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Looking Back, Thinking Forward: Earth Day in Grand Rapids 1970

April 17, 2018

The annual event known as Earth Day, will be celebrated this coming Sunday, April 22nd. Earth Day began in 1970, as greater consciousness was being raised about the how humans were impacting the environment.

Many people were influenced by Rachel Carson’s monumental book, Silent Spring, which was published in 1962. In her book, Carson exposed the harmful impact that pesticides and other commercial chemical use was having on wildlife and our ecosystems.

Building on the popular movements of the 1950s and 1960s, like the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-war Movement, the Farmworker Movement and the Feminist Movement, the modern day Environmental movement was born.

What the first Earth Day organizers emphasized was the need to directly confront polluters and force the federal government to adopt some regulations. After all, it was the first Earth Day that forced the Nixon administration to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of course there was also the message of personal responsibility that came with the first Earth Day celebrations, but this was not the focus.

As a response to the growing scrutiny of environmental polluters, the business sector responded by creating a campaign called, Keep America Beautiful. The centerpiece of this campaign became moving attention away from industrial waste and pollution to personalized trash known as litter. The Keep America Campaign even came up with the label “litterbug,” a term which is used even today to describe individuals we all should look down upon. The campaign worked beautifully and by the second Earth Day celebration these corporate entities financed the creation of a powerful TV ad using a Native America actor Iron Eyes Cody. The Native man is seen at numerous places – in the woods, along the beach  – and everywhere he goes there is trash. Again the emphasis was on individual behavior and not so much on industry.

The First Earth Day in Grand Rapids

Earth Day activities were planned across the country on April 22, 1970. Grand Rapids was also included in those communities that celebrated Earth Day.

Based on articles from the Grand Rapids Press, there were three separate activities that received attention in Grand Rapids. 

In the afternoon, there was an event with song and signs on the Calder Plaza, with the featured speaker being Rep. Guy VanderJagt, a Republican from Cadillac. The comments by VanderJagt, as reported in the Grand Rapids Press, spoke of the urgency to take action. However, the representative from Cadillac framed the environmental urgency in terms of how much people would be willing to pay in taxes to get clean air and clean water.

There was also a large community event, with an estimated 1,500 people in attendance at the Civic Auditorium in the evening. The event featured images on the big screen, musicians and speakers.

Senator Philip Hart got the biggest applause from the audience, according to the Press. Hart spoke about not separating humanity from nature and that the “drive to save the environment” will outlast recent crusades such as those of civil rights and the war on poverty.

At one point the image of Vice President Spiro Agnew appeared on the screen, which received a lot of boos from the audience. Representative Gerald Ford spoke, and he too received boos, shouted comments about the war in Vietnam and sometimes loud stamping of feet.

Ford’s comments, according to the GR Press, were limited to personal sacrifices, consumer dollars and taxes. Ford also suggested we “reduce pollution from the internal combustion engine.” He claimed that President Nixon, along with the private sector, would be creating a “virtually pollution-free automobile within five years.”

There were a whole list of other speakers, including representatives from business, the faith community and non-profits.

The other major activity that people took part in on Earth Day in Grand Rapids in 1970, was a protest organized by students from the Grand Rapids Junior College.

Students chose to protest at a meat factory, because of the pollution the business was emitting as a result of how the company cured the meat. The factory had been the target of complaints from neighbors for years because of the pollution.

The owner of the business was cited as saying that he was in the process of addressing the air pollution, but didn’t know what kind of timetable there would be to address the issue.

This last action, organized by students, is more reflective of the kinds of actions people were taking across the country, which focused attention on corporate pollution or structural pollution. In fact, in its early years, Earth Day actions were either to engage in collective projects that would promote ecological integrity or to confront those most responsible for environmental destruction, the corporate/industrial sectors.

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