Book Review: Earth Day

“The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation.” by Adam Rome

Gaining a historical perspective is valuable for any endeavor. An academic disciplines that does not provide consistent access to the historical foundations of the discipline will have a challenge avoiding the repeat of discussions or conflicts that may have been addressed in previous “generations”. While there may be disagreement on whether sustainability is a new focus or simply a recasting of previous environmental or social movements and even what the definition of sustainability might be, the scholars who are involved with sustainability would also benefit from a historical perspective. The book “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation” is valuable reading for anyone who is curious about the awakening of a mass environmental movement in the United States during the end of the 20th Century. The book looks at the organizers who worked in the year before the first Earth Day on April 22nd, 1970, several of the important speakers and a sampling of the thousands events that took place, ending with a comparison of the event with the large anniversary event in 1990.


This comparison of the first Earth Day with the anniversary twenty years later provides an excellent place to begin a discussion of the importance of this event to the current sustainability efforts being made across academic disciplines across the world, including FCS. Comparison of the 1970 and 1990 events suggest that the educational component of the 1970 event was crucial to the long-term success of the following environmental movement. According to the author, Adam Rome, by any metrics, the second national Earth Day event was a huge success. The generation of activists that were shaped by the first event used their organizing experience to create events that were attended by millions more Americans than the first event and with much greater media attention. However, even the organizers of this much larger event agree that it had a negligible long-term impact when compared with the first Earth Day. Understanding why a fairly ramshackle collection of mostly small events, organized by a motley group of volunteers would have the larger impact that the professionally organized, well-funded follow-up is one of the important questions of the book.
In the first chapter, Rome looks at the role that Liberals, Scientists, Middle-class Women, The Young, and Conservationists made to Earth Day. Of particular interest to Family & Consumer Scientists will be the activism provided by college educated, middle-class women. Rome does not outline any specific contributions made by “home economics”, but the presence of the discipline can be felt none-the less. He describes how, since the Progressive Era, women have been working in the conservation movement to provide clean air, clean water and unadulterated food. This, along with the “municipal housekeeping” he describes, is nothing short of the mission of home economics to improve the quality of life of families. He does note that the involvement of women in environmental protection decreased dramatically following WWII, a shift in our discipline that should be examined. In their role as protectors of the domestic, these women were responsible for numerous publications in women’s magazines beginning in the 1960s about water pollution. It could also be argued that they developed the format of the environmental “how to” book, popular to this day, in works like “What Every Woman Should Know-and Do-About Pollution: A Guide to Good Global Housekeeping”. Even if the author of this work, Betty Ann Ottinger, was not a home economist, she was making the home economics case first trumpeted by disciplinary founders such as Ellen Swallows Richards.
The 1990s Earth Day used this “how-to” format to encourage Americans to engage in “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth”, a hugely popular book that sold more than 5 million copies in conjunction with the 1990 event. Rome argues, however, that the original advice books and articles published in the 1970s were the result of the intensive education that the 1970s Earth Day organizers all across the country experienced as they struggled to create a multiplicity of educational events that would connect with their particular communities. He argues that without this educational experience, the “how to” will often fail to re-create the energizing and empowering effect seen in the 1970s. The diffuse focus of the original Earth Day, as described in the chapter on events held around the country, is reminiscent of the current imprecision in the use of the term sustainability that serves to make some, including environmental scientists, uncomfortable. The 1990s organizers may have been more comfortable with tried and true political and marketing activity in their organizing, but the first Earthy Day teaches us that the process of seeking a definition is in itself transformative. For this reason, FCS educators should resist efforts to arrive at a static definition of sustainability for as long as possible, since this diffuse moment is fertile ground for a new generation.
Rome ends his book by challenging the reader to think beyond the simple platitudes to “save the earth” and take the teaching message of the first Earth Day to heart. How many of our FCS students have the skills to evaluate the complexity of social, economic and environmental impacts of their decision-making, both as consumers and as professionals? The task Rome leaves with us is to consider how to “inspire deep reflection” in our students because the first Earth Day demonstrates that teaching them to ask questions has more important effect than providing them with catalogues of answers.

This review was first published in the Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences ; Summer2014, Vol. 106 Issue 3, p61, 2p

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