Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Adam Rome's "The Genius of Earth Day"

Adam Rome teaches environmental history and environmental nonfiction at the University of Delaware. Before earning his Ph.D. in history, he worked for seven years as a journalist. His first book, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism, won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the Lewis Mumford Prize.

Rome applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, and reported the following:
The story of the first Earth Day turned out to be even more amazing than I expected. In September 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin promised to organize “a nationwide teach-in on the environment” in spring 1970, and his call to action ultimately inspired more than 12,000 Earth Day celebrations across the nation. Those events had a freshness and intensity that are difficult to imagine today.

Because Earth Day 1970 was unprecedented, the organizers had to plan everything from scratch, and the organizing work often was life-changing. Tens of thousands of people spoke on Earth Day – and many had never spoken publicly about environmental issues before. The discussions at Earth Day teach-ins sometimes were soul-searching: Many participants were struggling to get to the roots of “the environmental crisis.”

Earth Day truly made history. The events built a lasting eco-infrastructure – lobbying organizations, environmental-studies programs, environmental beats at newspapers, eco sections in bookstores, and community ecology centers. Thousands of organizers and participants decided to devote their lives to the environmental cause. Earth Day gave birth to the first green generation.

Page 99 is about two-thirds of the way into chapter 2, “Organizers.” That chapter is the heart of my book, because the organizing effort explains so much of the power of Gaylord Nelson’s idea. By page 99, I have explained how and why Nelson worked to make Earth Day happen. I also have profiled the twenty-something activists hired by Nelson to help coordinate the teach-in. On page 99, I am beginning to tell readers about the thousands of local organizers.

Many of the student organizers had no interest in the environment before 1970. “Some,” I write, “were campus activists who concluded that the new environmental movement was more likely to transform society than the antiwar movement. Earth Day appealed even more to idealistic students who were wary of extremism. Though they were not willing to get arrested or alienate their parents, they were keen to be involved in a cause. Who could doubt that stopping pollution was a noble mission? The respectability of the anti-pollution effort also inspired some student-government leaders to organize Earth Day events. As one explained, ‘We want to show the good side of students for a change.’”

That ends the first paragraph on page 99. After a paragraph about the professors who became Earth Day organizers, I start to explain the mechanics of the organizing effort. At most colleges and universities, “the planning process was ad hoc. Someone heard about Earth Day, talked about the event with friends or colleagues, and then called a public meeting for anyone interested in helping to save the world. The public meetings sometimes drew hundreds of people. The attendees became the Earth Day committee – or they formed a group with a more grandiose name.”

I was inspired by the story of the Earth Day organizers, and I hope you will be too.
Learn more about The Genius of Earth Day at the Hill and Wang website.

--Marshal Zeringue