The passing of Earth Day and, on many campuses, of Earth Month, is an opportune time to reflect on the true roots of American environmentalism, and the unfortunate mythology that too often distracts us from the challenge of the environmental and social ills that still nag at our society after more four and a half decades.
Emblematic of that mythology is the Great Cuyahoga River Fire, which ranks as the most evocative icon of American environmentalism. According to various accounts, on June 22, 1969, the urban industrial waterway that courses through Cleveland, Ohio spontaneously combusted due to extreme pollution, sent flames five stories high, and burned for days. The fire has been credited with rousing public indignation, inspiring Earth Day, launching the modern environmental movement, and prompting the enactment of the largest body of environmental law on the planet, in particular the 1972 Clean Water Act.
Each Earth Day, and on each anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the story is told and retold by environmentalists, journalists, the public at-large, the Environmental Protection Agency, even the President of the United States. Musician Randy Newman memorialized the incident in his song “Burn On.” In the liner notes to the 1972 album Sail Away, he wrote that watching the Cuyahoga burn on television moved him to write the song. Speaking to the League of Conservation Voters on June 25, 2014, President Obama suggested that his audience “dredge up that old tape of the Cuyahoga River on fire,” as evidence of the great strides credited to the Clean Water Act.
But there is no videotape. Neither newspapers nor television could arrive before local firefighters extinguished the brief, 20-minute blaze of oil-soaked wood and debris that floated atop the Cuyahoga. Television station WEWS recorded 47 seconds of a smoking trestle, one of two that had been damaged. Local papers covered the story based on the accounts of firefighters. One month later, Time wrote a brief, second-hand account, accompanied by a decade-old photo (the Cuyahoga had caught fire several times over the years, as had other industrialized rivers). National Geographic and Audubon magazine followed-up with features that secured the legend so firmly in the American consciousness that many still believe they have seen video and photos of the raging fire.
Psychiatrists might say that the Cuyahoga River fire is the product of “imagination inflation” -- if you want something to be true badly enough your mind creates the needed facts; or “false memory” – for example, recalling a video that never existed (apologies to President Obama and his speech writers). Much more is wrong about Cuyahoga, the myth. A burning river is a conspicuously low bar for judging the effectiveness of environmental law, and the story obscures the more troubling realities of the time. It is a discredit to the golden age of Congressional environmentalism, which actually began in the 1960’s, and the breathtaking vision advocated by Earth Day’s founders -- an all-embracing view that railed equally against poverty, hunger, inequitable opportunity, war spending, and attacks on civil rights.
The two preeminent environmental leaders in the U.S. Senate, Edmund Muskie of Maine and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, came to Washington early in the decade prior to the Cuyahoga incident with a promise to make the American environment a centerpiece of their tenures in office. In 1963, Ed Muskie successfully advocated for the creation of a Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution, became its chair, and immediately began work on what would become his two towering achievements, the 1970 Clean Air Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act. That same year, Gaylord Nelson, in his first senate speech, called for “a comprehensive, nationwide program to save the natural resources of America.” Nelson went on to become the founder of Earth Day. The U.S. Senate history site explains how he came upon the idea:
In 1969 a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara covered miles of beaches with tar. Senator Nelson toured the area in August and was outraged by the damage the oil spill had caused, but was also impressed with the many people who rallied to clean up the mess. Flying back from California, the senator read a magazine article about the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins that were taking place on college campuses. This inspired him to apply the same model to the environment.
In September 1969 the senator charged his staff with figuring out how to sponsor environmental teach-ins on college campuses nationwide, to be held on the same day the following spring. Rather than organize this effort from the top down, they believed that Earth Day would work better as a grassroots movement. They raised funds to set up an office staffed by college students, with a law student, Denis Hayes, serving as the national coordinator. They identified the week of April 19 to 25 as the ideal time for college schedules and the possibility of good spring weather. Calculating that more students were on campus on Wednesdays made Wednesday, April 22, the first Earth Day.
An astonishing success, the first Earth Day in 1970 was celebrated by some twenty million Americans on two thousand college campuses, at ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and in hundreds of communities. More than forty years later, its commemoration attracts hundreds of millions of people in countries all over the world.
More than any other incident of the time, the Santa Barbara oil spill enraged the public and forced elected officials to confront the nation’s inadequate laws and policies. On January 28, 1969, twenty-one hundred miles west of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga, a blowout at a Union Oil Company rig spilled as much as 4,200,000 gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel off Southern California. The spill despoiled more than 40 miles of coast and beaches, and killed hundreds of marine mammals and thousands of sea birds. Newspapers, magazines and live television broadcasts reported on the spill regularly for weeks. Oiled animals populated front pages. Life magazine sent reporters and photographers to document dead elephant seals on the San Miguel Islands. Federal, state and local officials joined the national media at the spill site. Senator Muskie took an aerial tour and was greeted by angry demonstrators at the airport.
So viscerally did the spill affect the nation, President Richard Nixon, fresh from his Santa Barbara visit, released a statement to reassure a shocked public: “This country can no longer afford to squander valuable time before developing answers to pollution and oil slicks from wells, tankers, or any other source.” He called for “stringent and effective regulations that will give us better assurance than the Nation now has that crises of this kind will not recur.”
“It always takes a disaster to ignite concern,” Muskie later said about the Santa Barbara and other spills. The Cuyahoga River fire was no disaster nor did it ignite concern when it occurred; that would only come later as the dimensions of the story were inflated and then exploited to create a false sense of accomplishment. By contrast, the Santa Barbara spill ranked with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for searing the American conscience and stoking public outrage over the condition of the national environment. The public was barely aware of the Cuyahoga fire when it occurred, even though a rock star said he watched it on television. Indeed, it is unlikely the Cuyahoga would have entered the national consciousness had not the Santa Barbara spill already rubbed American nerves raw.
So, why did the Cuyahoga incident take over the environmental consciousness? Perhaps because we need symbols of success so badly we are willing to inflate our imaginations, even create false memories. After all, a standard based on rivers that no longer catch fire is easily met. For a more critical view of our environmental history since 1969, however, one would better consider the hundreds of spills that have occurred since 1969, including the 31,500,000 gallon Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 and the 200,000,000 gallon Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 that killed 11 workers.
As important, the founding mission of Earth Day is cheapened by cartoonish images, such as a river raging with fire, that are used to evoke the spirit of American environmentalism or, worse, document environmental accomplishments. By contrast, imbued in the speeches of Senator Gaylord Nelson and Senator Edmund Muskie delivered on that first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, were the collective legacy of courageous Americans, such as Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King, Jr., who stood bravely for a holistic view of an America unimpeded by attacks on our freedoms – in the case of Carson, attacks brought by the virulent poison of pesticides; in the case of Reverend King, attacks brought by a virulent militancy against minorities and the poor.
Here are excerpts from the speeches delivered by Nelson and Muskie on that First Earth Day. Their vision should resonate with us even more forcefully today:
Senator Gaylord Nelson:
Earth Day can–and it must–lend a new urgency and a new support to solving the problems that still threaten to tear the fabric of this society… the problems of race, of war, of poverty, of modern-day institutions.
Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.
Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.
Senator Edmund Muskie:
The whole society that we seek is one in which all men live in brotherhood with each other and with their environment. It is a society where each member of it knows that he has an opportunity to fulfill his greatest potential.
We have seen the destructiveness of poverty, and declared a war on it.
We have seen the ravages of hunger, and declared a war on it.
We have seen the costs of crime, and declared a war on it.
And now we have awakened to the pollution of our environment, and we have declared another war.
We have fought too many losing battles in these wars to continue this piece-meal approach to creating a whole society.