Our planet Earth has been having a hard time of it lately. But reflecting over the past 50 years since a small group of us put together the first organizational committee to honor Earth Day, I still feel hope that we may get through the mess we’ve created, if we work together.
Our first efforts began in early 1970 when Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin proposed a nationwide environmental teach-in be held on April 22 of that year to both celebrate the Earth and highlight some serious environmental problems. University of Alaska Fairbanks music teacher Gordon Wright encouraged a few of his student friends to organize a “steering” committee and join the national Earth Day celebration. Then, we took seriously Margaret Mead’s quote about a small group of thoughtful, committed people being able to change the world, and 13 of us put together a week of events at the UAF campus that we hoped would bring attention to our own Alaskan problems.
Among our speakers was Stanford physicist Donald Aitken, who warned there was inadequate scientific data available to oil companies to allow safe transport of crude oil in the Arctic and that, if pipeline construction went ahead, a massive oil spill would occur within 15 years. Although Wally Hickel, then interior secretary, sat beside Dr. Aitken on the speaker panel, he announced to the crowd that he would issue without delay the permit for construction of the Alaska Pipeline. He seemed uninterested in the consequences of such an action because man, he said, was by nature “a messy animal.” Indeed, he was, for the colossal Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred 19 years later on March 29, 1989.
Our agenda also included seminars and discussion panels by scientists about air and water pollution, mining and endangered species. And to demonstrate student support for change, we held a campus-wide rally on the main plaza during Earth Day. We set up booths there to inform people of new products and approaches to substitute for those that were damaging the Earth. I remember one of the most popular booths. Called “Treat the Earth, Bash a Car,” for 50 cents, people could vent their rage with a sledge hammer against the forces of evil by demolishing an old car that had been rolled alongside the booth.
A fly in the ointment occurred when my friend John Breiby and I took part in a radio talk show about the importance of Earth Day. Two of the listeners, Joe Vogler and Glenn DeSpain, improperly accused us of being part of a communist conspiracy. Mayor of Fairbanks Red Boucher, however, supported our efforts, and gave us his full cooperation.
Nationwide, Earth Day accomplished its main goal of bringing awareness about environmental problems to the American people and our elected representatives, leading to the ban on DDT, strengthening of the National Environmental Policy and Clean Air Acts, passage of the Clean Water Act, and enactment of the landmark ANILCA legislation that increased the amount of wild lands protection in the United States by more than 100 million acres.
But despite the good intentions of this legislation, our oil consumption and other habits didn’t change, leading to increased impoverishment of the Earth’s natural environment, climate change and an exponential rate of extinction of wild animal and plant species.
I recently read a list of the names on our 1970 committee. It brought back many memories. Gordon Wright has been dead for many years, as has Spencer Linderman. Ricardo Ernst, a school teacher and environmental activist, recently passed away. Most of us, though, still live in Fairbanks, including Mike Pollen and John Collette. Biologists Dave Norton and Nora Foster volunteer with the UAF off-campus Osher program and KUAC. Sharron Albert is around. Mary Beth Smetzer now lives in Vancouver, B.C., and Gay Ann White lives in California. But I’ve lost track of Robert Boyer, our chairman, and Ron Anderson.
Since 1970, Earth Day has been celebrated every year in Fairbanks, thanks to the dedicated leadership of people like Fairbanksan Susan Grace. Recently, more diverse participation has increased, especially by religious groups in town, all of whom celebrate Earth Day for similar reasons we did in 1970: to educate and inspire people of all ages and to help restore the Earth to the healthy planet it once was. With the immense challenges we face of climate change, overpopulation, habitat destruction and now the COVID-19 virus, this may be one of our last opportunities to pause and think how to best save our home from ourselves!