The first Earth Day April 22, 1970, transformed my life. As a graduate student working on my doctorate in philosophy at the University of Maryland, I had grown more worried about the serious air and water pollution in the Washington metropolitan area. The Potomac River stank so badly of sewage in summer months that it reminded me of stories of London, where the Parliament would hang cloth sheets drenched in lime to stem the stench from the Thames River.
I wanted to take action on pollution in my home town and went to the Earth Day events at the University of Maryland to learn more. Two remarkable organizations were there: the newly formed Friends of the Earth opened my eyes to areas of environmental concern beyond the pollution problems I witnessed on almost a daily basis. One startling display portrayed David Brower’s successful and brilliant campaign to save the Grand Canyon from the enormous dams proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation. In response to the Bureau of Reclamation’s claim that people would still be able to see the walls of the Canyon, Brower ran full page ads in the New York Times asking the question: “Would we flood the Sistine Chapel so that we could get a better view of the ceiling?”
The Grand Canyon story led me to inquire about who was saving rivers not only from pollution but from dam building, bulldozing, and diversions. During the next 15 years, I was part of campaigns to save over 100 rivers from the Army Corps of Engineers and other water construction agencies.
A second organization present at the first Earth Day was the League of Conservation Voters. The League had another eye-opening message for me: that people who care about the air, land, and water should pay attention to what their elected officials are doing and should vote the polluters out of office.
As a result of these contacts with Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters, I began volunteering for both. The Earth Day experience revealed both the broad range of environmental challenges and offered practical opportunities to solve these challenges. That day, although I didn’t know it, I began the transition from a career teaching math and philosophy in college to becoming a full-time conservationist.
Having started as a volunteer for Friends of the Earth in 1970, I ended up as president of the organization for the past 11 years.
The notable achievements in protecting air, land, and water since the first Earth Day should not blind us to the awesome challenges threatening our planet today. The earth today is like a patient on the emergency room table needing “CPR”—conservation, protection, and restoration: these must be our organizing principles for the 21st century.