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Earth Day '70

Earth Day: 1070-1990. The Environmental Movement Comes of Age. One in a series.


April of 1970 was an eventful month.

The world held its breath as the Apollo 13 spacecraft, crippled by an oxygen tank explosion, limped back to Earth with three astronauts on board. The Vietnam War raged, and with it, the anti-war movement. The U.S. Supreme Court writhed in turmoil.

And yuppies-to-be everywhere were mourning the dissolution of the Beatles.

Meanwhile back in Orange County, President Richard M. Nixon whistle stopped at his Western White House in San Clemente just long enough to order a 150,000-man pullout from Vietnam. A Westminster police officer was seriously wounded in a shoot-out. The district attorney's office broke a ham scam, in which local consumers were bilked out of $100,000 worth of frozen meats.

All this and Earth Day too.

What with so much tumult near and far competing for attention, it was easy to overlook such a little thing as the environment. You know: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat--little things like that.

This was years before we were wringing our wrists over the hole in the ozone layer, years before the Exxon Valdez tanker oozed 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, years before we loved tuna fish salad but not enough to let dolphins die for it, years before we shuddered with guilt every time we tossed a plastic cup into our plastic trash bags, years before Time magazine named our ailing Mother Earth "Planet of the Year."

Americans were more concerned with getting our troops out of Vietnam than with getting disposable diapers out of landfills. Still, despite the deafening background noise, activists and conservationists across the country managed to set aside April 22, 1970, as a day to rally round the manhandled Earth.

In fact, the Vietnam War's unpopularity paved the trail for Earth Day, noted Tim Geddes, who 20 years ago was a 20-year-old environmental activist splitting his time between Santa Ana and UC Santa Barbara.

"The war instilled in people a feeling that government was not doing enough to protect us," he said. "It all went hand in hand: We didn't trust the Nixon Administration regarding the Vietnam War, and we also didn't trust it regarding the environment.

"Like the anti-war demonstrations, Earth Day was coordinated by youth activist groups. But the big difference about Earth Day was that it was positive in an age of demonstrations that often were profoundly negative--anti-this and anti-that," added Geddes, now a Huntington Beach teacher and real estate agent.

By 1970, a collective environmental consciousness was taking root. People had started to worry about overdevelopment, traffic congestion, carbon dioxide in the air, oil in the ocean--concerns especially relevant to Californians.

However, the war overshadowed all other causes of the time. "Thank God, at least, that the Kent State tragedy waited until May to happen," remarked Nancy Pearlman, a Santa Ana native who organized Earth Day for Southern California. "That would have completely killed our momentum."

Item No. 1 from "The More Things Change the More Things Remain the Same" file: In January of 1969, an offshore well spilled 3 million gallons of oil into Santa Barbara's waters. In February of 1970, a local drilling company spilled oil in Huntington Harbour, damaging a number of boats in the process. In April of 1970, cancerous fish were caught off the Orange County coast near the Santa Ana River overflow.

Geddes had just started college in Santa Barbara when the infamous oil spill there stained 100 miles of white beaches. "The spill made a lot of people begin to think about what we were doing to the ocean," he said. "It affected all Californians--people in Orange County saw that something that had happened just up the coast could happen here too."

What frustrates Pearlman is that, when it comes to the environment, almost nothing has changed and almost everything has remained the same. "Twenty years ago, I was screaming about overdevelopment, and the destruction of forests, and the disappearance of wildlife refuges, and the need for mass transit, and the need for recycling, and the need for solar energy," she said.

"Twenty years later, all we've done is add a billion people to the world population. We lost national parks and wildlife refuges, we didn't develop alternative energy resources, we didn't set high enough anti-pollution standards."

Those still-pressing problems motivated Pearlman, then a UCLA anthropology student, to coordinate the first Earth Day in Southern California. "In my ecology class, I got wind of the fact that a nationwide Earth Day was being planned," she said. "I realized no one was organizing anything here, so I got busy on it. I'm a very good organizer--it's a natural talent of mine."

Pearlman spent her spring break spreading the word. She provided colleges with lists of available speakers for "teach-ins"; she telephoned fellow organizers to suggest such activities as "bike-ins."

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