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Issues Of The Environment: Earth Day Celebrates 50 Years! Part One - Origins In Ann Arbor

Apr 22, 2020

U-M Professor Emeritus Dave Allan
Credit University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability / seas.umich.edu

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.  A group of environmentally aware and concerned students at the University of Michigan formed the group ENACT during a rather heady time on campus in 1969.  Through activity and organization, it led to the first-ever Earth Day in 1970.  In Part 1 of a special, Earth Day edition of "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair caught up with David Allan to look back at the five decades since that event.  Allan was a founding member and co-chair of ENACT and an organizer for the first Earth Day. 


Background Reading: "When Michigan Students Put the Car on Trial"

Gordon Lightfoot and the Broadway cast of Hair performed.  Barry Commoner and Ralph Nader spoke.  But the most bizarre event at the University of Michigan’s teach-in the month before the first Earth Day was a mock legal trial for a 1959 Ford sedan.

About 1,000 people gathered at high noon on March 11, 1970, on the grassy quad at the center of the Ann Arbor campus to watch the blue-and-white clunker face charges of “murder of the American public, crossing state lines to pollute, inciting traffic jams, creating physical and psychological dependence, and discriminating against the poor.”  This last charge reflected newly urgent concerns about highways, which tended to be built in lower-income neighborhoods, and resulted in polluting and sometimes even bulldozing those communities.

The sedan had a lot going for it—powerful witnesses for the defense; a distracted judge, who spent the mock trial reading an issue of Auto Racing (such ruling-class complacency amid ecological crisis!); and a society increasingly built around cars as the primary form of transport.

“Rob Rockyfeller,” witness for the defense, testified that his (fictional) foundation had found that auto exhaust was only half as toxic as aspirin.  His appearance lampooned the various foundations that supported business-friendly policy in the name of general prosperity. Another witness attested to the importance of cars to the American economy.  But no witness evoked the country’s car mania more vividly than “Dr. Sigmund Ford,” who sat stiffly on the stand with his head tilted slightly back, looking down his nose at the crowd below him.

“The automobile is essential to the maintenance of the American’s psyche,” Ford shouted, urging the court to consider the emotional security a car gives to the American man.  “You can’t take it away from him!  How else could he know his power and virility?  How can we show our neighbors we’re stronger and more powerful than they are without a Lincoln Continental?”

“But what would actually happen to [Americans] if you took away cars?” asked the prosecutor, wearing a plaid skirt-suit and, of all things, leather driving gloves.

“But you see, cars are very important,” Ford began, dodging the question.  “They serve a function—”

“What would be the effect on people?” the prosecutor interjected. Ford couldn’t provide a satisfactory answer.  “You just can’t take away their cars,” he shouted.  “You can’t take away my car!”

The judge, stirred briefly from his magazine, found Dr. Ford a compelling witness and ruled the sedan innocent before accusing a dozen activists of “conspiring” against the automobile.  A handful of activists then unceremoniously debenched the judge and turned the trial over to the assembled crowd, who delivered a guilty verdict.  The car was sentenced to death. Bystanders smashed it to pieces with sledgehammers.

The automobile was a common target for such stunts at environmental teach-ins that year.  At a rally in February at San José State University, student-activists bought and then buried a new car; at Indiana’s DePauw University on Earth Day, one student arrived on campus on horseback with a sign that read “Ban the automobile.”

But the mock trial in Michigan was a bold move in a state whose economy was still very much tied to the auto industry.  In 1970, forty-two percent of Americans employed in the manufacture of automobiles and equipment called Michigan home.  Ralph Nader, author of the landmark 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, which would help force the auto industry to transform its safety standards, told audiences in Ann Arbor that corporations, not consumers, were responsible for the pollution from automobiles.  Significantly, the rally wasn’t attended only by college kids, so often accused of being unfamiliar with the real world. Industry leaders attended, and Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, was on hand to demand environmental reforms from car companies.  The UAW donated $2,000 to the national Earth Day teach-in.

“If you ask me, ‘Can we solve [ecological crises] within the framework of business-as-usual?’  My answer is no,” Reuther said in an interview at the teach-in.  “We’ve got to create new instruments, new institutions; we’ve got to develop new approaches and new concepts to deal with these new problems.”

Reuther was adamant that cleaning up cars didn’t have to cost autoworkers jobs.  “Because industry has for so long polluted the environment of the plants in which we work and has now created an environmental crisis of catastrophic proportions in the communities in which we live, the UAW will insist on discussing the implications of this crisis at the bargaining table,” he said at the UAW’s annual convention in Atlantic City in April of that year.

Indeed, pollution had finally become a national concern: In 1970, levels of common air pollutants were about 73 percent higher than they are today, and the automobile was the main culprit.  “Nobody was talking about climate change at that time,” says Doug Scott, then a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and co-chair of the group that organized the university’s teach-in.  “But there was just a general perception that the freeways packed with one driver per car pouring out leaded gasoline was not a good thing.”

Nobody expected the trial stunt alone to change policy.  But the guerrilla theater was a way for the young generation to make a memorable point. “We tended not to reject ideas,” Scott says.  “Someone, and I couldn’t tell you who, decided that an awfully good way to get this going would be to take sledgehammers to a gas guzzler.”

The teach-in helped shape the lives of some of the student activists.  Doug Scott went on to lobby Congress on behalf of nonprofit advocacy organizations such as the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club; one of his most notable achievements, he says, was helping pass the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which more than doubled the size of America’s national park system.

And a few months after the teach-in, the UAW joined environmental groups including Environmental Action and the Sierra Club in signing a resolution calling on Congress to make air pollution standards strict enough to force auto companies to phase out the internal combustion engine. Instead, carmakers developed and embraced the catalytic converter, which helped drastically reduce air pollution and allowed the internal combustion engine to live on.

As air pollution from automobiles dropped, their footprint on the ground kept growing.  In the decades that followed, disputes about proposed highways that would cut through city neighborhoods continued across the country.  George Coling, a member of the teach-in’s steering committee while a graduate student at Michigan’s School of Public Health, pursued a long career in ecological activism, and saw the toll of these freeway fights up close.  “There were massive intrusions of interstates into urban neighborhoods, which meant displacement of whole areas, razing of homes and businesses,” says Coling.

To Coling, the car’s show trial and violent execution were about more than just pollution: They symbolized the need to move beyond a car-based transportation system toward one that offered better mass transit, which could be more environmentally friendly and cost users less.

Still, looking back after a long career in environmental justice, he acknowledges that destroying a car was not a wholly righteous thing to do.  “The act of smashing a car is quite elitist,” Coling says, because it fails to consider “the very real need that people have for transportation.”  Americans may not be as psychologically dependent on cars as Dr. Ford claimed, but they still need them to get around.  Even the unnamed owner of the executed car admitted at the demonstration, over the arrhythmic clang of sledgehammers on metal, that he had donated the vehicle after purchasing a new car.  (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-michigan-students-put-car-trial-180974374/)

Original Earth Day organizers come together 50 years later

Six former members of the U-M student organization that established the original Teach-In on the Environment in 1970 reconvened 50 years later March 11 to discuss how history can inform the environmental movement going forward.

While much of the discussion focused on how the original event coalesced — in terms of outreach, fundraising and bringing people together in a pre-social media era — panelists took time to discuss the legacy of that teach-in against the backdrop of the immense work to be done on environmental issues.

“We carried off the teach-in.  We carried off many things in our lives since, but the big failure in society is still there and is going to be there for some time,” said Arthur Hanson, an ecologist and professor, and former president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development.  “This is a long-term game.”

The original 1970 teach-in was organized by Environmental Action for Survival — known as ENACT — and formed a model for the first Earth Day five weeks later.  The teach-in began with a “trial” and the sledgehammer “execution” of a 1959 Ford automobile, and culminated with a 50,000-person event at Crisler Arena.

Participants included then-Michigan Gov. William Milliken, the heads of Dow Chemical Co. and General Motors Corp., consumer activist Ralph Nader, folk-rock star Gordon Lightfoot, the Chicago cast of the rock musical “Hair,” and other environmental, political and cultural figures.

The organizers’ reunion panel was livestreamed from the Samuel T. Dana Building. Besides Hanson, it included:

  • Doug Scott, career strategist and a conservation and environmental lobbyist. Scott co-chaired the group that organized the ENACT Teach-In on the Environment. 
  • David Allan, U-M professor emeritus of conservation biology and ecosystem management and former acting dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment, the predecessor of the School for Environment and Sustainability. Allan was a founding member of ENACT.
  • Elizabeth Grant Kingwill, mental health counselor and former board member of the local Sierra Club chapter. She served as ENACT chair of community relations.
  • George Koling, occupational health and environmental justice advocate, and formerly one of the founders of the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor.
  • Barbara Alexander, consumer affairs consultant and former midwestern coordinator for the first Earth Day in April 1970.
  • Moderator Matt Lassiter, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of history and associate professor of urban and regional planning. 

Alexander pointed to disinformation on social media, the hollowing out of local news, growing income inequality and an emerging rural-urban divide as key challenges going forward.

“I think there are new opportunities,” Alexander said.  “Our young people need to come to grips with these issues in a way that, frankly, we had a lot of advantages given to us to adopt all of these reforms in the 1970s.”

The event was preceded by a teach-in where current youth and student activists compared strategies with activists from years past.

Panelists discussed how climate change and environmental justice are intertwined with various social justice issues.  One takeaway: how current youth activists have added a necessary sense of emergency to the environmental discussion.  One panelist noted that that urgency needs to be complemented by consensus on action.

The panels are part of U-M’s ongoing commemoration of Earth Day at 50, which notes the history of the environmental movement at U-M while elevating the need to address climate change through a community-driven, multidisciplinary effort.

While most Earth Day at 50 events have been canceled as part of the university’s response to the spreading threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus, organizers are looking to elevate prominent topics, events and speakers either through remote sessions or at later dates.

(Source: *directly quoted* https://record.umich.edu/articles/original-earth-day-organizers-come-together-again/)

The Ecology Center: 50 Years of Education and Activism for Environmental Health and Justice

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” reflects Elizabeth Grant Kingwill on a choice she made as a graduate student in 1970.  “I was a woman, a determined loud woman,” one of only a handful in University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources at the time, and one who found that speaking up led to stepping up: “like anybody who complains, you end up doing the job yourself.”

When Elizabeth joined the student group ENACT as one of the only female leaders planning Ann Arbor’s 1970 Teach-In for the Environment, no one knew how big the event would get or how significant its legacy would be.  Thanks in part to her work as head of (previously neglected) community relations, the event drew over 50,000 attendees to four days of 125 meetings, seminars, and lectures.  It was the first and largest Earth Day event, kicking off a wave of mobilization often marked as the birth of the modern environmental movement. 

As other organizers scattered in the summer after the Teach-In, Elizabeth and one other student stuck around, charged with the vague task “to maintain a presence on campus that summer and to figure out what to do with the leftover money.”  Elizabeth took on the lion’s share of the labor. Out of that $70,000 and a lot of hard work, the Ecology Center was born.  “Not bad for a wanna-be change agent,” says Elizabeth, who feels both “pride and gratitude to all who came after me that the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor is still going and growing.” 

Michigan’s Ecology Center is one of only a few Ecology Centers remaining from the original  nationwide network. Formed in 1969, the first Ecology Center in Berkeley, CA served as a model for the burgeoning grassroots Ecology Center movement, and Cliff Humphrey traveled from California to help the ENACT organizers design Ann Arbor’s Ecology Center.  The larger movement helped inform the Ecology Center’s mission in Ann Arbor as a gathering site for  collective action, continuing the momentum generated by Earth Day. 

Elizabeth envisioned Ann Arbor’s Ecology Center as a place to bring people together to collaborate and learn, drawing both from the Berkeley model and her own academic training in UM’s then-new Environmental Education program.  First-wave U.S. environmental action was largely driven by single-issue conservation organizations in the first half of the 20th century, and the landscape remained fractured in 1970.  Environmental groups “rarely cooperated because they had their own special interests and were competitive for members,” recalls Elizabeth.  “I wanted a space where they could interact, have meetings, hopefully learn to cooperate on common goals...It stayed pretty empty for awhile. The organizations were quite wary.”

But Elizabeth was tenacious about getting the Ecology Center off the ground.  She found an office space, signed the lease, and scrounged furniture.  She pitched the Center to skeptical old-guard environmental groups and made the workspace appealing by adding phones and a small library.  She established a board of directors and helped put the organization and its mission in the public eye by convincing Ann Arbor News editor Doug Fulton to join the board as a key early player.  And ultimately she succeeded in transitioning the Ecology Center from a “personal summer project” to an organization capable of longevity with broad community support.  She learned how to establish a nonprofit and signed the legal paperwork as an incorporator, along with Fulton; George Coling, who later moved to Washington, DC to help plant further local Ecology Centers and coordinate communication among them; and J. David Allan, William Browning, Toby Cooper, Arthur Hanson, and Douglas Scott.

A belief in the power of collaboration anchored the Ecology Center then, and although much has changed in 50 years, that core value still guides a partnership-based approach that makes our work distinctive today.  Current Director Mike Garfield observes that “one of the defining characteristics of the Ecology Center’s work today is that we do virtually all of our work in coalition and partnership with other organizations.  It is one of our 'north stars.’”

Elizabeth traces her and her fellow organizers’ effectiveness 50 years ago to collaboration, even and especially when faced with the challenge of cutting through political tensions: “The success we had as ENACT and subsequently the Ecology Center was in large part because we did cooperate and we wanted to be inclusive,” she says.  “While inclusivity was not a priority” for many of the Teach-In organizers, “it was something that was ok,” and the movement brought together folks of all political stripes. 

Amidst sometimes fierce disagreements, the coalition was able to rally around a strong core of what Elizabeth calls “motherhood and apple pie” ideas about our environment’s importance: “everyone could see the problem and make some small effort to improve their footprint on the planet.”  The spread of that idea--the fact that lots of ordinary people decided to do something--is why we have made progress on problems like pollution since 1970, progress Elizabeth thinks is easy to forget in the face of today’s steep challenges.  Another ENACT saying was “there is no free lunch,” and that is something  we all still must to come to grips with as we fight for solutions to the global climate crisis.

As the Ecology Center rises to meet those challenges, we’re staying focused on a north star that started our journey half a century ago: collective action is powerful. 

(Source: *directly quoted* https://ecologycenter.umhistorylabs.lsa.umich.edu/s/ecohistory/page/home)

To listen to Part 2 of the "Earth Day Celebrates 50 Years" edition of Issues of the Environment, click here.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu