This “pause,” as the governor of New York has labelled our multiple-month home sheltering, has caused us to examine many things. One is, the fact that the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day was celebrated this past week without crowds of young people yelling at the Establishment to do something now, was sorely missed by Mister Boomer.
The anniversary reminded him of his Earth Day experience fifty years ago in April of 1970. Mister B has told the story before, how he and his sister made an Earth Day flag of green and white stripes with a Greek Theta symbol in the area that holds the stars on the national flag. It was something he saw somewhere, and wanted to copy the design, because the following day — Earth Day — he was to lead a bicycle parade for two miles to his high school. It worked well enough, suspended on the makeshift flagpole that he carried throughout the route.
Along the way, cars would honk at the parade of a few dozen teens on bikes, flag waving in the breeze, but it is still unclear to Mister B if they were honking in solidarity for this new national day of awareness or honking to get the group out of the way. Possibly a little of each.
Once the parade reached the high school, students, teachers and the principal were outside the school to greet them. Bikes away, students and teachers made their way into the awaiting classes. At 11 am, there was a scheduled school assembly outside in front of the building. Students filed out and sat on the grass to hear from some environmentally-minded science and art teachers. The principal came over and asked Mister B if he wanted to run his flag up the flagpole. The grommets he had hammered in the night before were perfect receptors for the clips of the flagpole. In a quick minute Mister B’s handmade Earth Day flag was waving under Old Glory.
It may seem a very liberal thing for a school to do back then, but history as well as personal memory tells us the mood of the country had changed since Rachel Carson’s publishing of Silent Spring in 1962. Living in an industrial city, every person in the school experienced air and water pollution on a daily basis, so it was a topic of great interest. At Mister B’s parochial school, the aims of the environmental movement were in direct harmony with religious teaching.
Here we are, now, in a situation that has made us stop and look out at what is happening on the other side of our windows. What is immediately evident is there are fewer cars on the roads, and many more birds chirping all through the day. Yet, despite awareness to the issue of pollution being raised for fifty years, the fact that reports indicate a thirty percent drop in nitrous dioxide pollution in the United States since the shelter-in-place orders were given a little more than a month ago, clearly show we have a long way to go to protect ourselves and our environment.
What memories do you have of the first Earth Day, boomers?
Watching and reading the reports this week, about the efforts of millions of young people around the globe, marching to persuade their governments to act on climate change, put a hopeful smile on Mister Boomer’s face. After all, we boomers are not novices when it comes to environmental issues, or protests. Unfortunately, though, it was also a little bit of “deja vu all over again” (as Yogi Bera reminded us). Putting all politics aside (well, as much as can possibly be put aside), Mister Boomer can only say he is admittedly a tree-hugger from way back when. Environmental concerns have always been one of his top pet projects, and the reason is directly related to his experiences as a boomer.
It all started because, first of all, Mister B, like almost all boomers he has ever spoken to, spent the vast majority of his time outdoors. That not only gave him an appreciation for blue skies and green trees, but also offered direct contact with nature and wildlife. The fields and creeks where Mister Boomer and the neighborhood children played were teaming with grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, frogs, snakes and birds. Mister Boomer, though fascinated when a neighborhood kid captured something in a jar, always suggested the animal be released back to its natural habitat.
At the same time, Mister Boomer’s father took to heart the Boomer Era idea of family vacations by car to visit National Parks. Before Mister B reached his peak teenage years, his family had visited the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park, not to mention numerous state parks. The effect this had on a young boomer was one of wonderment at the sheer beauty and awesome vastness of Mother Nature.
At the same time that he developed these sensibilities, a young Mister B experienced pollution in his own area. A nearby lake had been the family’s favorite fishing spot and swimming beach for years, until one day they drove up to find the space fenced off. A sign said the lake had been closed because it was no longer safe for humans to swim, boat or fish. Access to the lake remained closed for 10 years.
Mister Boomer has also written about how the steel mills in his area lit the sky up an eerily bright orange each night when manufacturing was in progress. Smokestacks from various factories spewed enough brown clouds of soot into the air that his mother had to shake off the accumulated particles from the sheets she hung on the backyard clothesline before she could fold them and bring them back in the house for their next use.
Years later, when he was on an airplane for the first time, he could see firsthand that the plane flew through a layer of smog on takeoff before breaking through to a beautiful blue sky. That same layer of smog was readily seen from the highest point of the city’s freeway system once Mister B began driving.
It’s been Mister Boomer’s experience that these happenings were not unusual for boomers who were raised near a major metropolitan area. All that was true before the government became actively involved in protecting the public — and the environment — through the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. People tend to forget that it was Richard Nixon, with bipartisan support, who first brought the agency into existence by Executive Order in 1970. The House and Senate later approved its creation. The original idea of the agency was to create an independent organization responsible for establishing guidelines, rules and regulations, and also holding those who violated the rules responsible for cleaning up the environmental messes they were making. The agency issued its first regulation in December of that year, and for the next five years, added about 1500 rules and regulations concerning air, water and land per year.
Rachel Carson’s 1964 book, “Silent Spring,” is often credited with being the moment when public opinion changed about how our resources of air, water and land should be treated by individuals and corporations alike. As a direct result of that book, DDT, the most widely used pesticide in the world at that time, was banned because of its effect on birds — killing them by thinning their shells so they couldn’t reproduce — and its entry into the waters that fed drinking water systems. For decades municipalities as well as private corporations spewed raw sewage and industrial chemicals and waste into rivers and streams. Smokestacks, once thought of as a sign of progress after the Industrial Revolution, began to be seen as source of concern for humans, especially those who lived near factories. Clean water, once taken for granted, was now seen as a right worth fighting for. The environmental movement was born from these sentiments, and many boomers participated in marches of their own in the late sixties and early seventies.
The point Mister Boomer is making is, we’ve been here before, at the edge and looking over a steep fall. Boomers witnessed the stepping back from the edge, and the world was better off for it. Boomers saw many things that once seemed impossible become reality during their early years. And how boomers felt about Mother Nature is laced through the songs of the era.
In his famous speech that challenged the U.S. to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s, President Kennedy said that, “… We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills …” So Mister Boomer says this is another hard nut to crack, but we’ve been there before. Mister B salutes the young people around the globe, and adds his Right On! Groovy! and Sock It to Them! to their cause. That doesn’t sound like politics to Mister B. It sounds like the boomer values which we proclaimed when we were their age: freedom of expression, freedom of expanded opportunities and freedom to shape their own future.
How about you, boomers? How did pollution affect you and your family in your area? Did you take part in environmental protests in your day, boomers?