies and waterways. Further study, research and investigation revealed invisible toxic chemicals in our air, food and water, making the struggle against pollution far more complicated than many understood.
Many of the protesters were young and idealistic. They were dismissed as tree-hugging “ecofreaks”. Their leaders, Dr. Barry Commoner, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, Denis Hayes and Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, were branded apocalyptics for spreading messages of doom. But almost overnight, ecology became a household word.
Impressed by the national uproar, President Richard Nixon declared it was time to “make our peace with nature.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, and the Clean Air Act was adopted that year. The Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972.
The 1970s were dubbed the environmental decade, with hopes that the campaign against pollution would last a full ten years. But the jubilation was cut short in 1973 by the Arab oil embargo, which taught Americans a lesson in energy conservation as they waited in line for gasoline and turned down their thermostats to conserve fuel.
The 1980s brought types of pollution that scientists could not even detect in 1970s, including invisible toxic wastes that tainted drinking water, dangerous chemicals sprayed on food and air pollution that threatened to change the Earth’s climate. The 1980s accentuated the global scope of pollution and brought nations together to fight it.
Twenty years after that first Earth Day, Sen. Nelson, considered the father of Earth Day, said: “Every issue we talked about 20 years ago is still with us. And you can add to it another group that either we didn’t know about or didn’t pay attention to.” By then, an estimated $1.1 trillion had been spent in the United States on pollution control.
Half century after
And now, 52 years after first Earth Day, the outlook is much as Senator Nelson described it. Despite all the money spent and all the fanfare about environmental protection, the Earth can’t seem to catch a break, including its inhabitants.
Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope, co-founders of Covering Climate Now, conclude:
“By all scientific accounts, the environmental crisis that activists highlighted more than half a century ago is much more dire today, and the need for far-reaching action more urgent. And yet those network news anchors from 1970, dismissed as anachronisms in our digital age, were in many ways ahead of where journalists are now. Just imagine each of America’s big three networks leading their broadcasts with the recent UN climate report, packaged under headlines like ‘A Question of Survival’ and then spending the entire program explaining the problem and exploring solutions.
“It is tragic that, until very recently, the media’s treatment of the environment story has gone backward from 50 years ago in every conceivable metric: less urgency, less space, fewer minutes on the air. The fact that journalism is finally beginning to give the story the attention it deserves probably says more about the state of the weather than it does about a newfound media commitment to chronical what’s happening.”
These climate change activists believe we are sleep-walking through an environmental crisis, although President Joe Biden came into office saying there is no greater challenge facing our country and our world and proposed governmental plans to tackle it.
People sometimes ask what happened to those energetic folks who chain-danced in the streets to call attention to environmental degradation? They got old and lost their enthusiasm for something from their past. They got jobs and raised families.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. People like to make their own choices about what to get excited about. Pollution control can be seen as an old issue, their grandparent’s cause. And it’s tough to get people to actually DO something, other than talk.
People tend to react to what they can see and touch. That was something the first Earth Day had. Pollution was so bad, it was obvious. Photographers could take photos of it. Reporters could stick their hands into a polluted river and the pollution would stick to their hands. Much of that gross pollution was cleaned up, leaving the largely invisible pollution to contend with. Climate change is largely invisible, at least until recently. If it gets bad enough, people will pay attention to raging forest fires, floods, stifling heat and unseasonal temperatures. Climate zones might shift, giving Minneapolis Miami weather.
It’s human nature to wait until you can’t ignore it. The mantra from those who warn against climate change has been to act before it’s too late. Skeptics say they are crying wolf, or that people are an adaptable species. They will deal with it.
An asteroid heading for Earth might get more attention.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.