John F. Rohe: Remembering the first Earth Day, 50 years ago

Article author: 
John F. Rohe
Article publisher: 
Trib Live
Article date: 
25 April 2020
Article category: 
Our American Future
Article Body: 

In 1970, the first Earth Day set a high bar for long-range plans.

Its aspirations stretched well beyond the 50th anniversary that we observe on April 22. Now, perhaps more than ever, the original vision of Earth Day brings intergenerational ethics into focus.

Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, launched the first Earth Day by linking the press of human numbers with environmental concerns. In his words, “Population is the greatest threat to the environment” and “There is no way in the world we can forge a sustainable society without stabilizing the population.”

On the original Earth Day, his long-range population concern took center stage. Earth Day 1970 became the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Walter Cronkite reported that 20 million participants attended. A young and emboldened generation of activists grabbed their signs and took to the streets to address the root cause of environmental threats. A new ethos emerged from a radical, divisive, tumultuous, countercultural era. The 1960s were defined by antiwar protests, Woodstock, the pill, a sexual revolution, civil rights, gender equity and feminism. Earth Day’s ethics became a fitting finale to the “question authority” decade.

While Earth Day 1970 advanced the 1960s population movement, more recent Earth Days have lost this focus. Earlier generations would marvel at achievements in energy efficiency. But they would be dismayed by the lack of understanding 50 years later. The U.S. and the world continue to devour more fossil fuels and greenhouse gases year after year. Efficiency advances cannot keep up with population growth.

On the first Earth Day, multiple risks of exponential population growth were examined: biodiversity casualties, pollution, plastic accumulations, water quality, airborne toxins, urban sprawl, gridlock, landfills, auto dependency and disease. Opportunistic viruses were anticipated as a risk of population density.

In pandemics, the pathogen gains mobility by human-to-human transmission. It conscripts airlines for swift portability and then relies on the proximity among humans for passage. Social distancing is an antidote only when allowed by population density.

According to a March 31 CNN headline: “Social Distancing Is a Privilege of the Middle Class. For India’s Slum Dwellers, It Will Be Impossible.” Similarly, a recent front page New York Times headline cautioned: “Density Is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight.” The story explained why that density helped make New York “the U.S. epicenter of the outbreak.”

At the 50th anniversary, a risk anticipated by the original Earth Day is wreaking havoc across the globe. As nature is endlessly resourceful, the next strain could be more threatening and transmissible than the coronavirus. Even now, while density threatens millions, population concerns have been essentially disregarded in Earth Day commemorative activities.

At some point after 1970, talk of a viral pandemic in densely populated urban centers moved from legitimate conversations to the stuff of conspiracy theorists and fiction writers. The concern, if mentioned, was chided and swiftly dismissed.

Admittedly, science maintained a lead in the race with mutant viruses for decades. The threat of a viral pandemic was blissfully blunted for a long time. Science was batting close to a thousand. With few exceptions, it maintained the lead year after year. Science won the race. Until it didn’t.

In the intervening five decades since the first Earth Day, we 3.7 billion people of 1970 have more than doubled to 7.8 billion. Even now, the planet continues to add 1 million people, births minus deaths, every four days. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, the United States population is projected to increase by 81 million in the next 40 years. That’s another 270 cities with Pittsburgh’s population by 2060.

With 40 states confronting water shortages, how will the demand for resources be met? Will future generations find resilience and a margin of safety in denser quarters?

With more than twice as many people since Earth Day 1970 to choose from, the virus acquired mobility options. It could thrive in concentrated populations, fed by global transportation hubs. This defines the contour of human vulnerability. In recent decades, there’s been a movement toward urban density; concepts like YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) have been embraced, particularly as ways to help the underprivileged. We might have to rethink this.

Ben Franklin recognized two types of charitable assistance: the ounce of prevention and the pound of cure. One strives to avoid future harm, the other responds to existing needs. The difference is based on chronology — future vs. present. Both forms of compassion are essential. Fifty years ago, the ounce of prevention was offered by anticipating the viral threat. This future focus represents an exceptionally selfless form of human compassion.

The 1970 environmental pioneers tendering their ounce of prevention never expected to take a bow. Even if we wanted to thank them today, time’s up. Most have already followed Nelson to their final resting places. Expecting neither recognition nor gratitude, the Earth Day pioneers only hoped to establish a secure and dignified future.

They always knew the future would become the final arbiter of their kindness. And today, as their foresight, compassion and selfless ounce of prevention might have mitigated the present crisis, they still await the judgment of history. Their legacy can only be respected by honoring the integrity of their message: Excessive population growth is the root cause of environmental harm.

At the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s contemplate the founders’ mission. They only hoped to responsibly balance our numbers in a fragile, yet resilient, web of life. Their message is destined to ring with greater clarity as time marches on.


John F. Rohe is vice president of the Colcom Foundation.