Environmentalism at Wesleyan in the 1970's

by Roger Smith

Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Conclusion

1.  Earth Day- The Beginning

            The environment became a political cause in the United States and at Wesleyan in early 1970, but the forces which brought it about had their roots in the post-war order.  The oldest groups dealing with environmental issues, and to a smaller degree politics, are the Conservation groups.  While representing an important stream in modern environmental thought, the environmental movement is more than an outgrowth or extension of the conservation movement.  As described by Samuel Hays, one of the creators of the subfield of environmental history, the conservation movement, from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1960's, was dominated by an interest in materially improving human life by scientifically managing natural resources.[1]  Through planning, natural resources could be used for "multiple uses," meaning that a river could be fished, dammed for power, and also used for irrigation.  For these reasons, "unharnessed rivers flowing to the ocean without being used by man were deplored as wasteful[.]" and uncut forests were of no value to man.[2]  These values never caught the intlues never caught the interest of the public, leaving the conservation movement to the domain of scientists, government officials, and others involved in resource extraction.[3]

            The modern environmental movement was made possible by the consumerism which resulted from the prosperity of the post World War II years.  This consumer-oriented movement is more akin to preservationism, rather than conservationism, as the former had an interest in protecting the natural beauty of land so that it could be enjoyed by humans.[4]  The 1950's and 60's saw a rise in outdoor recreation, as many people had both the desire and the means to escape the congestion and pollution of the cities.  The same period witnessed a population growth and expansion of suburban areas, and even the population of more rural lands.[5]  These people valued the quality of their communities, wetlands, beaches, rivers, parks, deserts and forests, as they wanted the land for habitation and recreation, and as a contrast to the polluted modern world.[6]  This localism led to clashes with outside industry and government agencies who wanted to build dams (e.g. on the Columbia River), build MX missile silos, drill for oil, mine for uranium, develop wetland areas, and otherwise alter or degrade the land.[7]  By the 1960's, works like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring undermined the credibility of the scientists and technocrats who promised growth and prosperity while downplaying its costs.  With infectious diseases on the decline following the advent of antibiotics and widespread immunization, people became interested in environmental threats to their health.[8]  Finally, the massive grassroots protests of the 1960's increased the atmosphere of distrust of the status quo of government and industry, and also gave large numbers of people experience in organizing political movements.  They also learned how to become experts on issues, and how to force the government to pay attention to their issues.[9]  One of these young organizers was 25 year old Denis Hayes, who would become the National Coordinator of Environmental Action. 
            In July of 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with this latest idea for making the environment a mainstream political issue.  He decided to hold a national teach-in on the environment, in the style of the anti-war teach-ins.  Nelson contacted all 50 state governors and the mayors of major cities, informing them of the teach-in, and inviting them to publicly support it.  The news media picked up the story in September, and as Nelson explained it, "It took off like gangbusters.  Telegrams, letters and telephone inquiries poured in from all over the nation."  In December, Nelson opened a separate office to coordinate what would become Earth Day, and put Denis Hayes in charge of it.  Hayes, Nelson, and their new coordinating group, Environmental Action, did an excellent job at promoting the event, making it well known to colleges, towns, and public schools all over the nation, and providing the catalyst for the creation of the first political (as opposed to service-oriented or recreational) environmental organizations.[10]
            The national political movements against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights were peaking in late 1969 and early 1970, and the nature of the first environmental groups reflect this situation.[11]  While popular interest in Earth Day and books like Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (1968) indicated a national interest in the environment as a potentially broad-based, non-divisive issue, the early environmentalists were already defending this interests against charges that it was a feel-good reformist escape from the true problems of the time.

In 1970, Environmental Action (with the help of the New York Times) published a collection of speeches given on Earth Day around the country.  Given the focuses of most of the resulting environmental groups, the strong component of what is now known as "environmental justice" in these speeches seems surprising, especially given that many of these sentiments came from people in the political establishment.[12]  Walter Mondale, a Senator from Minnesota, said, "The crisis of environmental decay is clearly bound to the crisis of poverty, blight, racism, war, and economic injustice."[13]  The Reverend Channing Phillips called for unity in fighting these ills, claiming that "racial injustice, war, urban blight, and environmental rape have a common denominator in our exploitative economic system."[14]  George Wiley, an organizer of poor blacks, firmly stated, "My first question… is whether this is a serious movement, or whether it is a passing fad that is simply a way for some people to cop out from some of the fundamental and pressing social problems that beset a lot of us in the society."  Wiley also astutely noticed that "So far, to be invited to participate in a program on environment is the exception rather than the rule for poor people or black community organizers.[15]  The climate of the times made people very sensitive to problems of poverty and racism in the United States, and the national organizers in Environmental Action took great pains to demonstrate how the environmental movement could complement other social movements.  Still, the interests and backgrounds of the people organizing the first Earth Day events on a local level, and the burden of being the pioneers in a new field of activism, prevented the visions of the national environmental advocates from materializing.
            At Wesleyan, a College of Social Studies (CSS) major, David Boeri '71, went to work for the National Park Service in the summer of 1968.  There he saw environmental films, and attributed his interest in environmental work to his work and films, which made him more sensitive to environmental issues than most of the urbanized students at Wesleyan.  As Wesleyan had cancelled their systems ecology program in favor of micro and cellular biology, Boeri was forced to take courses in this field at Connecticut College.  There he began to research the pollution of the Connecticut River, and decided to form an organization dedicated to research, advocacy, and education at Wesleyan.[16]  While most student at Wesleyan did not have close contact with the outdoors or nature, Bob Yaro '71 pointed out that the rapid development of farmland around Middletown was visible, and disturbing, to some students at Wesleyan.  It was during this time that farmland and open space along Route 66 became strip malls, and as Route 9 was constructed, a wake of new subdivisions lined its path.[17] 
            Having heard Denis Hayes' call to action, Boeri, Yaro, and other students formed the first environmental group at Wesleyan, tentatively called the April 22 Committee.  The initial organizational meeting was actually well attended, given the other major issues of the time.  While the name "Earth Day" would not be created and endlessly repeated for a few more weeks, the rationale for this day had already been well defined.  An Argus opinion piece by visiting professor Charles Steinbacker warned of the destruction of the environment.

The Quality of Life has officially bit the dust.  Human dignity has fled the scene.  An epidemic of "progress" has struck the world.  Our environment lies in critical condition; its future in the hands of the "silent majority" or the youth….
Well, this is 1970.  It is the end of a despairing decade; the beginning of something else….
The rapid deterioration of the earth as a livable home represents a common adversary for us all.  And in that fact rests the basic hope of all mankind; the chance to finally unite the planet's people in a common pursuit - a fight to save man from himself.[18]

At the same time, the College of Social Studies began a nine week symposium called "Environment 1970," in order to "clarify the issues surrounding the recent nationwide concern over ecological problems and examine specific solutions."[19]  Topics of the series included land use, urban sprawl, zoning, and other problems of development, as well as air pollution, the connection between pollution and overpopulation, the potential for universities to become leaders in solving environmental problems, and the pollution of the Connecticut River.  These lectures were not particularly well attended, and even alumni who were involved in environmental issues at this time barely recalled them.[20]  Nevertheless, the Argus saw fit to cover almost every single one of them, which did contribute to the general awareness of the issues.

            From the beginning, the environmentalists wanted to be more than just a campus group, as they dealt with issues affecting the greater community.  By February, the group had changed its name to Boeri's suggestion, SURVIVAL Incorporated of Middletown, as it included students from Portland High School, and wanted to include Middletown residents.  The group divided into four committees, working on issues like planning the teach-in and cleaning up the Connecticut River, and began to advertise itself in the Middletown Press.[21]  SURVIVAL also opened an office in Middletown, at 117 College St, where Wesleyan students and students from Portland High School contributed time.  SURVIVAL did not end their focus with the town, but joined forces with Stephen Thompson of the Environmental Action Group at Yale to coordinate Earth Day actions around the state, and held a meeting for twelve Connecticut environmental groups in the CSS lounge.[22]  And so SURVIVAL continued to build ties with groups from around the state, and cities in Middletown, and even worked with local churches to prepare for Earth Day.[23] 
            Planning for the first Earth Day was truly an exercise in mass mobilization, though the objectives varied widely.  Hayes was correct in stating that "Political and business leaders once hoped that they could turn the environmental movement into a massive anti-litter campaign."[24]  In Middlefield, a selectman declared April 13-25 Earth weeks at the Memorial Middle School, encouraging the children to do yard work and street clean-ups.[25]  Feel good pronouncements were not just limited to local politicians and officials.  President Nixon was said to be quite happy with citizen interest in Earth Day, though he did not appear to fully understand it.  The White house described that he "feels the activities show the concern of people of all walks of life over the dangers to our government."[26]

            Back at Wesleyan, SURVIVAL celebrated Earth Day with a clean-up of the Connecticut River, speeches, and music.  Early in the day, Astronomy Professor Roger Grossenbacker led a clean-up of the banks of the river.  Bob Yaro was involved in the planing of this event, and estimated that 50 or 60 people showed up.  He credits the ads in the Middletown Press, and high foot traffic past the SURVIVAL office for getting local residents interested.  The volunteers filled up a dumpster with junked car parts, shopping carts, and other debris that had been accumulating for decades.[27]  As Grossenbacker told the Middletown Press, "The last group to attempt to clean up litter in this area was made a few years ago by a distinguished group from Haddam jail."[28] 

            Earth Day was marked by feelings of crisis.  At noon, Professor John Maguire of the Religion Department said in his invocation, "We are very close to death.  Machines swallow the products of chemical factories, we human machines swallow aspirin, preservatives, stimulants, relaxants, and breathe out chemical wastes into polluted air."[29]  Then the Reverend Joseph Duffey, who was at the time running (unsuccessfully) for a senate seat, spoke of the role of legislation in solving environmental problems.  He called for sharp restraint on the amount of waste produced, and even went so far as to propose the elimination of disposable containers.[30]  Other legislative proposals he thought might be needed included banning fossil-fuel burning cars from urban areas, creating taxes on the disposal of some products, and supporting birth control measures.  Echoing other politicians at the time who wanted to attract liberal votes, he said that environmentalists "must not be allowed to turn away from problems of poverty, racism, and war."[31]  An outdoor concert which drew about 100 people, mainly Wesleyan students, followed the speeches.[32]  This humble beginning foreshadowed the fact that environmentalism at Wesleyan was about to be completely eclipsed by other events.

            The 1969-70 school year was filled with political activity.  In November 1969 students, offended by a remark Jonathan Berg made about a racial incident on campus, firebombed his room.  The New York Times Magazine actually wrote a story based on this, called "The Two Nations at Wesleyan University."[33]  On February 21, black students took over Fisk Hall demanding the observation of the anniversary of Malcolm X's death.  In addition to issues of race, protests against the draft took a central role at Wesleyan, with articles and letters on the subject appearing in almost every issue of the Argus.  In April of 1970, no fewer than three buildings on campus were firebombed, though some of the political motivations behind them remained ambiguous.  In May of 1970 the United States began bombing Cambodia and the escalation of the war, Wesleyan students voted to go on strike in protest, and on the sixth, faculty voted to support the strike, ending the semester.  One interesting aspect of the strike was that the organizers expanded their grievances beyond Vietnam, calling for the release of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who was on trial in New Haven at the time.[34]  On a somewhat incongruous note, but also memorable to students of the time, the mellow Grateful Dead held an outdoor concert at Wesleyan on May 6, 1970. 

            At Wesleyan, unlike in other parts of the nation, the Earth Day Teach-In did not result in mass mobilization around the environment, as other issues were still at the forefront.  When asked about the first Earth Day, several alumni and professors at Wesleyan initially doubted that it event took place in 1970.  They thought that environmentalism started later.  In a way, they were right.  SURVIVAL died in the summer of 1970, as Boeri and Yaro needed to devote their time to academics for their senior years, and they did not have the support the needed from Wesleyan or Middletown.  Still, SURVIVAL can be remembered as the first group to make the environment a political issue on campus, and it tried to be a community organization, instead of staying within the comfortable confines of Wesleyan.  SURVIVAL, like most school and community groups, did not adopt the focus espoused by politicians and environmental leaders of connecting the environment with issues of civil rights or social justice.  This stance was essentially a response to criticism of environmentalism by other activists of the time, and not principles that the movement was ready to adopt.  These issues would not come together for well over another decade. 

            On the national level, the political results of Earth Day were more mixed than proponents usually admit.  While the fact that an estimated (by the organizers) 20 million people participated at the grassroots level led to some quick legislative victories, some key provisions were lost.  1970 witnessed the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of a new, enforceable Clean Air Act in 1970, and the Clean Water Act in 1972.[35]  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) contained a weaker procedural review of development projects for environmental impact that was originally proposed, and had no provision for giving citizens standing in environmental lawsuits.[36]  At the same time, states began to create Departments of Environmental Protection to help them comply with federal laws and regulations, but these agencies, like Connecticut's DEP, were often underfunded, and discouraged from taking punitive measures against businesses.[37]  Still, after 1970, the environment was a factor in policy-making at all levels of government.


Part 2: The Rise of General Purpose Environmentalism


[1] Samuel P. Hays, "Three Decades of Environmental Politics," in Explorations in Environmental History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), 337. 
Samuel Hays is a well known historian of urban and social history in America, and his major works are Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, and the more recent Beauty, Health and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 (1987).  Hayes's introduction to a collection of his essays, Explorations in Environmental History is an excellent guide to environmental history, and its goals of providing context to recent political environmental movements, their opposition, and the policy makers caught in between.  This is particularly important to those who follow environmental issues but have become frustrated with the news media for its shortsightedness, inability to explain why current events occur, and its predicable but misleading or inaccurate framing of contentious issues.

[2] Hays, "The Limits-To-Growth Issue," in Explorations in Environmental History, 5.

[3] "Three Decades of Environmental Politics," 357.

[4] "The Limits-To-Growth Issue," 6.

[5] Hays, "The Structure of Environmental Politics," in Explorations in Environmental History, 316-18.

[6] Ibid., 318.

[7] Ibid., 319.

[8] Ibid., 319-22.

[9] Ibid., 323.

[10] Gaylord Nelson, "History of Earth Day," in the Earth Day Network Project Library (October 9, 1990); available from www.sdearthtimes.com/edn/earthday/history.html.

[11] Some may argue that these movements had already peaked, noting that civil rights organizations had been crumbling for years, and the New Left was fragmented and under attack by the new Nixon administration.  As mass movements though, their influence on campuses like Wesleyan were quite strong throughout the spring of 1970.  The dramatic decline in interest and membership would not take place for another year at Wesleyan.

[12] Environmental Justice began in the 1980's as a reaction to mainstream environmentalism which concerned itself with saving species and habitat, as opposed to empowering urban communities and minorities to fight for a clean and safe environment.  Traditional environmentalism was accused of classicism and elitism for fighting to save their favorite recreational spots while ignoring the concentration of environmental hazards in poor communities and communities of color.  The gap between these movements remains a contentious issue today.

[13] Walter Mondale, "Commitment to Survival" in Earth Day - The Beginning, ed. Environmental Action (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1970), 43.

[14] Channing Phillips, "Unity," in Earth Day - The Beginning, ed. Environmental Action (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1970), 73.

[15] George Wiley, "Ecology and the Poor," in Earth Day - The Beginning, ed. Environmental Action (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1970), 235

[16] David Boeri, telephone interview by author, 16 November 1999.

[17] Bob Yaro, telephone interview by author, November 1999.

[18] Charles Steinbacker, "Environmental Teach-In," Wesleyan Argus, 30 Jan 1970, 8.

[19] David Gerard, "Water Pollution Speech Begins Ecology Series," Wesleyan Argus, 30 Jan 1970, 1.

[20] Boeri Interview.

[21] David Gerard, "Committees Plan Environmental Teach-In on Pollution in April," Wesleyan Argus, 6 Feb 197pan style='mso-special-character:footnote'>[22] SURVIVAL, "Environment Delegates Plan Activities, Teach-In" Announcement, Wesleyan Argus, 27 Feb 1970.

[23] SURVIVAL, "Joseph Duffey Noon Rally, Highlight 'Earth Day' Events" Announcement, Wesleyan Argus, 21 April, 1970, 1.

[24] Denis Hayes, "The Beginning," in Earth Day: the Beginning.

[25] "Earth Week Activities Begin," Middletown Press, 14 April 1970 evening edition, 11.

[26] UPI, "Land, Water, Air Cleanup Needs Cited," Middletown Press, 22 April 1970, evening, 1.

[27] Yaro interview.

[28] John Bart, "Many Area Groups Try to Dramatize the Day," Middletown Press, 22 April 1970, evening, 1.

[29] Ibid.

[30] SURVIVAL, "Joseph Duffey Noon Rally, Highlight 'Earth Day' Events" Announcement, Wesleyan Argus, 21 April, 1970, .5.

[31] Doug Thompson, "Rally, Walk, Forum Highlight Middletown Earth Day Events," Wesleyan Argus, 24 April, 1970, 5.

[32] John Bart, "Music, Talks, Debate Keynotes on Earth Day," Middletown Press, 23 April 1970, evening.

[33] Wesleyan Argus, Timeline, 23 April, 1976.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Samuel Hays, "The Politics of Clean Air,"  in Explorations in Environmental History, 223-5.

[36] Samuel Hays, "A Historical Perspective on Contemporary Environmentalism," in Explorations in Environmental History, 382,3.

[37] JP Solomon, "Before 1972, Factories Did What they Wanted," Wesleyan Argus, 31 Oct 1975, 3,7.