A half century ago today was the first Earth Day, which I paerticipated in while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although I did not know him well, I even met the founder of the event, then Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. While it is easy to be discouraged by the ongoing failure to deal with the global warming issue as well as the large amount of rollbacks of reasonable environmental regulations in the US by Donald Trump, with several happening very recently under cover of the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic, much has also been achieved, with vastly reduced air and water pollution of many types over the last half century in most nations.
It is easy to forget that in 1970 there was no Enviromental Protection Agency and that most of the most basic laws regulating most air and water pollutants were not in place almost anywhere in the world. I remember seeing the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland in 1965, a year it caught fire, when it not only stank but had an unpleasant pinkish hue to it. Today it looks like regular water and fern bars and restaurants stand beside it where in good weather (and no pandemics) people sit outside to eat and drink beside it.
Which gets to the irony of my title for this post. I am remembering an odd sideshow at the time of the first Earth Day, which came only a few weeks prior to the killing of four students in anti-Vietnam War protests at Kent Sate, which would be followed by the largest and most widespread of such protests across the US. This was probably the culminating point (punctuated at the end of the summer by the bombing in Madison of the Army Math Research Center) of the revolutionary socialist New Left movement in the US among students. On the Madison campus, one of the leading strongholds of the movement, where we had at least three different Trotskyist groups competing with each other, not to mention with Maoists and various other radical left groups, there was fairly harsh criticism of that first Earth Day be many from someof these groups.
One particular point noted by more than one critic was that this event someho happened to occur on the centennial of the birth of Vladimir Lenin in 1870, admiration of whom was something that the usually feuding Maoists and Trotskyist factions could agree on, even if they disagreed about Stalin and Mao. So this even was according to some cooked up by the right wing, ultimately Richard Nixon who was indeed beginning to support environmentalism and would indeed oversee the founding of the EPA and the passage of some important environmental laws (a sharp contrast with today’s Trump). It was cooked up to distract the revolutionary workers and students from focusing both on the anti-Vietnam War movement as well as the broader revolutionary socialist movement, with proper socialist revolutionaries needing to be focused on Lenin and the centennial of his birth rather than going all gaga over reducing automobile emissions, as one pamphlet I saw then put it.
All of this seems moot if not quite absurd in the context of today’s politics. Anti-enviromental conservatives criticize environmentalists as being “watermelons,” green on the outside but red on in the inside (or they did 20 years ago before red became the color of the US Republican Party). But in 1970 “brown Marxism” was dominant on the left. In the USSR and China the rulers focused on meeting production quotas and did not worry about pollution, a view that led Marshall Goldman a few laters to write about “the convergence” between capitalism and socialism on pollution. The strong emphasis on controlling population that was very strong in the 1970 Earth Day as symbolized by a leading role for Paul Ehrlich who was getting much attention for his book, The Population Bomb, also fed into skepticism by those on the radical left who saw the hand of reactionary racist and imperialist Malthusianism in the celebration, with Marx himself having criticized Malthus as the utlimate reactionary, not without reason.
And while most of this has long gone by the wayside and still-Communist China now at least officially is striving to combat global warming (in contrast to the US officially under Donald Trump), we see vague echoes of that old link between conservation and conservatism, and the even deeper link between ecology and even fascism, as advocates of a purification based on “blood and soil” in Germany that followed Hitler included students of students of Ernst Haeckel, the man who coined the word “ecology” in the late 19th century. Today we have neo-ecofascists on the far right among those who rail against immigrants “polluting” our society.
No, I do not think these elements will come to dominate the modern green movement, which is predominantly progressive. But my ironic title for this post is to remind that some of these older ideas are out there trying reappear. Let us move on to make sure the green movement is progressive. Right now with our president moving so sharply against the environment on so many fronts, this should not be too hard to do.
Anyway, happy half century Earth Day, everybody (and if you like, the sesquicentennial of Lenin’s birthday, although whatever happened to all those Trotskyist factions anyway?).