Earth Day – Before you were born (Redux)

My friend Doug O’Malley, who runs Environment New Jersey, reminded me of this post, which he called a Blue Jersey classic. Nice of him. I’d forgotten I wrote it – originally in 2010, reposted it in 2012, when some loyal Dem was arguing Ralph Nader killed the Al Gore campaign. Funny, now we have the same people complaining Bernie Sanders is ruining things for Hillary Clinton. Smh. Posting again for 2016. But in the post-fracking world I’m not sure I’d draw the same sad conclusions, and in the post-Bernie world there are some new realities to note. They’ll be in green. – Rosi, April 22, 2016 

Yet another Facebook convo with a loyal Dem convinced Ralph Nader ruined Al Gore’s White House shot in 2000 made me search out this post from the Blue Jersey archives circa 2010 – Rosi, April 22, 2012 

“Years later, I worked with him and told him that story, and he asked me why I didn’t just jump off his toes, knock the old man over and grab the mic? Smart guy.”

Ralph Nader 1975I was at the first Earth Day 40 years ago, when I was growing up in Michigan. In April, 1970, when ecology was a graduate of the civil rights movement, as were the anti-war and women’s movement (well, one of them) and early struggles against corporate excess, Ralph Nader came to the campus of Wayne State University where my father was a professor, for Earth Day One.

Nader, a good Princeton graduate, is mentioned in virtually every article about Earth Day history. It’s hard to transmit to people who only really saw Nader as a presidential candidate – and may disparage him for that, though I do not – what sway he had. Man, when Ralph Nader showed up, things got serious fast. He was squeaky clean. Uncorruptable. Scared the bejesus out of corpo culture. Earth Day, Nader got people thinking about corporate decisions and the power we fork over to them. Nader showed us we had the power decades before Howard Dean told us we did (2016 – and Bernie Sanders showed us we do).

Two huge centers of activity in the national Earth Day observance; Philadelphia’s student-organized event at Fairmount Park. And Michigan.

Michigan was about Detroit, the auto industry – including GM which hated Nader before they ever heard of Michael Moore – and the organized labor movement which defined it (and sadly, does not now). Nader was a gaunt and poker-faced superman in a sensible suit, whose acolytes would move to Washington in droves to labor as Nader’s Raiders. (Memo to 2010: Not everybody tuned out and stayed high in the 1970’s). Ann Arbor was a massive 3-day teach-in staged by University of Michigan students to get the world ready. In March, more than a month before Earth Day. Nader was there, too.

Rumor was the FBI told the national committee they couldn’t have Earth Day on May 1 because it was a “communist holiday”. The fact they settled on April 22 got past the authorities. It was Lenin’s birthday. And the little buttons everybody had with just that date gave all the socialists the serious giggles.

When Nader came to speak in an auditorium on the Wayne State campus, in the progressive Motor City, it was packed. Standing room only. Nader walked on stage – rock star applause – then asked security if some of the people stuck outside could sit on the stage floor. I was a kid and got trampled. Nader saw, crooked a finger and pointed to the floor under him. I ended up sitting on his shoes. Yes, I stared up Ralph Nader’s pants leg, worshipfully. Sue me. And he made every example in his speech about me – the youngest person in the room.

Years later, I worked with him and told him that story, and he asked me why I didn’t just jump off his toes, knock the old man over and grab the mic? Smart guy.

I haven’t participated in many Earth Day events the last couple decades. A few local beautifying days. But there’s nothing political in my observance. I may indeed be missing things, but for me Earth Day’s been re-assigned to kid-friendly suburban cleanup days and art projects.

Earth Day’s lost its teeth. For me, anyway. I’ve lost all faith in the Sierra Club, at least in its current New Jersey iteration. Politically, the most famous enviro group in the US has ceased to matter to me. And though I’m a stainless steel thermos carrier in a water bottle world, I live in a legislative District represented by a famous climate change denier. Open Space money – paid for by all the taxpayers, not just those in my pretty county – is used too often to build green moats around rich neighborhoods so the rest of you don’t feel right intruding, and not enough for roof veggie gardens in urban working class neighborhoods. I brought a hundred people or so to see An Inconvenient Truth but I haven’t done too much since then.

Yeah. My bad.

I’m sure there’s good stuff going on. But it doesn’t feel hooked in to the rest of the progressive infrastructure for me the way gay rights is bread-and-butter, the way equal pay is heartbeat, the way electoral politics is the golden path. I don’t see a working class green movement, I see one driven more by suburban concerns, about getting the best in a me-culture. Slow food and organics. Whole Foods in the mini-van. Nothing wrong with that. I just wonder if it can be more than that – more union, more working class, more student-led.

2016 – My friends powering the environmental movement give me some hope that the struggle of science over ignorance is slowly being won. Too slowly. But it’s young voters who are the real change. They keep climate change at the forefront of their political priorities, and ask harder questions than I do of candidates for president. On our side of the aisle, I mean. Since 2010 and this diary’s original post, I see less of environmentalism as personal affectation – water bottle in hand, climbing into the SUV – and considerably more community-based activism and savvy media use to spread the word across income groups and communities. The Keystone movement pushed Obama left. And unprecedented fossil fuel infrastructure threats (pipelines, oil trains, liquified natural gas, drilling) cross out of the progressive sector and deeper into the national conversation. I don’t yet see the environmental concerns of poorer communities – both rural and city – reflected in most environmental organizations. And that’s important. Where we are is far from good enough and the stakes are much higher than we realized when I was a kid sitting on Ralph Nader’s shoe. Bernie Sanders sees climate change linked to terrorism, and he’s right, tying the fears of the 20th Century to the fears of the 21st Century. With all that, it’s unthinkable that we let a climate change denier into the White House, when there are already so many in Congress. Happy Earth Day 2016, 2010, 2012, and 1970, before you were born.   


Comments (5)

  1. MercerVoter

    My father, brothers and I founded the Maplewood EnvironACTION Group in the mid-60s along with another parent. We collected and recycled glass, newspaper and aluminum once a month to start, and in April 1970, organized and launched New Jersey’s SUN DAY, at Essex County’s Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange. It was renamed Earth Day two years later, as were the rest of the nation’s celebrations.

    A lot has changed in that time, but not much at all. Most people and corporations and governments worldwide still consume

    vastly more resources than the planet can provide sustainably, and discard what they deem undesirable without giving thought to its ultimate disposition.

    Earth Day has become a corporate event and a pseudo-rally.

    Paul Krugman has the right ideas about sustainability, the economy, and technology. It’s time to fuel the recovery of the planet and the economy by using our intellects to reinvent which resources we use, and in what ways.

    The ethos of Earth Day lives on with me. Rosi, you’re not missing it. Are you living it?

  2. carolh

    I feel a little what you are feeling.  But there are a lot of small efforts all over that aren’t as obvious.  The small canoe club my boyfriend began in 1984 in the Meadowlands because he thought if you get folks in the river in a canoe seeing wildlife, they would begin to care for it.  That club now has 400 members and many of them have gone on to fight for saving what wetlands we still have left.  My friends at the Gerson Clinic are still promoting organic foods after 60 years.  Friends of mine still work to keep the outdoors accessible for many NJ folks.  The last Indian tribes are trying to protect what nature we still have left here.

    The efforts may not be as visible, because they are truly grassroots and don’t have a PR firm to promote them, but I am encouraged by the small efforts of everyday citizens who decide one at a time, not to spread more chemicals around their neighborhoods.  Our focus is changing.  Towns are now giving demonstrations to residents on how to build rain gardens and how to really make caring about the environment as local as our own backyards – because that is where we MUST begin.  

    It isn’t flashy, but I really think things are changing.  Now if we could get towns to stop tearing down trees to make more soccer fields.  Passive recreation costs us all a lot less and is a lot greener.  

  3. Winston Smith

    The root cause of the decline is a massive escape to false solutions – individual instead of collective, and market consumer oriented instead of law and public policy.

    Nader focused on government and laws to protect onsumers and the environment and public health.

    Corproations co-opted and derailed that movement.

    Now we have “green consumption”.

    Rosi – you should read Tittel’s Op-Ed in the Star Ledger today – If you took his name off it, I’m sure you would agree with every word. See:

    Earth Day plus 40: The need for activism remains

  4. Bertin Lefkovic

    In my experience, very few of NJ’s unions have been anything but fierce opponents of the environmental movement.

    The Building and Construction Trades, which are the state’s most muscular unions, are as pro-development if not moreso than the developers and have gone toe-to-toe with the environmental movement each and every time a major construction project has been debated at the state, county, or local level.

    The Industrial Trades, which are the state’s next most powerful unions are better, but only on OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) issues.

    The public and service employee unions are without a doubt the best on environmental issues, primarily because they have nothing to lose and need to make allies when they can find them, but they are also the least influential and not a serious-enough stakeholder to be a true ally.

  5. toaonua

    …and very much on the mark. Have you read Wen Stephenson’s essay from The Nation last year? I think you’d find it interesting:


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