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The Earth is a Mother

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On April 22, 1970, Earth Day marked the beginning of the modern ecological and environmental movement. Forty years ago, in rallies and celebrations across the nation, approximately 20 million Americans participated in events organized mostly by thousands of college and university students. They were protesting the deterioration of the environment from oil spills, factory and power plant pollution, raw sewage dumped in waterways, toxic dumps and pesticides created by capitalism run amok. From these students’ efforts, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife suddenly became a shared common value and concern among Americans.

Earth Day was the brain child of Gaylord Nelson, a United States Senator from Wisconsin. Senator Nelson was an environmental activist who, after witnessing the horrific oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. in 1969, called for a national “teach-in.” Nelson hoped to demonstrate popular political support for an environmental agenda by engaging the youth movement to participate in an environmental event modeled on the highly effective Vietnam War teach-ins of the time.

Nelson said in 1969, “I am convinced that all we need to do, to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster, is to present the facts clearly and dramatically. To marshal such an effort, I am proposing a national teach-in on the crisis of the environment to be held next spring on every university campus across the Nation. The crisis is so imminent in my opinion, that every university should set aside one day in the school year — the same day across the Nation for the teach-in.”

But the ecology movement had its beginnings eight years before the first Earth Day. It was rooted in the world famous book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Her book arrived on the American scene soon after the tranquilizer thalidomide was revealed to cause birth defects. Quickly, the best seller became a catalyst for the ecology movement.

Carson started her career as a biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and became a full-time nature writer in the 1950s. In the latter part of the decade, she turned her attention to conservation and the environmental problems caused by synthetic pesticides. The result was Silent Spring, which spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy and a nationwide ban on DDT. Carson’s book gave rise to the grassroots environmental movement which inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Carson died in 1964 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter. She was also a lesbian.

In Utah, the first Earth Day Rally was held at Sugar House Park. It was organized by University of Utah students Douglas Epperson, Jeff Fox and Stephen Holbrook, who were members of the United Front to End the War. These coordinators planned the event to protest the war in Vietnam as well as pollution.

Utah’s event was called “Festival of Life,” and the Sugar House Park Authority allowed the use of a sound-amplifying system to broadcast speeches and music at Sugar House Park — but only if dancing was not allowed. Keynote speakers at the 900-plus rally were U of U professor Dr. Billings Brown, head of the Black Brothers Organization Society Victor Gordon, and radio personality Michael Cavanaugh. Dr. Brown spoke about the pollution caused by such unregulated industries as Kennecott; recently arrested Gordon read anti-establishment poetry; and Cavanaugh called for a boycott of the Salt Palace for canceling a concert by the 60s rock group, The Doors. Jim Morrison’s act was deemed unfit for Salt Lake audiences by the Salt Palace’s booking agents.

After the Earth Day event Holbrook told reporters, “We’ve shown in this city that people can enjoy themselves without getting carried away. This type of gathering is like the old time political rally, as opposed to the stodgy political conventions of the Democrats and the Republicans. We’re proven that young people are responsible without being uptight and square.”

Stephen Holbrook, a gay man, went on to become a Utah State Representative in the mid-1970s and the founder of KRCL, an independent local Salt Lake radio station that gave a voice to Utah’s minorities, including gays and lesbians. Jeff Fox went on to be the director of the Crossroads Urban Center, which was the home of many gay organizations in the 1980s. His daughter Ivy Fox fought to establish a gay-straight alliance at East High in the mid 1990s.

And the world keeps on a-spinning.

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