The dawn of Earth Day - Page 2

GREEN ISSUE: The largest secular holiday in the world was born in 1970 — and its chief organizer has lessons for the movement 40 years later

But, as he told me in an interview years ago, he still wasn't sure what the next steps ought to be — until, bored on an hour-long flight to his next speech in Berkeley, he picked up a copy of Ramparts magazine.

The radical left publication, once described as having "a bomb in every issue," wasn't Nelson's typical reading material. But this particular issue was devoted to a new trend on college campuses — day-long "teach-ins" on the Vietnam War.

Huh, Nelson thought. A teach-in. That's an intriguing idea.

Hayes was a student in the prestigious joint program in law and public policy at Harvard. He'd been something of a campus activist, protesting against the war, but hadn't paid much attention to environmental issues. He needed a public-interest job of some sort for a class project, though, so when he read a newspaper article about the senator who was planning a national environmental teach-in, he called and offered to organize the effort in Boston. Nelson invited him to Washington, was impressed by his Harvard education and enthusiasm, and hired him to run the whole show.

The senator was very clear from the start: the National Environmental Teach-In would not be a radical Vietnam-style protest. The event would be nonpartisan, polite, and entirely legal. Hayes and his staffers chafed a bit at the rules (and the two Senate staffers Nelson placed in the Earth Day office to keep an eye on things), and they ultimately set up a separate nonprofit called the Environmental Action Foundation to take more aggressive stands on issues.

Meanwhile, Hayes did the job he was hired to do — and did it well. Everywhere he turned, from small towns to big corporations, people wanted to plug in, to be a part of the first Earth Day. Many wanted to do nice, noncontroversial projects: In Knoxville, Tenn., students decided to scour rivers and streams for trash to see if they could each clean up the five pounds of garbage the average American threw away each day. In dozens of communities, people organized tree-plantings. In New York, Mayor John Lindsay led a parade down Fifth Avenue.

A few of the actions were more dramatic. A few protesters smashed a car to bits, and in Boston, 200 people carried coffins into Logan International Airport in a symbolic "die-in" against airport expansion. In Omaha, Neb., so many college students walked around in gas masks that the stores ran out. But it was, Hayes realized, an awful lot of talk and not a lot of action. The participants were also overwhelmingly white and middle-class.

Hayes wasn't the only one feeling that way. In New York, author Kurt Vonnegut, speaking from a platform decorated with a giant paper sunflower, added a note of cynicism.

"Here we are again, the peaceful demonstrators," he said, "mostly young and mostly white. Good luck to us, for I don't know what sporting event the president [Richard Nixon] may be watching at the moment. He should help us make a fit place for human beings to live. Will he do it? No. So the war will go on. Meanwhile, we go up and down Fifth Avenue, picking up trash."

Hayes finally broke with the politics of his mentor early on Earth Day morning when it was too late to fire him. The next day, the National Environmental Teach-In office would close and the organization would shut down. From that moment on, he could say what he liked and not worry who he offended.

"I suspect," he told a crowd gathered at the Capitol Mall, "that the politicians and businessmen who are jumping on the environmental bandwagon don't have the slightest idea what they are getting into. They are talking about filters on smokestacks while we are challenging corporate irresponsibility. They are bursting with pride about plans for totally inadequate municipal sewage plants.

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