Apr 22, 2010

Earth Day & the Media

photo by Michael Mauney, Life, Jan. 30, 1970.
© Michael Mauney/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
reproduced here in a scholarly/fair-use manner

Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, which was first celebrated across America on April 22nd, 1970. It is often said that 20 million Americans participated in that event, and that it was therefore the largest protest in US history.

The press coverage today, four decades later, is unlikely to talk much about the media's role in promoting and building the first Earth Day. But this is an important issue to explore.

My primary source for what follows is a 2008 award-winning paper authored by Finis Dunaway, now a history professor at Trent University in Canada. Please note that Dr. Dunaway is no right-wing anti-environmentalist. Her paper repeatedly accuses the 1970s green movement of "ignoring issues of class, race, [and] power" (p. 79) in order to "speak primarily for white, privileged Americans" (p.93). While the paper used to be available online free for all to read, regrettably this is no longer the case.

Many of us imagine early environmental activists as beleaguered souls struggling to be heard, working hard to attract any attention at all from the mass media. But historian Dunaway paints a different picture:
In January 1970, three months before Earth Day, Life magazine joined other popular periodicals in making the new environmental movement the focus of a feature article. (p. 71)

A series of environmental posters, including one reproduced in Time magazine two months before Earth Day [highlighted the issue of pesticides in human breast milk] p. 75

In January, for its lead story in a special issue on "The Ravaged Environment," Newsweek closed with [a quotation that declared: "We have met the enemy and he is us."] p. 78

In the months leading up to Earth Day, the mass media - including television news and Life magazine - gave extensive coverage to a popular form of environmental protest: people destroying automobiles or burying combustion engines. (p. 81) [bold added]
In other words, the media spent months publicizing - and thereby according legitimacy to - the very first Earth Day. As Dunaway notes on her second page, the fourth estate has a track record of being unusually friendly to environmentalists:
Although other social movements at the time, including feminism and the New Left, were frequently ridiculed or dismissed by the mass media, environmentalists were not subjected to mockery...the mass media accorded considerable respect to the environmental cause.
Indeed, the role played by the media in 1970, when the dominant issues were air pollution and over-population (rather than climate change), sounds much like the current situation. Lots of hype, dramatic imagery, and loaded language.

Then, too, the world was experiencing environmental "crisis." Then, too, the future of the planet was thought to be at stake. Life magazine's January 1970 story featured a staged photograph of a mother and child wearing gas masks outdoors - a visual representation, as Dunaway puts it, "of the apocalyptic future" (p. 73):
John Pekkanen, who wrote the story and whose two-year-old daughter, Sarah, is pictured in the image, described the sense of fear that gripped him as he researched the piece, a "feeling of dread," he explained, "about the prospects of my own two children" growing up in "a world without a future." Pekkanen was "deeply shaken" by the dire warnings of leading scientists, who told him that unless Americans solved the problem of air pollution, "we would all be walking the streets in gas masks ten years from now." (p. 71)
According to Dunaway:
  • an editorial cartoon featuring Rodin's The Thinker wearing a gas mask was reprinted frequently at the time (p. 73)
  • a meteorologist was often cited warning that "All civilization...will pass away, not from a sudden cataclysm like a nuclear war, but from gradual suffocation in its own wastes." (p. 74)
  • Newsweek told its readers that "The villains are consumers who demand...new, more, faster, bigger, cheaper playthings without counting the cost in a dirtier, smellier, sicklier world." (pp. 78-79)
History, it seems, has important lessons to teach us. By noticing the relationship between that first Earth Day four decades ago and media outlets at the time, it becomes clear that environmental scare stories have long been a media staple.

Depending on the era, the specifics change, but the general themes remain constant. Things are dire. Scientists are alarmed. Humans are stupid.

And a happy Earth Day to you, too :-)


For more historical perspective, see Ronald Bailey's "Earth Day, Then and Now" and "Earth Day Turns 40" over at Reason.com.


>> Global disaster is so 1976
>> We're always out-of-touch with the future
>> Green time capsule: 1970 eco ideas not pretty
>> We have heard this rhetoric before