Earth Day Q&A: Peter Harnik

Peter Harnik, now retired, was one of the first leaders of Environmental Action, the non-profit formed by the organizers of Earth Day. He was also longtime director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land. Debbie Galant, a regular Senior Planet writer who worked for Environmental Action in the late 1970s, caught up with Harnik to discuss the legacy of April 22, 1970.

Senior Planet: Peter, tell me what you think the significance of Earth Day was?

Peter Harnik:  It was an unbelievable moment in time, where years and years of growing environmental outrages finally reached America’s consciousness and  people rose up in tremendous unhappiness and outrage and enthusiasm to fight back for the planet.

The word “ecology” and the word “environment” were barely known in the year 1970. I remember when I was doing lobbying on Capitol Hill in 1970 and ’71 and we would call to congressional offices and say, “Who can we talk to? Who’s your environmental legislative assistant?” And they would go, “What is environmental? What are you talking about?” Really there was no sense of the environment.

Basically there were many different movements or pre-movements that all came together in 1970. You had people who were upset about chopping down trees, about the redwoods and clear cutting and, and all the outrages that were going on in forests. You had people who were upset about air pollution, like in Pittsburgh and  Los Angeles, the brown haze, the brown smog that was hanging over all of our urban areas — and sometimes over entire states. Those people didn’t necessarily have anything in common with the people who were upset about trees. Then you had people who were concerned about water pollution. There were two super dramatic things. In 1969, the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland actually caught on fire because there was an oil slick on it and it burned a bridge. Here your river is setting your bridge on fire. It’s unbelievable. And then over in California there was a huge oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, this super pristine place. That was a group. Then you had groups that were concerned about pesticides and DDT and, and you know, [Rachel Carson’s book] “Silent Spring” had come out about eight years earlier. Then you had people, on a more superficial level, who were concerned about litter and, and garbage, just the ugliness of litter. And that was a huge issue. That really motivated a tremendous number of people, just how ugly things were.

So there was no environmental movement, but there were all these people working on issues that today we call environmental. They didn’t know that they had brothers and sisters out there also concerned about related issues. And so when Earth Day was announced they suddenly realized they were part of something big. And Earth Day was really big. About 20 million people. I think 10,000 high schools and approximately 20 million people took part in some kind of event that day. So it really was a thunder-clap.

Senior Planet:  What do you think was the impact of that Earth Day poster, the “Love Your Mother” poster, where you’re looking at the planet from up above? Did that do something to coalesce consciousness and simplify the message for everybody?

Peter Harnik:    Definitely. That photograph of the Earth from the moon was just so riveting. Some people have said that that’s the most influential picture ever because for the first time we got to take a look at ourselves from outer space and say this is all we’ve got. We’re on this little round planet and it’s blue and green and we better save it because there are no further frontiers to desecrate. And so the combination of that photograph and then of course mother earth, that is our mother, the whole thing just hit the right spot at the right time.

Senior Planet: Of course environmental stuff tends to be more complicated. So even if it’s sort of coalesced  under the idea of this poster and people being outside on a spring day, when it got down to the real nitty-gritty of this work, you get down to things like parts per billion of this chemical and that chemical. Do you think the movement lost some people because of its complexity?

Peter Harnik:  It’s kind of like the D-day invasion. You’d have the thousands of shock troops landing on the beach and securing the beach, getting a toehold on the beach. And then you’d have to send in, for the next year or more, specific troops to deal with specific problems and issues. So you did see a tremendous shift from the great enthusiasms, the great outcry and the great demand for change to how do you actually make this happen. And of course this is where the bureaucracy, you know, the federal and state and local bureaucracies started grinding down the enthusiasm into sort of bite size pieces.

Senior Planet:  What about climate change? It seems to me that if there’s any coalescing issue that most people agree on, it’s that. But is it already too late?

Peter Harnik:   I don’t know the scientific answer to the question of whether it’s already too late or not. Every moment in time since 1970, there has been a sort of overwhelmingly scary, challenging environmental issue. It’s been redefined and renamed over the years. Back in the day, it was we’re all going to choke on the air.

So there have been very big scary global challenges that we’ve faced at all times. In some cases we’ve made some progress and others we haven’t. The current phraseology is climate change, which is as scary as choking to death or being polluted to death. And possibly we can reverse it or do something about it, but it’s really all the same thing. It’s a different manifestation of taking the earth for granted — that we can do anything we want and the earth will spring back and save ourselves from ourselves. And that’s been the message of, of environmentalism since Earth Day and since “Silent Spring.”

Senior Planet:  What about Donald Trump, who wants to get back to a time where the corporations were unfettered by environmental restrictions. Can you talk about the challenge of Donald Trump?

Peter Harnik:   There’s never been an easy time for environmentalists. Environmentalists are, are sort of the Paul Reveres of the world. And they’re galloping through the streets, ringing the bell and raising the flag about one problem after another. And your average citizen wants to just kind of live their life and not be reminded about having to be responsible with our resources. So it’s never an easy row to hoe. And right now, it’s a very difficult moment when a really irresponsible president is allowing these politicians and corporations to have a very free rein on what feels good to them, rather than what is necessary to keep the earth productive and healthy.

Senior Planet:  We’ve seen in the past month, this rise of teenagers being at the forefront of political change in terms of gun reform. Do you see a new generation rising up in terms of leadership and have any hope that this could cross over into things like the environment?

Peter Harnik:  It gives me tremendous hope. It’s very exciting and heartening. It’s sad  that the older generation hasn’t taken responsibility for this and these young people have to take it on their own shoulders, but it’s tremendously heartening that they are. I feel a lot of kinship with them and what we were doing back in 1970s.

On Aging with Attitude:

If you’re an activist, there comes a time in your life when you transition from the tantalizing and revolutionary elation of feeling like “the youngest person in the room” to the slightly depressing responsibility of feeling like “the oldest in the house.” The hopeful, youthful “What if we tried –” starts becoming the aged “Yeah, we did that back in –.” Of course, it’s not always negative — sometimes it comes out, “Yeah, we did that back in the day, and it was incredibly successful!” Of course, every situation is different, and the great value that older folks can bring to situations are senses of perspective, distance and balance, along with the faith that both measured continuity and measured change will prevail.
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