Memories of the First Earth Day

43 years ago today, America celebrated the first Earth Day. And in the public high school I attended in conservative Cobb County, Georgia, we had a big Earth Day program, complete with a speech by actor Hal Holbrook, who had identified with the environmentalist cause in some manner that eludes me today.

That amazes me, now that being identified as an “environmentalist” leads so many people to identify one as a secular-socialist elitist. On the first Earth Day, Georgia was governed by none other than Lester Maddox, and my home turf was about to be represented by Larry McDonald, soon to become president of the John Birch Society (with whom Lester was identified as well). But I don’t recall my school or its principal getting any serious flak for spending a good chunk of a taxpayer supported day talking about the damage we were doing to the environment and what we could collectively do about it.

That wouldn’t happen today, for all the talk about union teachers (who don’t, by the way, have collective bargaining rights in states like Georgia) brainwashing children imprisoned in “government schools” instead of being free to attend conservative evangelical madrassas where kids are taught about man’s God-given dominion over the earth. 43 years of progress, eh?

UPDATE: commenter TR and mistermix at Ballon Juice (who also takes on the impossible task of out-mocking my self-mockery about age) make the legitimate point that the environmental challenges facing the country in 1970 were more tangible, immediate and remediable (as subsequent clean air and water legislation showed) than those we are struggling to deal with today.

It’s a fair point, but I still think cultural and political resistance to the very subject of the environment is at an all-time high. Commemoration of the first Earth Day was noisily opposed by Georgia’s then-insurance commissioner, Jimmy Bentley, who was running for the Republican nomination for governor (he noted that it fell on Lenin’s birthday!). He was generally dismissed as a crank, and didn’t make it to the general election ballot (Jimmy Carter eventually won that year). Nowadays one of the most powerful delusions in conservative politics in Georgia and elsewhere is the John Birch Society-generated Agenda 21 meme, whereby zoning and land-use planning are denounced as part of a one-world conspiracy against property rights.

In today’s atmosphere, would federal government action to deal with air and water pollution be as generally accepted as it was in 1970, even in Georgia? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t be certain of it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.