Earth Day: What’s in a Name, a Date, or a Message?

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April 15, 2020: A note in this morning’s inbox from Dan Macfarlane: “I may be mistaken, but you were about to embark on your PhD at the time of the first Earth Day – were you cognizant of it when it happened? If so, would you have any interest in throwing together a little post for NiCHE about how you experienced that first Earth Day, or what it meant in Canada or how it was received …?”

April 15, 2020: I engage the Wayback Machine that lies between my ears. From the millions of fragments loosely classified as memories jumbled therein, I pull, first, a tense correction: Way back then, I was six months into, not about to embark on, my PhD at the University of Toronto. Then I begin to sink into a sea of nostalgic recollections: joining protest marches against the Vietnam War in the summer of 1970, at one of which one of my classmates (and several others) were arrested, plucked from the crowd for reasons indiscernible to us or them; attending gatherings to stop the Spadina Expressway, with UofT Geography professor Jim Lemon and other geography students, and rubbing shoulders with Jane Jacobs, Colin Vaughan, John Sewell, Dan Heap and others;  walking, frequently, by Rochdale College, that utopian-dystopian establishment that sometimes seemed a perfect synecdoche for the USA; visiting, almost as frequently, the SCM Bookstore on the ground floor of Rochdale, from whence I acquired several of the “environmental classics” still on my shelves, including A Sand County Almanac, and a reprint of Man & Nature.  

Spadina Expressway: Stop Spadina, Save Our City Committee protest march. Toronto Telegram

Those books have accompanied me around the world since I acquired them all those years ago. But Dan, you are asking me to recall, half a century on, an event that virtually never happened, and that like so much of what did happen in Canada (then and now) was (and is) all but lost under the (not always illuminating) penumbra of events to the South. Memories of course are tricky things. They are not laid down as solid blocks, cemented forever in place, to be retrieved, at whim and unchanged, as immutable fragments of the past. They are not like books that become dog-eared with use but (the odd missing page excepted) remain constant in content. They are, rather, malleable, shifting constructs, shaped by subsequent events, encounters, reading, and learning. Thanks to Adam Rome (The Genius of Earth Day), we are all now well aware of “how a 1970 teach-in unexpectedly made the first Green generation.” But to adapt the wisdom of  Kermit the Frog from about the same time, “It’s not easy bein’ [Canadian] green,” and trying to recall April 22, 1970.

April 22, 1970.  On this crisp, blustery spring day (OK. I looked it up: it was about 13C in Toronto with winds up to 37kph!)  I was indeed cognizant of the first American Earth Day. Having never heard the first name of its inspirational founder during my youth, but aware of the accomplishments of a certain San Francisco Giants pitcher during the preceding summer, I found myself confusing  Nelson and Perry, and wondering how many Gaylords there were in the US. More seriously, the co-ordinated series of American events that constituted Earth Day were of interest to many in Canada because they resonated with the evident and growing concern, in Toronto and elsewhere, about pollution. Ryan O’Connor’s The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism tells this Canadian story effectively, and leaves no doubt about the dawning of a Canadian ecological consciousness and the capacity of concerned students to organize. But – and in retrospect this seems remarkable – April 22 passed ALMOST without public recognition in Toronto.  School teacher, writer and environmentalist Wayland Drew organized an overnight vigil in Queen’s Park on 21st-22ndApril in echo and honour of American Earth Day, but as I recall it was hardly publicised, drew only a couple of hundred people at maximum, and was little noticed in the local media. The index to Ryan O’Connor’s First Green Wave includes four passing references to Earth Day in the US; only the last of these links directly to events in Toronto. O’Connor quotes Pollution Probe coordinator Brian Kelly telling a Globe and Mail Reporter: “As for Earth Day, let the United States do that and it’s great. But it’s the wrong time for us, right in the middle of exams, and we have to rely on students.”   

In this photo Donald Chant and other members of Pollution Probe attend a ceremony to bury a time capsule on the south side of Robarts Library in October 1970

October 14, 1970: Pollution Probe already had plans for a uniquely Canadian event when the April affair took place. They designated the second week of October “Survival Week,” and organized a range of events, from lectures, seminars and debates to a bicycle parade in which future Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and her husband UofT political economist Stephen participated. Proceedings culminated with the burial of a time capsule containing “a record of man’s folly on the planet he has outgrown,” on the site designated for construction of  the massive Robarts Library on the University of Toronto campus. Associated events were held in Ottawa and elsewhere, but although Earth Day was said to have engaged 20 million Americans, none of the Canadian events drew significant crowds (for more see O’Connor, pp. 77-80). The weather was, mostly, poor, and Survival Week opened just a couple of days after the FLQ kidnapped British diplomat James Cross, spawning the October Crisis, and invocation of the War Measures Act on October 15, 1970. It is fair to say that most people’s minds were on different kind of survival.  

Paul Tinari, the organizer of the first Canadian Earth Day, announces the official launching of the activities.,_1980.jpg

September 11, 1980: According to the Kingston Whig Standard and other local media, the first Canadian Earth Day was celebrated in that city on September 11th, 1980.  It was part of Canadian Earth Week, kicked off with a ceremonial tree-planting by Flora MacDonald, MP for Kingston and the Islands and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, accompanied by the Mayor of Kingston and the Principal of  Queen’s University. The event was the brainchild of Paul D Tinari, then a graduate student in Engineering Physics and Solar Engineering at Queen’s, who went on to forge a sometimes controversial career as “a professional creative thinker and problem solver working for the private sector, NGOs and government clients around the globe.” Self-styled as “Dr. Future,” he has been called a visionary and “Renaissance Man” for the 21st century. There does not seem to have been a second specifically Canadian Earth Day in September, in Kingston or anywhere else for that matter (although James Hansen et al published a sharp warning about the “Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,” in Science, v. 213, #4511 less than a year after the first such gathering).

Sometime in 1990: Earth Day Canada was founded as a national charitable organization in conjunction with the internationalization of the American Earth Day movement. Although the organization was most active in Ontario and Quebec, under its impetus, April 22nd became the de facto Earth Day in Canada. So it came to pass that media and the websites of various organizations, including the  National Union of Public and General Employees in Canada, proclaimed Canada’s 20th Earth Day in 2010 when the US was celebrating its 40th.  

April 22, 2020: A decade on, in the euphoria of a half-century, it seems that all distinction has been lost. EDC urges us to “honour … the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, …[by] keeping our distance at home, but taking action for our planet together!” The message, it seems, bears repeating – “We can all change our habits for a brighter future” – but it also elicits a caveat.  Individual actions are good. But in this time of COVID-19 crisis we should surely remember that many of the problems we face, environmental and other, are systemic.  Remedying them will require sustained actions beyond our personal capacities. Washing our hands and staying home will slow the spread of the novel coronavirus , but will not eliminate it, or alleviate the socio-economic factors that help to shape its course. Walking, composting , cycling and recycling will help the planet, but they alone will not save it. James Hansen saw the need for far reaching changes in global energy consumption almost forty years ago. Amory Lovins likewise identified the need to shift energy paths, even in the 1970s. Prophets have delivered their messages, but as we look back on April 22,  over fifty-one Earth Days and one Survival Day (by my count), we would do well to ponder the balance of popular appeal over decisive, incisive, meaningful action, and adjust our behaviours and expectations accordingly.  

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Graeme Wynn

A long-time member of NiCHE, I am now Professor Emeritus of Geography at UBC. Alongside leadership roles in ASSEH, ICEHO and UBC's new Emeritus College, I continue to edit the Nature|History|Society series with UBC Press and find time (though less than I ought) for several writing projects.


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