"The wrong kind of pollution": critical responses to Earth Day

NYT advertisement by Environmental Teach-In, Inc. 1970

A fundraising and awareness advertisement by Environmental Teach-In, Inc. ran in the New York Times on January 18, 1970. Critics of Earth Day debated if the environmental agenda was either too radical or not radical enough, but the idea was broad enough to encourage action no matter the point of view.

Earth Day was overwhelmingly applauded as an important national awakening. The peaceful and inclusive nature of Earth Day gatherings were welcomed in the media after the tumult so often associated with student activism and public political events in the 1960s.

Although mainstream skepticism merely questioned whether Earth Day would be all talk, others were more skeptical, painting the environmental agenda as either too radical or not radical enough. These undercurrents of doubt surrounding Earth Day's politics never produced full-out opposition. Rather, participants in Earth Day included a diverse mix of New Leftists, conservatives, businessmen, citizens, and anticommunists.

Papers in the Nelson Collection reveal this diversity of critics. Some anti-war protesters felt marginalized as they watched pollution displacing the Vietnam War in newspapers and campus organizing—perhaps the product of a government conspiracy. Others on the left complained to Nelson that environmentalists were not targeting the deeper economic structures responsible for pollution. Rep. Paul McCloskey claimed that members of Students for a Democratic Society heckled him and Nelson as "fascist pigs."

In the opposite camp, surreptitious socialist agendas were suspected by others, such as a Milwaukee corporation president who refused to donate to Earth Day because he detected the involvement of "certain militants" interested in "the total overthrow of the business community." Several elected officials, egged on by the anti-communist John Birch Society, wondered aloud if it was mere coincidence that the event's date fell on the birthday of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.

Conservatives spoke out against environmentalists' goal to increase public spending and government regulation for the environment. A convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution declared such spending to be "unnecessary and harmful," thrust upon the nation by exaggeration and "pollution of the mind." Similarly, some unions did not view the environmentalist agenda as enough of a priority in the lives of working people to get involved in Earth Day.

The skepticism of some black environmentalists and social justice activists foreshadowed a more important challenge for the future of the modern environmental movement.

Even those who endorsed Earth Day, like the mayor of Gary, Indiana, worried that the new movement would "distract the nation from the human problems of the black and brown American." This view stemmed from the activities and rhetoric of the college teach-ins, such as when students at San Jose State College—Nelson's alma mater—performed the burial of a brand new car. African American students decried such a gaudy display of privilege even in the name of environmentalism. The president of a Philadelphia civil rights organization observed that "the polluted streams they're talking about we've never seen anyway...[but] if we mean polluted sewers, I'm ready to play with that." Some activists were able to unite social justice and environmental activism in 1970, yet the divide between the two continues trouble the modern environmental movement.

View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:

A syndicated environmental column from 1970 featuring commentary on Earth Day from two female African American activists.

Letters from business executives declining to donate and expressing criticism of Earth Day