David Beach | 04/14/10 @ 2:00pm
As the 40th anniversary of Earth Day approaches next week, I've been thinking about the early days of the environmental movement in Cleveland. In 1970 I was only 13 years old, and I can't remember the first Earth Day. But a number of years ago I was asked to write an article for the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History on environmentalism in Greater Cleveland, and the article included the following account of events:
On 22 June 1969, the long-suffering Cuyahoga River caught fire. It was not the first time the river had burned, nor was it the only river in the nation with flaming oil slicks, but the incident captured the public imagination. Thus, more than a century after the river's pollution was first noted it became an international symbol of environmental degradation. Along with the "dying" Lake Erie, the river provided a rallying point for citizen indignation and contributed to a sense of environmental crisis. This culminated in the first Earth Day events in April 1970. In Greater Cleveland, Earth Day included a week of events billed as "Crisis in the Environment Week." The symbol of the week's activities was a drooping flower. One headline in the Cleveland Press remarked: "Hippies and Housewives Unite to Protest What Man is Doing to Earth." Greater Cleveland had one of the largest Earth Day turnouts in the nation. An estimated 500,000 elementary, junior high, high school and college students took part in campus teach-ins, litter cleanups, tree planting events and other special activities at schools throughout the area. More than 1,000 Cleveland State University students and faculty staged a "death march" from the campus to the banks of the Cuyahoga River. A young man dressed as Moses Cleaveland rowed ashore to meet the marchers but soon turned away in disgust because of the filth he found. Activities also included a major conference on the environment sponsored by the Cleveland Engineering Society, as well as speeches by consumer activist Ralph Nader and community organizer Saul Alinsky.
Today, it's great to see that Earth Day is still being celebrated with events all over Greater Cleveland. Indeed, in many ways the ideas of environmentalism have become mainstream.
But I worry that, after 40 years, the celebrations are motivated more by a sense of routine than a deep sense of urgency. In part, this is because the environmental problems of today are harder to confront than the gross air and water pollution that motivated the activism of the 1970s.
Today's problems are things like urban sprawl and a transportation system that force us to drive everywhere, millions of buildings that waste energy, a 19th-century electrical system based on burning coal inefficiently in centralized plants, a food system that depletes the soil and harms our health, and stormwater runoff that gradually erodes the quality of lakes and streams. These are pervasive, systemic problems on a vast scale. They can't be stopped by controlling a few polluters.
That's why so many well intentioned people throw up their hands when faced with a problem like climate change. What can one person do? The carbon emissions that cause global warming come from everywhere. They are embedded in the design of our society.
So perhaps the question for Earth Day 2010 is how to create a more profound sense of urgency about designing and building a sustainable society - better transportation, buildings, cities, power systems, food systems, and businesses. This will be the necessary transformation of the next 40 years.
The photo above comes from the Cleveland State University Center for Public History and Digital Humanities. For more photos about the Cuyahoga River and the first Earth Day in Cleveland, go here.