The following letter was published in this week’s issue of the Gazette.
To the editor:
My parents and teachers were somewhat dim-witted and lived in an age of darkness; to them, being “woke” was what Mom did to you 45 minutes before the school bus was due to arrive. But occasionally they had nuggets of wisdom, as I was reminded this week.
There is an environmentalist strain in America which can be traced back to eighteenth century writers such as Thoreau and painters of the Hudson River School. Environmentalism was no match for commerce, so by the 1950s and 60s environmental destruction was impossible to ignore.
In Croton this was the time of Theodore Cornu. In homes across America people were reading Silent Spring. There was a growing consensus that we needed to take action. That impulse was both spurred by, and an impetus to, the creation of powerful iconography.
Earthrise (1968) was named by Life magazine as one of the 100 most influential photographs of all time. It has been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Published on Christmas Eve, the image had religious, political, and social resonance. The San Francisco psychedelic art movement incorporated the perspective into environmental movement posters; both Earthrise and the psychedelic interpretations became common college dorm wall art well into the late 1970s.
Earth Day was first held in 1970. Robert Rauschenberg’s Earth Day featured a majestic bald eagle set against a backdrop of monochrome photos of environmental destruction. It was not a subtle message, nor was it meant to be. The bald eagle was a common icon of the environmental movement, and played a key role in the banning of pesticide DDT in 1972.
Anyone over a certain age remembers the “Crying Indian” on television. First aired on Earth Day 1971, the public service announcement (PSA) was seen by literally everybody: this was a time when there were 3 national networks plus a few local channels if you lived in a big city. The voiceover tagline was: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” In 2018 watching the PSA on YouTube has impact; in 1971 it hit the conscience of a nation.
By 1974 students across America were sitting through MEecology, a movie which showed kids each doing different things to affect the environment in a positive way, both individually and in groups. Classroom movies were a big thing in the 1970s: the teacher had to do reel-to-reel spooling, splice the film with scotch tape when it (inevitably) broke, replace the hot projector lightbulb without burning her fingers, and hope that the film did not get hopelessly mangled which would result in the school having to pay the vendor when they sent it back. Showing a film meant that the topic was important.
Critics say that the early environmental movement placed too much stress on individual action due to heavy funding from corporate interests. It is true that “Crying Indian” was designed by a Madison Avenue powerhouse and funded by Fortune 100 companies, and MEecology was funded by McDonald’s.
Regardless of funding or motivation, no one can argue with the results. There was an upsurge of individual action to save the environment: the “Crying Indian” campaign alone resulted in 2,000 letters per month (letter-writing is a thing they did back in olden times, and it took some effort) from people wanting to know what community organizations were in their local area, and sparked over 300 cleanup campaigns in 38 states.
Development of a national consensus provided popular support for the Environmental Protection Agency—itself established by Executive Order of Richard Nixon in December 1970. This was followed by other legislation such as the Endangered Species Act (1973) and banning DDT (1972). Technology was not as advanced as today, but the 1970s saw the beginning of energy efficiency research spurred by public pressure and by the October 1973 oil embargo.
The belief that “People start pollution. People can stop it” is outdated, as is the appeal to national pride and patriotism.
In 2018 would never allow someone of Italian heritage to play a Native American (cultural appropriation!). Governor Cuomo tells us that America “was never that great” so appeals involving national iconography are not going to resonate with millennials.
The concept of individual responsibility as a consequence of individual freedom is regarded today as retrograde if not incomprehensible. The 1970s saw significant government involvement, but the environmental movement was firmly rooted in the idea that each of us is individually responsible for our planet.
The new iconography of the environmental movement in Croton is the raised clenched fist. I will leave it to others to discuss the political history of the fist; I will simply observe that we all intuitively know what a clenched fist means.
The clenched fist is not the outstretched hand. The clenched fist is the will to power; the subordination of the individual to the demands of the collective. The clenched fist is the perfect icon for Croton’s environmental movement, chosen with care by people who know the history of the environmental movement and the political history of the chosen icon.
The demands of the “Rise for Climate” march on September 8 are detailed on the “Rise for Climate” website as being: “every local government and institution to commit to building 100% renewable energy and stopping new dirty energy projects in their community.” The demand for “actionable commitments” does not apply to individual commitment. It is rather a demand to have the government impose by force the will of the fist.
So on September 8, the raised fist will be the icon of the Croton environmentalists.
Buffeted by forces of evil (fossil fuel companies), the helpless will raise their fists and beseech the intervention of a higher power (the government). The concept that the marchers have any influence over their environment will not even enter their thoughts.
The march concluded, everyone will get into their gas-guzzling SUVs with individual entertainment suites. They will drive back to their 2500 sq. ft. home with separate bedrooms for each child and 2½ baths. They will crank up the central air conditioning, and settle down to consume the balance of their 2,031 daily calories. Being the end of summer, maybe they will discuss that Hawaii vacation and the 747 airliner that brought them there and back burning 1 gallon of fuel per second. Then everyone will go to their respective computers, PlayStations, and big screen televisions—all manufactured using toxic chemicals, made with rare earths mined in an environmentally-destructive manner, and sucking up electricity.
They will go to sleep satisfied, having done their part for the environment by raising clenched fists and demanding “actionable commitments” from other people.
MEecology had flaws, not least of which was the cloying song refrain which sticks in my mind 40 years later. The message of individual responsibility and mindfulness of the dozens of daily choices we make that can positively affect our planet are lessons which are relics of a non-“woke” age. The view that we should get off our high horse and lead by our own example is a lot tougher to implement than simply clenching our fist and demanding that government do something.
Iconography matters. The Crying Indian is no match for Croton’s clenched fist.