V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Earth Day celebrates 40

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Photo: Vivian Song

Student environmental activists were pivotal in helping to launch the first Earth Day in 1970. But student activists today, including, from left, Megan Lund, David Berliner, Zannah Matson and Daryn Caister, all from the University of Toronto, are more sophisticated and diversified than their predecessors, and have adopted radically different attitudes about their own roles.

Published in The Toronto Star, April, 2010.

Inside the hallowed halls of academia resides a potent mix of youthful idealism, unbridled energy, and a dash of willful defiance.

It’s where young people begin to challenge the world they live in, ask questions, and, if unsatisfied with the answers, mobilize to voice their discontent.

For the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, the university campus was the natural setting from which to raise awareness and promote Earth Day’s inaugural debut, on this day in 1970.

The Earth Day founder would tap into the youthful zeal of enlightened students who would fan out and relay the message of conservation and environmental education. More than 20 million Americans would take part, making the first Earth Day the largest, organized citizen demonstration in U.S. history. It would also be credited for launching the modern environmental movement we know today.

Today, student environmental activists have evolved into a more sophisticated and savvier lot than previous generations, firing on a different set of cylinders altogether.

Their discourse contains more rhetorical flourish than angry salvos; they’re seeking alliances with partners who, for a long time, were considered arch-nemeses; and quixotic calls for radical change are accompanied by workable solutions and a better understanding of the way the world churns, says Stephen Scharper, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Environment.

“These students don’t hold the same attitudes of their forbears,” Scharper says. “They’re more open to traditional and non-traditional alliances. They have a clear-eyed, more sober understanding of the way politics, legislation and activism can interact.”

This is why you won’t find Melinda Jacobs, 20, standing on a hilltop, waving placards and shouting herself hoarse.

When protestors with the Rainforest Action Network demonstrated outside the RBC’s headquarters last month for being a major sponsor of the tar sands expansion in Alberta, Jacobs declined the invitation. She’s more focused on “constructive activism,” she says.

“More meaningful change will come from people who have respectful conversations with their peers,” says the outgoing president of the Trinity Environment Club at U of T. “In the long run, the importance of this will be far greater than standing in a large group protesting. There are more meaningful ways of being an activist.”

Like installing a green roof at the college residence, and solar panels on the Larkin Building at Trinity College across the street, projects approved by and paid for by the college students, she said.

It’s a sentiment shared by Zannah Matson, 21, also the outgoing president of U of T’s Environmental Resource Network, or UTERN, the umbrella group for all green clubs on campus.

“A lot of what I do is educational, organizing movie nights, bringing in speakers for the environment and educating kids,” Matson says. “I’m not sure if getting a lot of people on a hill to say the same thing is the best show of energy.”

Education was a key strategy in Nelson’s vision of Earth Day in 1970. Inspired by Vietnam war protestors who were using “teach-ins” to demonstrate their displeasure, Nelson borrowed the same strategy to jump-start a grassroots environmental movement and draw national attention to the issues. Instead of protesting the war by cancelling classes, university students and staff veered the other way, raising awareness by lecturing throughout the night and engaging in intellectual debates about the U.S. involvement. Environmental teach-ins and workshops would do the same.

To honour Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, the Sierra Club of Canada sent email alerts to its members, highlighting an ecological crisis or encouraging direct action.

“We’re using modern tools to replicate a version of what happened 40 years ago,” says executive director John Bennett.

Nelson also encourages groups to highlight local environmental issues and take action: Students are encouraged to investigate their own campus environmental records, to hold mass phone-ins to industrial polluters, and hold rallies at local pollution sites.

He rejects the top-down approach of a synchronized, national teach-in because it opposes the spirit of the original idea — grassroots political action.

“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level,” he says. “It organized itself.”

It’s this grassroots spirit that Paul York, 41, laments has become lost in this generation of college students. York is a graduate student, lifelong social activist and recent environmental proselytizer. He describes campus environmental groups as tepid at best. They’re apolitical and timid, he complains, unwilling to get dirty for the cause.

“It’s almost as if grassroots movements are out of vogue now,” he says.

Frustrated by the lack of leadership in this area, York founded Students Against Climate Change.

“Students in the 1970s were more radical and visible with protests and sit-ins. Today they’re more interested in trying to change policy and work with government,” he says disapprovingly.

According to York, a top-heavy approach creates a “severe imbalance” in the environmental movement. “If no one’s working from the bottom-up at the grassroots level, it becomes lopsided.”

York University student Dave Vasey, 31, is likeminded, and captured headlines last October when he and 120 protestors shut down Parliament with a climate change protest. He also marched in the protest against RBC’s financial support of the tar sands.

“Protests are effective in showing that there is passion,” Vasey says. “Policymakers need to know that we’re not going to go away quietly.”

But the profile of an environmental activist is shifting dramatically, Scharper says, and the movement has recruited supporters out of traditionally unlikely allies.

“They’re more diversified,” he notes. “They’re in political science, economics, business and history. Students are pushing the environmental agenda and asking for more programs and courses.”

Matson points to the university’s civil engineering department as an example of interdisciplinary environmental interest. Last year, graduating students began a campaign they called “A Promise to the Future,” challenging the new crop of engineers to sign a voluntary promise to “carefully consider the consequences of decisions made in both their personal and professional lives for future generations.” The campaign was opened up this year to all graduating students.

“That’s where the future is,” says Matson, who was also a delegate to the climate change talks in Copenhagen. “I’m hoping that all this education has become internalized, that people will keep the environment in the back of their heads and change the way corporations and industry works.”

David Berliner, 23, a sustainability coordinator at Hart House and a former UTERN president, says his enlightenment came after taking Scharper’s environmental ethics class. There he learned to view the world through a different lens, he says, one that applies the environment to health, public policy, the law, ethics and big corporations.

“There’s no one way to go as an environmental activist,” he said. “You cater to your expertise, whether it be running around with a sign or putting on a suit and walking into a boardroom.”

As for his own generation, Berliner hopes to be remembered for abolishing the word “green” and making it obsolete, he said.

“I’m hoping that our day-to-day activities will be inherently green.”

Earth day

 Earth Day is celebrated in 190 countries by one billion people.

 Earth Day Canada is also celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and more than six million Canadians are expected to participate

 Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and Harvard University grad Denis Hayes spearheaded Earth Day on April 22, 1970, uniting 20 million Americans. It was the largest, organized civic demonstration U.S. history.

 Earth Day was planned over seven months, on a budget of $124,000. Nelson insisted the day be based on grassroots movements across the country and rejected a top-down, national approach

 The first Earth Day led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species act in the U.S.

 In 1990, on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, founder Gaylord Nelson had this to say: “I don’t want to have to come limping back here twenty years from now on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day .... and have the embarrassing responsibility of telling your sons and daughters that you didn’t do your duty — that you didn’t become the conservation generation that we hoped for.” (www.nelsonearthday.net)

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