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Sam Waltz: A look at Earth Day from counterculture to mainstream

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By Sam Waltz

Monday, April 22, marks the 49th annual Earth Day, celebrated in 200-plus countries, but started here in the United States in April 1970.

That it has survived and thrived for so long is a testimony to the progress this country has made in learning to respect “Mother Earth” and our dependence on the ecosystem.

When the first Earth Day took place in the late 1960s, our country was much more divided than it is today. People who wore their hair too long and pinned anti-war symbols to their jackets were considered a threat to the establishment.

The hippies’ rejection of the American ethic – “when your country goes to war, you go to war” – became a siren call for the rejection of so much more, including a general disregard for the environment.

In the mid-1960s, Lady Bird Johnson – wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson – had launched her own Keep America Beautiful campaign that sought to bring down outdoor advertising and spruce up U.S. highways with greenery.

But activists in 1960s turned their attention to more fundamental environmental concerns than highways, such as the air, water and soil. Outspoken protestors demanded more aggressive enforcement by the government.
I was in the Army at the time, in its CounterIntelligence Corps, and I remember the first demonstration.

The government actually spied on Earth Day, because its protagonists were the anti-war movement, hippies, socialists, American Communists and others like them, who were regarded with paranoia.

Remember when Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev looked at us through the TV cameras and promised, “We will bury you?” His was not so much a literal promise – although it felt like that at the time – as a promise that the evolution of Communism and socialism would win the day in the world order.

Imagine that.

But it was part of the inflammatory rhetoric at the time, and those of us charged with keeping America safe looked with concern at anything out of the norm, including activities like Earth Day.

Earth Day very quickly matured, and it became a mainstream cause. Within a decade, as I worked at DuPont, I remember that DuPont had embraced environmentalism as a corporate ethic, and I recall that it hosted the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson at DuPont to talk about the importance of the environment.

Today, while climate change remains a political hotbed, few dispute the importance of keeping the environment safe for future generations.

Environmentalism has become a mainstream social and political value, and it falls to each of us to contribute
to its cause. This upcoming Earth Day, I hope many of us do.

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