Recollection of Earth Day No. 1

Buckeye Farm Beat

While my fellow students rallied and cheered, I found myself on a lonely beach picking up trash. I suspect many Ohio farmers can relate.

Published on: April 21, 2010

Today we are mid-way through the second annual Ohio Sustainable Agriculture Week and more notably on the eve of the 40th celebration of Earth Day. Earth Day is about big ideas, but it is about individual actions too.

To think that I have survived 40 of these occasions is odd because I recall the first one so clearly and so many of the ones in between are so vague. Dennis Hayes, the chief organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, was the student body president of Stanford University where I was a 20-year-old sophomore at the time. We college kids had become quite adept at rallying and picketing and boycotting thanks to the Vietnam War. While Stanford students didn’t have quite the flair for violence that our counter parts at the University of California at Berkley exhibited, we had a core that that was proud to stand against the war.

However, the numbers that turned out for that first Earth Day dwarfed the war demonstrators. Perhaps it was because the cause of saving the earth had a big push on campus from Professor Paul Ehrlich, a population biologist and author of “The Population Time Bomb.”

Ehrlich had some big ideas. Among other things, he told “Mademoiselle” magazine in April of 1970, "Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make."

In a special Earth Day essay “Eco-Castrophe" published in “Ramparts” magazine Ehrlich noted, “By...[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s."

Obviously the professor miscalculated on some of his projections. Although the U.N. tells us that 1 billion of the earth’s 6.5 billion inhabitants are hungry right now, the world is still turning. And Ehrlich, 76, is still gainfully employed at Stanford. In a 2004 “Grist” magazine interview, he acknowledged that some of his expectations had not come to pass. However, he maintained that his fundamental ideas were correct. In answer to the question: "Were your predictions in ‘The Population Bomb’ right?” Ehrlich responded:

“Anne (his wife) and I have always followed U.N. population projections as modified by the Population Reference Bureau -- so we never made ‘predictions,’ even though idiots think we have. When I wrote “The Population Bomb” in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people. Since then we've added another 2.8 billion -- many more than the total population (2 billion) when I was born in 1932. If that's not a population explosion, what is? My basic claims (and those of the many scientific colleagues who reviewed my work) were that population growth was a major problem. Fifty-eight academies of science said that same thing in 1994, as did the world scientists' warning to humanity in the same year. My view has become depressingly mainline!”

As thousands of Stanford students rallied in the school’s outdoor amphitheater for the first Earth Day in April 1970, I walked the beach of San Gregorio with a trash bag in hand. The sky was gray and the air was cold. I was joined by a small group of other “activists” as we tried to clean the garbage from a miniscule portion of the California coast.

For years since then I have driven past a sign along Ohio’s SR 33 that says “Every Day is Earth Day to a Farmer.” Having seen the sincere actions individual Ohio farmers take to protect the soil and water and air and make their land a better a place, it’s a slogan I believe. All we can do as individuals is take small steps to sustain this planet. Big ideas are for professors. Farmers do their small part daily.