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The Green Room: Our Planet And Our Politics

Everyone wants clean water and clean air, and most agree that human life is dependent on a healthy planet. In this segment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” we hear about the beginning of the Earth Day movement in Ann Arbor.  And we explore possible reasons for the current lack of progress on environmental issues, nationally.

David Fair (DF): This is 89.1 WEMU and I’m David Fair.  2019 marks 50 years since American youth were preparing for the very first Earth Day.  As a top hit of 1969 refrained, there was hope for the dawning of a new age, of “harmony and understanding.”  It was a time in which there was a growing consensus that we have only one earth, and must work together for its preservation.  But, a half-century later, things don’t feel quite so unified.  In this edition of WEMU’s, “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas looks at the origins of the Earth Day movement and where we stand today.

Fade out music.

BL:  In 1969, a steering committee of 22 people began planning for a Teach-In on the environment, to be held at the University of Michigan.  It was part of a sea-change—the modern environmental movement.  I wanted to hear about it from one of the original planners.  So I visit 77-year-old John Russell, at his farm outside of Ann Arbor.  He’s hoping to protect this property through the Greenbelt Program.  We hunt for a good spot to talk.

John Russell:  Now if you really want ambience, we could sit in the “Series One.”

BL:  That’s his very cool 1955 Land Rover. 

JR: I don’t think you can get in that side, can you?

BL:  We clamber way up into the open front seat of the massive vehicle.

Sounds of getting in.

BL: Overlooking his fields, barns and a rusted out tractor—one of many old vehicles strewn about the property—he proceeds to tell me his story.

JR:  There was an awful lot of planning that went on over a pitcher of beer at the old German.

BL:  At the time, Russell was in his first year of teaching high school Ecology.  He interrupts himself to point out three wild turkeys.

JR: Yup, they're all bearded males.  See, beards are good!

BL: Needless to say, he sports a beard as well.  He says he’s a lifelong Republican.  That doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the fervent environmentalist that he is. 

According to Russell, he was teaching his students about global warming fifty years ago.  Another interruption—this time it’s a bird soaring overhead.

JR: That's a vulture turkey!  See the “V” that his wings form?  Hawks will have a straight profile, whereas a vulture has a V profile.

BL:  Not surprisingly, Russell was  “Education Chair” of the Teach-in.  He says it was patterned after the first Teach-in, also held at the University of Michigan, during the Viet Nam War.  Russell calls Ann Arbor’s Teach-In on the environment: “The First Earth Day.”

JR:  In Washington they were working on a national one, a nationwide Teach-in.  So ours was the prototype. Ours was in March 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 of 1970.

BL:  Apparently it attracted far more people than they’d expected.  When local hotels reached capacity, they begged them to jam in more.  Residents, including Russell, let people sleep on their floors.

JR:  This was the 60s, so you didn't need places to sleep, you know, you just crashed.

BL:  The Teach-In surpassed even their wildest dreams.

JR:  And Chrysler arena starts to fill up, and it gets fuller and fuller and the fire marshal shuts the doors.  We turned away three- to four-thousand people and set up speakers in the parking lot, where they could hear the shows that went on: Gordon Lightfoot and the Chicago cast of Hair.  We had just wonderful stuff going on inside.

BL:  Sounds like quite a production.

JR:  I didn't realize what I'd gotten myself into.  So a couple hours of sleep a night.  But boy was it fun.

BL:  And, he tells me, it produced results.

JR:  One of the things that came out of Earth Day was the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor.

BL:  And he tics off a string of other initiatives that followed Earth Day:  Recycle Ann Arbor. Michigan’s Beverage Container Deposit law.  The Michigan Environmental Protection Act, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  What I want to know is, why did they make so much progress on the environment back then, when it seems so difficult now?

JR:  This is a very bipartisan effort.  We had we had Democrats, Republicans and others all on the steering committee working on this and there was there was none of the polarization that you see today, which is a big blockage to accomplishing anything.

BL:  For instance, their publicity director was John Turner, who became Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Fish and Wildlife.  David Brower was there, who founded Friends of the Earth, and Ralph Nader.  Russell says they were united by the goal of lasting legislation.  But he’s frustrated.  He says after being enacted, a lot of laws were quietly gutted or defunded.

JR:   Now it's not even under the table, it's just scratch this scratch that, and eliminate this and eliminate that. We don't need national parks and so forth. So it's tough.  And you know I'm a Republican I grew up Republican back on the East Coast. I remember when Republicans were the ones in favor of parks, and they were the ones that broke the money loose and they were the ones that… And I get to Michigan in 1969, Bill Milliken. He's advocating all this environmental legislation—Republican governor.  Well, now something's happened and the polarization is so great that you don't think what it is you're doing, you just try to undo what your different party predecessors did, which is a terrible shame and an ass backwards a way to run government.

BL:  It’s notable that it was only eleven years ago that an ad ran on TV with Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat Nancy Pelosi sitting together like old pals, on a small couch in front of the White House:

Clip from the commercial:

Pelosi:  We don’t always see eye to eye, do we Newt? 

Gingrich:  No, but we do agree:  our country must take action to address climate change.

Pelosi:  We need cleaner forms of energy, and we need them fast.

Gingrich:  If enough of us demand action from our leaders, we can spark the innovation we need.

BL:  So why the current chasm?  This time, I speak to someone with an inside view of politics, and in a very different setting. 

Doorman: “Good morning, welcome to the Townsend Hotel.”

BL:  We sit down together in the elegant lobby.

David Trott:  Dave Trott, of Birmingham Michigan, former House Member from Michigan’s 11th district.

BL:  I ask about his League of Conservation Voters lifetime score of 5%.  It’s on par with the 7% average of his Republican colleagues.  Compare this with the 91% average of Democrats.  Why are the two parties oceans apart on the environment?  He blames it in part on partisanship.

DT:  I'm not defending my positions because if I was there today I think I would be more likely to not be such a great team player.  There's a lot of pressure among Democrats and Republicans to support the agenda as articulated.

BL:  Even if that includes things they aren’t fond of.  Regarding Trump’s stance on the Paris Accords.

DT: I think he just pulled out because Obama was in.  Right?  So Republicans are blindly following Trump with respect to climate change.  And there's really no capacity for many people to vary from that position.

BL:  At last report, forty-seven Obama-era environmental protection policies have been rolled back.  Thirty-one may soon be out as well.  Trott says although Republicans historically stood for a clean environment, part of the Republican agenda is to support the economy by preventing what he calls regulatory hurdles and government over-reach. 

DT:  Certainly that under President Obama the EPA maybe went a little too far in terms of some of its mandates and Waters of the U.S. and some of the other things that gave great pause to at least the Republican base. 

BL: He says there is less of a divide on drinking water issues.  When I ask how we should pay for them, he mentions roads as well.

DT:  Well, where is the money going to come from?  I'm not saying it shouldn't be through some form of taxes, but you can say that now because I'm not in office.  If I was still in office... you'd be hard pressed to have a Republican talk about any taxes for anything, right?  That's just not something that we can ever, ever propose or support.

BL: Another factor he cites is social media, which exacerbates polarization.  How about special interests—does their money deepen the divide, as John Russell suggested to me?  Trott says legislators aren’t swayed so much by $5,000 contributions.  Rather, their concern may be…

DT:  …they're going to come in and spend a million bucks or two million bucks to take you out.

BL:  He says leadership on both sides of the aisle try to avoid tough votes.  Instead of upsetting powerful interests…

DT:  …it's easier to deny some of these problems than to work on them.

BL:  But he doesn’t buy the mantra that protecting the environment and stimulating the economy can’t go hand-in-hand.

DT:  Now that's a bit disingenuous, because if you look at the energy industry you know for every one job that's in oil and coal there's three jobs in clean energy, right?  So it’s not going to create the economic catastrophe that people believe.

BL:  Indeed, shortly before retiring from office, Trott stuck his neck out and was the third Republican to co-sponsor a climate solutions bill, with three Democrats. 

DT:  On difficult issues you want to have a bipartisan approach because it's otherwise going to go nowhere fast, if it's strictly a partisan approach.

BL:  The bill is called the “Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act,” HR 763.  He says prior to this,

DT:  There was never an attempt to get Republicans and Democrats together to come up with a solution.

BL: He doesn’t think the bill has any chance in this Congressional Session.  But if he was there, he’d get behind it anyway.

DT:  I'd want to go home and tell my constituents: it's not going to happen, but at least I'm trying.

BL:  HR 763 proposes to charge fossil fuel companies for the carbon their fuels emit when burned.  The idea is: fossil fuels lose their place the cheapest option, green energy becomes the favored option, and energy companies must supply it, or be lost in the dust.  Trott says the bill would have minimal impact on the price of gas.

DT:  I think 15 cents a gallon maybe, which is manageable.

BL: Trott supported his party’s 2018 anti-carbon tax resolution.  Notably, in HR 763 the money collected from fossil fuel companies is returned to citizens, in the form of dividend checks.

DT:  This is a difficult problem, with no easy solutions.  If you look at the range of options, taxing the polluters and giving them an incentive to come up with a better plan to protect our environment seemed like the right approach, more so than just throwing money at green energy.  

BL: Whether fossil fuels, or other products with harmful consequences, Trott believes…

DT: Part of any solution is corporations need to understand the ramifications of creating, you know, treating our environment like a dump yard.

BL:  He also feels part of the solution rests in our youth. 

DT:  Millennials, particularly like my kids who are very concerned about what we're doing to our climate and worried that we're not leaving the country better off the world better off than we found it.

BL:  He says if 18- to 24-year-olds actually turned out to vote, en masse, that might well be a game-changer.  Meanwhile, back in the Land Rover…

Russell fires up the engine: “She runs!”

BL: …Russell tells me that after the first Earth Day, he sent students to Lansing.  When they returned, he received many calls from legislators, telling him the high school students were so impressive, they decided to vote “yes.”  Back then, in his twenties, Russell felt hopeful.  Now, a half-century later...

JR:  Yes, I’m discouraged. Yes, but I haven't given up yet. Can't give up.

BL:   Today’s youth are not giving up either.  Here are some of them, at the March 15th international student strike, on the University of Michigan campus.

Students:  “Look at the global movement started by a 16-year old girl named Greta Thurnberg! …We are fighting for our future!  We want a right to our future!”

BL:  In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News. 

Students chanting:  “Oceans are rising, and so are we!”

DF:  “The Green Room” is a presentation of the News Department of 89.1 WEMU.  For more information and resources and to visit “The Green Room Archive,” visit our website at wemu-dot-org.

I‘m David Fair and this is 89-1 WEMU FM and WEMU H-D One Ypsilanti.


“Turbulent Origins of Ann Arbor’s First Earth Day,” By Alan Glenn, Ann Arbor Chronicle, 2009.

The History of Earth Day

Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich Commercial on Climate Change, 2008

“78 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump,” New York Times, December 2018

League of Conservation Voters: Dave Trott National Environmental Scorecard

League of Conservation Voters Scorecard Methodology

“Meet the lawmakers putting politics aside to save our climate,” by Mark Reynolds, The Hill, December 2018.

HR 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act

Details of the Text of HR 763

“Congress passes anti-carbon-tax resolution. Again. But with less support than ever before.” By Flannery Winchester, RedGREENandBlue, July 2018.

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Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.
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