"The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation"

July 15, 2013



The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation

By Adam Rome
Hill and Wang, $30

Reviewed by TOM HENRY

This fascinating book does a great job of distilling the history of Earth Day in an unemotional and objective way. That, in itself, is valuable. Too often, books with an Earth Day theme have been cheer- leader-like campaigns or memoirs in which Earth Day is a stage prop or anecdote. There are surprisingly few others – perhaps none – that take this serious of an assessment of that event and explain it in terms of the socio-political impact it had.

But Adam Rome’s ambition doesn’t end there. A former journalist and SEJ member who now teaches environmental history and environmental nonfiction at the University of Delaware, Rome shows how Earth Day evolved into something few people expected.

Not a faux holiday for major corporations to trot out new marketing gimmicks, either. It evolved into the first green generation.

It’s hard for people to think back to the country’s sentiment about the environment long before the late 1960s movement that led to Earth Day. Not only was there a dearth of regulatory agencies to protect our public health and the environment. But there also were scant few environmental groups, save for some of the oldest conservation groups, such as the Sierra Club.

Earth Day itself didn’t necessarily give rise to the vastly expanded network of environmental groups, regulatory agencies and – yes – the creation of and support for environmental writers at mainstream newspapers.

But the movement did. And Rome presents convincing evidence that, cynicism about Earth Day aside, that movement changed America and the psyche of its next generation of people.

Sadly, though, there’s evidence throughout this book – not so much in a preachy way, though – that many lessons have been forgotten, that people were more environmentally conscious and com- mitted to improvements then. One cannot read this without wondering what happened – why, with the benefit of so much more knowledge we have today about protecting land, water, and air, that we haven’t moved forward more than we have.

What’s cool is how Rome, who’s obviously passionate about the environment, stays detached enough to show how Earth Day wasn’t nearly the event its founder Gaylord Nelson, a former Wis- consin governor and U.S. senator, had envisioned. The event took on a life of its own, not that Nelson objected.

The first Earth Day in 1970, conceived as a nationwide teach-in, inspired thousands of events across the country, becoming larger than any of the civil rights or anti-war demonstrations. Some 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools were believed to have participated, not to mention countless churches, temples, city park districts, busi- nesses, and government agencies.

Rome’s book shows how Earth Day gave rise to lobbying organizations, such as the League of Conservation Voters, and how it defined new career paths for thousands of adults involved in education, lobbying, regulation, scientific research, communications, or other aspects of the environment.

It’s an inspiring, yet unsentimental, look at one of the most monumental events in modern history. It’s meticulously researched and deftly written, a page-turner that sets the stage for the times we face now while raising legitimate questions about the direction we’re going.

Tom Henry is a Toledo-based journalist. He is SEJournal’s book editor, and serves on the SEJournal Editorial Advisory Board and SEJ’s Board of Directors

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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