Earth Day 2022: Deja Vu 

Climate Economy

Earth Day 2022: Deja Vu 

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These are hard times — but we’ve been here before.

I’m thinking about April 22, 1970, when I joined the first Earth Day celebration in New York City, where I was a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary. The event was typical of other demonstrations of the day, driven by righteous anger at entitled, inflexible and destructive institutions –– “The Establishment” –– but also positively energized by the idealism of an unprecedentedly large, college-attending boomer generation. As in the case of anti-Vietnam War and civil rights rallies at that time, the energy around the inaugural Earth Day was both desperate and hopeful — as I find myself to be these days. 

Earth Day was born out of a reaction to environmental catastrophe. An offshore drilling platform operated by a consortium of oil companies (Mobil, Texaco, Gulf Oil and Union) spilled three million gallons of crude onto miles of pristine California beaches. It killed more than 10,000 seabirds, dolphins, seals and sea lions; fouled 800 square miles of ocean; and devastated the local economy, built on fishing and tourism. Fifty-three years later, the event is still the third-worst such oil pollution disaster in American history.

The attitude of those responsible was initially summed up by Union Oil’s CEO, Fred Hartley, who was quoted as saying, “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.”

Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) who viewed the Santa Barbara oil slick from an airplane, had a very different reaction. It had such an impact, he would become the prime mover behind Earth Day. Following a one-year anniversary commemoration held in Santa Barbara in January 1970, called Environmental Rights Day, organized by activist Denis Hayes, Nelson hired him and other environmentalists to create the first Earth Day. 

Earth Day Number One took place as another debacle was picking up speed: Vietnam. Combat was expanding into Cambodia and reports were surfacing of a massacre in the village of My Lai. The pushback soundtrack to this horror show was Edwin Starr’s “War” with its rallying cry of “War, huh, yeah/ what is it good for?/ Absolutely nothing, uhh, a refrain that was shouted out on college campuses across the country. It remains one of the most powerful, popular anti-war statements of all time. 

In 1970, in the aftermath of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., racial tensions continued to boil, at every level of civic society and government, in every part of the country.

Against this depressing background, the initial Earth Day focused on the U.S., was an unexpected thunderclap of hope.

Against this depressing background, the initial Earth Day focused on the U.S., was an unexpected thunderclap of hope. It galvanized 20 million people in what has been termed the largest single-day protest in human history. It also sparked key environmental protection legislation. The 1970s would see the adoption of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Superfund, Toxics Substances Control Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, along with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the banning of DDT and lead in gasoline. 

Earth Day 2022 seems déjà vu — and different, at the same time. While a genocidal war rages in Europe and racial tensions in the U.S. are high, some things have changed for the better:

  • This Earth Day, hundreds of millions of concerned citizens around the world will make their voices heard, calling for action on climate issues.
  • Despite numerous political missteps and the current retrenchment to fossil fuel sources due to wartime supply disruptions, the basic climate-directed initiatives of the Biden administration are still in play. We shouldn’t give up on them yet.
  • Energy supply disruptions are causing a revived push for renewables in the name of energy security. The urgency of making a clean energy transition has never been so clear. 
  • Investments continue an irreversible move toward purposeful profit-seeking. Last year, around $120 billion poured into sustainable investments. About $1 of every $3 managed globally now claims to operate within ESG strategies, despite the numerous issues with the definition and practice of that strategy. 
  • Major announcements at COP26 are still reverberating, including pledges by the global financial community to direct massive global investments toward climate-related issues. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero counts 450 firms with $130 trillion of private equity to be aligned to the Paris Agreement goals. And there’s the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative, with 236 signatories representing $57.5 trillion in assets under management. (I know, they’re just pledges, but speaking up is the first step toward taking action.)
  • In the First Movers Coalition, the World Economic Forum is partnering with the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, and over 30 global businesses to invest in innovative green technologies so they are available for massive scaling up by 2030, enabling net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.
  • And as the foundational subtext to many more such initiatives underway on Earth Day 2022, there’s the ongoing, powerful message of the Paris Agreement, the first legally binding international treaty on climate change, signed by 196 global parties, which took effect in November 2016.

Certain “hinge” moments in history seem to carry equal weights of terrible disaster and hopeful vision — we have agency to choose our path among the current malevolent miasmas of gloom and doom.

I could go on, but you get the drift. Certain “hinge” moments in history seem to carry equal weights of terrible disaster and hopeful vision — we have agency to choose our path among the current malevolent miasmas of gloom and doom. Let’s go for the high road of hope.

But as the war in Ukraine unfolds let’s also remember, in the immortal words of Edwin Starr:

War … Friend only to The Undertaker, woo

Peace, love and understanding, tell me

Is there no place for them today?

They say we must fight to keep our freedom

But Lord knows there’s got to be a better way, oh

Written by

John Howell

John Howell is a writer, editor, and broadcaster who oversees the Climate Finance Weekly newsletter and advises on communications and media strategy. He was co-founder, editorial director, and chief of thought leadership for 3BL Media, for which he managed all original editorial content, wrote, and edited newsletters, and created the Brands Taking Stands initiative. He has worked as an editor and contributor for Elle, Artforum, and High Times magazines, developed new media for Hearst Magazines, and created communications for Calvin Klein, Polo/Ralph Lauren, and The Body Shop. He lives and works in New Hampshire and Maine.