Organizers of the original Earth Day celebration at U-M reunite 50 years later. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability
By Lana Pollack
Lana Pollack has served as President and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, U.S. Section Chair of the International Joint Commission, and a three-term state senator.
The first Earth Day celebration at University of Michigan did not wait until April 22, 1970, the date Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson had set for environmental teach-ins across the country. In Ann Arbor, this history-changing observation blasted off March 11 when 15,000 people jammed U-M’s Crisler Arena, and thousands more crowded its parking lot. The four-day happening was sponsored by a new U-M organization, Environmental Action for Survival of the Planet (ENACT), and it was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its young organizers.
By the time this Earth Day precursor closed, 50,000 people had attended 125 events, virtually all of which had been amply covered by national press. Determined to be inclusive, ENACT’s organizers invited and accepted requests to speak from a dizzyingly diverse collection of high-profile individuals ranging from the avuncular Arthur Godfrey to the all-but nude cast of the musical Hair and top-of-the-charts singer Gordon Lightfoot. Headline environmentalist Barry Commoner was joined by Michigan’s Governor William Milliken, the University’s President Robben Fleming (exceptionally adept at avoiding conflict by giving voice to student concerns), the presidents of both Dow Chemical and the United Auto Workers, along with environmental leaders from around the country and of course Senator Gaylord Nelson. Almost every University School and department sponsored a workshop, lecture or symposium on environmental issues related to its discipline.
Not surprisingly, as U-M had been a focal point for many of the white-hot 1960s protests, this environmental happening did not want for a generous dose of zaniness mixed with serious social criticism. A blue Ford Mustang was put on trial in the center of campus. In spite of arguments energetically presented in defense of the accused car (the auto industry was the backbone of Michigan’s economy), the Mustang was found “guilty of murder of the American public.” Its sentence was death by sledge hammers, with hundreds of observers cheering the executioners.
Somehow, I missed the car’s demise, the ceremonial dumping of thousands of non-recyclable coke cans, Gordon Lightfoot, the crowds in Crisler Arena and even the lectures and symposia in the School of Education where I attended classes and my four-year-old son, John, went to pre-school.
How did I, a politically interested student who was on campus almost every day, miss out on this eclectic happening we now recognize as the kick-off of the modern environmental movement? Given my full-on commitment to environmental advocacy in the decades that followed, I’ve questioned why I was not an organizer, or at least a participant. In positing my answer, I have vivid memories of an overwhelmed young woman, determined to be a flawless supermom while completing her MA in Education and maintaining a household that showed not a speck of disorder. And all of this in an age when even the nicest of husbands (mine) felt their professional work excused them from sharing childcare responsibilities with their wives.
But there was another reason I was MIA from Michigan’s original Earth Day, a reason I understand better years on in reading about a memorable session dubbed the Scream-Out. The Scream-Out was the platform for those who thought Gaylord Nelson was wrong in calling for a national day of environmental reflection. In preparing the multifaceted program, organizers had faced arguments that an active environmental movement would only distract from more pressing social injustices. Black student activists saw all that was lacking in commitment to ending campus racism. Just before the four-day, 50,000-person Earth Day teach-in, the U-M campus had been wrenched by a campus-wide strike led by the Black Action Movement (BAM). In a tense two-week stand-off, a large and growing number of professors and students (myself included) refused to cross picket lines in support of BAM’s demands to raise black student enrollment and increase successful minority engagement on campus.
Joined by frustrated anti-war protestors on a campus that fairly enough claimed to be the birthplace of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), it was not surprising that there were both black and white reformers who questioned the importance of Johnny-come-lately environmentalism. (At the time, just a few environmental activists and scholars were beginning to conceptualize environmental justice.) Although I did not consciously decide to boycott the environmental teach-in, I do recall thinking that both the women’s and the environmental movements were of less significance than fighting racism and the Viet Nam War. It was at the Scream-Out, had I attended it, that I would have heard a substantive discussion of my own poorly-formed concerns.
But I didn’t go. I had two small children to care for, MA degree assignments to be finished, and a broken refrigerator to be replaced at home. I could never have imagined in 1970 that both my husband and I would spend decades dedicating ourselves to advancing deeper environmental understandings and better environmental laws, no matter what other responsibilities we faced.
Ironically, my slow-off-the-blocks start as an environmentalist has made me a more effective advocate. Remembering how overwhelmed I felt then, toiling to manage multiple responsibilities, has prompted me to be more respectful when engaging with people struggling today to get on top of their own lives’ demands. And recalling that on Earth Day One I viewed environmental concerns as competitors with — rather than integral to — battles for social, economic and racial justice, prods me now to act more inclusively, recognizing that the fabric of a healthy planet and just society is woven from many threads.