Sunday, April 22, 2007

Earth Day, 1972

I have only vague recollections of the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. I do, however, remember that month very well for another reason.

I was in 3rd grade at Haugen Elementary, in the Albany Park neighborhood in Chicago. About a week earlier, I had awoken to the news that Apollo 13, which was supposed to be the third manned flight to the moon, had had an explosion. I was-- and still am-- fascinated by space flight. I'd remembered being allowed to stay up late to watch the grainy, upside down images of Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon the summer before.

Every day of that crisis, from April 13 to April 17, 1970, my little science nerd buddies and I excitedly discussed all the problems Mission Commander Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swieckert had in getting back: the fear that they'd get the trajectory wrong by a degree or two and either burn up or bounce into space forever; that their oxygen supply wouldn't last; whether the electronics in the LEM had been damaged in the explosion; for gods sake, even a typhoon approaching their landing site!

I remember when they announced over the intercom at school that the astronauts had landed safely, and how we cheered.

Later, Jim Lovell was to comment on how the mission and their near-fatal adventure had really driven in the point to him that earth is a warm, relatively hospitable island in a cold, unforgiving univerese.

Ironically, it had been Lovell's crew on Apollo 8 in December of 1968 that took this picture, one that has become very, very famous. It was also, largely, the inspiration for Earth Day, for really visualizing the point that Lovell had made about the earth's place in the universe.

The first Earth Day I remember really well was the one when I was in fifth grade at Parkwood Elementary in Hanover Park, Illinois. It was a school that was shared by two suburbs, Hanover Park, of course, and Streamwood, where my family lived.

Both suburbs were classic suburbs-- land that was formerly farmland, where they'd stripped the topsoil off, built the subdivision, put the topsoil back around the houses and planted a few trees. We moved there in April, 1971, not long before the second Earth Day.

I've read that 1971 was the height of suburbanization-- the height of movement from cities to the suburbs.

The reasons my folks moved from the city to the suburbs were perfectly logical. For about what they were spending on a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago, they could buy a three-bedroom house, with a yard and great schools. Yeah, believe it or not, there was a time when Streamwood and Hanover Park had great schools.

There was even a time when Chicago had great schools. A time when a bunch of blue-collar kids in third grade would discuss space flight, physics, elections, race relations, and a bunch of other things.

The reason I remember Earth Day, 1972 is that I won something. We had an Earth Day drawing, and I won a sapling. It was a poplar sapling that was about 3 feet tall. I planted it in our backyard a day or two later.

By the time we moved out of that house for the greener pastures of Western Springs in 1974, it had grown to be taller than me, or either of my parents.

About six years ago, I happened to be near that house to attend a wedding. I hadn't been out that way in years. My wife at the time, Cynthia, and I drove out there-- she wanted to see where I'd lived. To my surprise, the tree I'd planted was not only there, but was now about 40 feet high-- poplars grow fast, I'd read.

Right now, I'm reading Jared Diamond's book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." I'd wanted to read it since reading the reviews a couple of years ago, but I'd felt like I should read his book "Guns, Germs and Steel," which has become somewhat of a classic, first.

If you're inclined, read "Guns, Germs and Steel." It'll help contextualize "Collapse." But I feel like though "Guns, Germs and Steel" was his big hit breakthrough book, "Collapse" was the book that is his life's work.

"Collapse" is an examination of the explosive growth, and of course collapse, of various societies in the earth's past-- Easter Island, the Mayans, the Norse settlement on Greenland, New Guinea and others. He draws parallels to modern societies that have collapsed for various reasons. I'm most interested to see how he ties the 1994 Rwandan genocide to it all.

Back in the late seventies, during the so-called "Energy Crisis," there was an explosion of interest in sustainable agriculture, "alternative" energy sources, solar energy, wind power and such. President Jimmy Carter was excellent about supporting these initiatives, and there were serious gains made in these areas.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, and all of these initatives were allowed to expire. The United States continued a policy of expansion of the use of fossil fuel that included building a huge military that was used, in part, to protect petroleum interests in the Middle East.

We are, of course, immersed in a disasterous war in Iraq relating to maintaining that supply of fossil fuel.

When I was a kid, one of the big mysteries was "What happened on Easter Island?"

Easter Island is an island in the Pacific that offered a mystery to the first European explorers who got there. Here was a sparsely inhabited island that had a tiny population of people, and a bunch of enormous-- ten tons or more-- carved stone heads that had been created and moved around. There were almost no trees and very few people on the island. How had this come to be?

Around the time I'd planted my tree in Streamwood, there were popular theories, promoted by Eric Van Danicken ("Chariots of the Gods") and others, that aliens had come to earth and had created and placed these statues. In the early nineties, better theories had been come about: that societies had developed on the island that had started competing to build the enormous statues. To move them to the desired spots, they'd cut the then-plentiful trees and used them.

In Collapse, Jared Diamond asks the question, wondering what the Easter Islanders were thinking when they cut down their last tree?

What the Easter Islanders didn't know was that the ecology of their little island was quite fragile, and the the trees they were cutting down were part of a web that made the island livable. In cutting down their trees for short-term goals, they were sealing their doom.

Jared Diamond's clear implication was that the Easter Islanders had the intelligence, energy, and vision to create a self-sustaining society, but chose not to do so.

In "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore uses another image of the earth from the Apollo 8 mission, appropriately.

I'll assume that most people reading this blog have seen the movie. I've only seen the first half of it-- I showed half of it to my students a few weeks ago, and haven't sent it back to Netflix yet, realizing that I need to watch it attentively, perhaps with my son, who raves about it.

On this Earth Day, 35 years after I planted that tree that's taking carbon out of the air still, I want to point out that while we're down, we're not out.

My best friend Jim, who's never shown an interest in the environment before, sent me an email with seven ways to reduce your "carbon footprint."

Texas, of all places, is the biggest producer of wind energy, I found out recently.

Spain's biggest utility just bought a bunch of huge wind energy farms. In fact, Europe in general is going green.

And of course, my son thinks that Al Gore should run for President again-- though he'd be fine with voting for Barack Obama if he were 18.

I think back to that tree I planted when I was ten, and think of Johnny Appleseed; what if I'd planted a tree a month since then? I'd love to know the math-- what would my overall "carbon footprint" be?

Unlike the peoples of Easter Island, we have the benefit of knowledge and technology. I'd like to think that some archeologist, perhaps with the same view Jim Lovell had of the earth in 1968, won't have to look at the remnants of our planet and say to him or herself, about the last car we built, the last energy-wasting suburban tract home-- or even the last tree we cut down-- "What were they thinking?"


Joe said...

When I start to get depressed over our current state of affairs re: the environment it helps when I think back to the late 60's. The Cuyahoga river fire, Lake Erie being on the verge of becoming a dead lake, etc. My dad used to talk about the soot that would settle on your clothing if you spent enough time outdoors in cities like Pittsburgh. Thinking about the strides we made keeps me hopeful.

Then I remember that it was Nixon who was president when the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts passed, and I compare the political situation then to the one now...and I'm depressed again.

Good post.

SkylersDad said...

I was in middle school that first earth day, I remember thinking it was cool to plant trees, but mostly cool to get out of school.

I have to comment on Lovell and the space program, but it's too long.

I smell a post coming on!

Cheer34 said...

I remember the first earth day too. We started to recycle in our classroom that day. The school also planted a tree.

I remember the energy crisis and being disappointed that our 2 week family camping trip was cancelled because my dad was concerned we would not be able to get gas.

Wind farms have been proposed in our area for years. One time, Tom Golisano owner of Paychex came out against wind farms. His complaint was to much noise and that birds would fly into the windmills. Idiot! Thankfully more versed and intelligent people were able to get the correct information out to the media. We know have a few wind farms with more in the works.

I do not remember the Apollo 13 crisis, although I certainly am old enough too. I wonder whats up with that?

Thanks for the memories.

Splotchy said...

Nice post.

One thing to give one hope is that there is definitely a consciousness about the environment, the Earth we live on.

There's a long road to travel, but at least there is a growing awareness.

Danielle said...

I have definitely seen An Inconvenient Truth multiple times at that. You really make me want to plant a tree that for sure. I will be spending more time here searching for fodder for your interview. Really great post.

Be well and enjoy the day.

Danielle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vikkitikkitavi said...

What about Gore/Diamond 08? I'd vote for that?

Unknown said...

Easter Island is certainly interesting. I wonder how close we are in our hypotheses to what really happened.

Growing up, my mom was always "green" because she wanted something to be left for the grandchildren. She was right.

An Inconvenient Truth - scary. Maybe some things are exaggerated but something is happening to our world - and faster than we thought.

Coincidentally, I saw a play Sunday where one of the characters made a big point with his dislike of the cutting down of forests, killing of wild life, unplanned development, and the its negative effects. (Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov (a play at Carthage College), published in 1899. Things never seem to change.)

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I remembering my dad recyling everything and growing most of his own vegetables back in the 70s, when this was simply not done. And god forbid you tried to turn on a light before it was pitch black outside. I guess he was right after all.

Pezda's Ghost said...

Our next president needs to be nuts about the environment, or we are all doomed. However, he/she needs to be even stronger on foreign affairs. Not just because of the quagmire we are currently sinking in, but because China is on the brink of surpassing the US as the worlds top producer of greenhouse gasses.

So whoever our next leader is they need to be willing and able to work with China, India and the rest of the world to make changes. This is not a battle we can win by ourselves.

bubbles said...

JY! I lived in Streamwood, Illinois. My first home after my marriage in 1981. Poplar trees were the rage, as you said, they grow fast and shade was needed.

I have a genetic tendency toward planting, growing, recycling and conserving.

Better saved for a post, I suppose.

Great post, as always.

GETkristiLOVE said...

Thanks for taking the time to write about Earth Day JYen! I love the sapling story and I was reminded about the big tree you lost this year.

Beth said...

What a great post.

Erik Donald France said...

I remember Apollo 13. They should have skipped the unlucky number for that flight. In St. Paul, a few friends and I would crawl around in snow tunnels and pretend we were trapped astronauts and cosmonauts. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Also, remember The Limits to Growth?

Moderator said...

I've wanted to read both those books you mentioned and have stored "An Inconvenient Truth" on my TiVo since January.

Johnny Yen said...

It is amazing to think that some of the most important environmental legislation got passed during the Nixon administration. Of course, subsequent Republican administrations have been trying to chip away at it.

Skyler's Dad-
It's always fun to get out of school, especially if you're a teacher!

Great post on Lovell!

Yeah, the people who oppose the wind farms are classic "NIMBY's"-- Not in My Backyard.

I remember the first time I saw a wind farm was in 1983, in Northern California. I thought "how cool is that!" There's an elegance about them to me.


As Mao said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Thanks! From what I've seen so far, Al Gore deserves whatever accolades he's gathered. Who knows-- maybe he'll be the first person to ever get both an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize!

I like that idea!

Diamond documents his evidence on Easter Island pretty well.

That was very cool about your mother!

Isn't it amazing how history just repeats?

I always say, lately, isn't it amazing how much smarter our parents get, the older we get?

You're absolutely right. We're going to have to have a crash program that'll make the Manhattan Project look like a small program. And you're absoolutely right about the rest of the world. I suspect that we've "outsourced" our pollution.

Anon. Blogger-
It's funny to go back there and see actual trees. Ironically, growing up in Chicago, I'd gotten used to big trees. Streamwood was so bare in 1972.

I look forward to your post!

It's funny-- I hadn't made the connection about the sapling and our lost maple.

I wonder how many trees each of us would have to plant to even out our carbon footprint.


Yes, I do remember that book. There were a lot of thinkers in that area-- Paul Ehrlich was a biggie. Did you ever read Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful?"

The books are great not only for content, but Diamond is a damned good writer.