Nostalgia Clouds the Larger Purpose of Earth Day

April 13, 2010 | Yael Borofsky,

Obama invokes this classic imagery in his video message explaining the history of Earth Day.

Forty-one years ago, in the city of Cleveland, people watched in horror as the Cuyahoga river, choked with debris and covered in oil, caught on fire. Images of the burning Cuyahoga shocked the nation and it led one Wisconsin senator, the following year, to organize the first Earth Day to call attention to the dangers of ignoring our environment.

But as Michael and Ted wrote in Break Through in 2007, the image of the burning river that purportedly catalyzed Earth Day and the modern environmental movement was actually taken in 1952, not 1969, because the "historic" latter fire didn't even burn long enough to be photographed.

So then why didn't the far more damaging 1952 river fire ignite the environmental movement? Ted and Michael contend that it was more than a "random outbreak of rationality" in 1969.

In 1952, Cleveland was concerned with meeting urgent material needs, like solving the city's sewage problems and eradicating cholera. By 1969, "the standard of living for virtually every American improved consistently and dramatically," and "affluent, comfortable, and secure Americans were strongly interested in quality-of-life concerns, which included clean air; clean water; and local, state, and national parks. In short, Americans became postmaterialists, concerned with satisfying postmaterial needs because they could easily meet their material ones.

By the 1969 river fire, the image was far more threatening than the actual event. In Ted and Michael's words:

In one sense, the dependence upon visual imagery is a kind of nostalgia masquerading as political strategy. And like almost all expressions of nostalgia, it is reductive and simplifies a much more complex picture, ignoring the values and context that defined the moment and obsessively returning the same partial memories--seeing a river on fire, the imagery painted by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring of a world in which the birds had ceased to sing, and the feelings of great accomplishment as millions of Americans poured into the streets demanding action and Congress passed powerful new laws in response.

And as Andrew Revkin points out, in using the old Cuyahoga narrative to promote local action, Obama missed a prime opportunity to promote Earth Day and call attention to much larger goals:

1) The need for "more engagement and investment by the United States in developing countries."

2) "[T]he need for the United States to build a new generation of engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and community and business leaders with the technical skills and globe-spanning relationships to forge substantial social, financial and technological breakthroughs."

3) The need to "enable poor countries to leapfrog past polluting development paths and prompt established industrial power to shift deeply embedded last-century energy norms."

You can view Obama's Earth Day message below: