What Did Environmental Activism Look Like in the 70s?

We look back on the era of environmental activism that sparked the first ever Earth Day on April 22 1970

If, like me, you suffer from inexplicably still thinking 1970 was 30 years ago, allow me to shock you: it was 50 years ago. The adage about the past being a foreign country is as true about the early noughties as it is about the 1970s, though the latter gets more sepia toned by the day.

The 1970s was a period of cooling in some places. As always, it was a decade marred by conflict, but the long and bloody Vietnam War came to merciful close, and the Cold War got deescalated from global nuclear holocaust to the pockets of proxy wars its mid-life would become known for. In the midst of all this, and with an arm's length now fully extended from the end of the Second World War, attention in certain parts of the world began to turn to new problems. The liberation movements of the ‘60s were to continue, the seemingly eternal struggle for civil and women’s rights still raged on.

 In the 70s people talked about nuclear power being a potential ‘Euroshima’

The beginning of the decade saw the first ever Earth Day, on April 22 1970. It was a day to promote peace in the world and, in its inaugural year, was recognised in over two thousand college campuses across the United States. Since then it has become an internationally-recognised day of demonstration for the environment. In celebration of its golden jubilee, we wanted to get a snapshot of what shape environmental and ecological activism looked like in this strange middle child of a decade.

As mentioned previously, the missile crisis of the 1960s had been avoided, but the stain of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was difficult to scrub away in the psyche of post-war Europe. 

Stephen Milder, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Groningen and specialises in social movements, political and environmental.  “In the 70s people talked about nuclear power being a potential ‘Euroshima’, Hiroshima could happen in Europe just from reactors being there,” he tells me. A lot of early activism in West Germany was around the proliferation of nuclear power plants being constructed.”

Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Campaign, 1978. Credit: Greenpeace / Rex Weyler

“With one reactor people were concerned that it was going to discharge steam from the cooling tower, and that was going to change the local climate and ruin the grape crop. So that concern has nothing to do with what we think about today when we think about nuclear energy, but because of that initial concern people started learning more about nuclear energy; things like, ‘what’s radiation going to do?’”

The town of Whyl was earmarked as a site for a new nuclear reactor in 1971. New coverage of protests by farmers, and their subsequent violent arrests, drew national attention and locals began to form action groups to thwart the construction of the power plant. The plan was withdrawn in 1975, but that wasn’t the end. Throughout the decade, larger and larger demonstrations, particularly in Bonn and Kalkar, began to surface. The government, meanwhile, was saying one thing while doing quite the other.

“When people protested and said, ‘we don’t like this, we don’t want the reactor because that’s going to affect our livelihoods and our health, the future of our health,’ the government said ‘well, this is an underdeveloped region, if we bring this nuclear power plant that’s going to totally change life here and it’s going to make everything better and your arguments are really sort of backward-looking and you don’t understand what progress and the future look like’,” says Milder.

Darlington Nuclear Power Station March, 1979. Credit: Greenpeace / Kai Millyard

“So they take the perspective of, ‘you must be the tree-huggers’. One thing that’s pretty interesting is that it’s not necessarily that the politicians are doing what they need to do about environmental issues, but there’s a pretty wide consensus of saying that you care about the environment.”

As usual with issues of environmental degradation, capitalism, and ‘progress’ and ‘development’ for the sake of it, is at the heart of these changes. Communities were ignored and when they spoke up, always peacefully, it was the baton that greeted them in kind.

“There’s this perception of the historic core of the EU being environmentally forward-thinking, and they really developed that after the 70s. I mean at that point it really seemed to be the United States that was in the lead with its environmental legislation, which for the time was impressive and solved some problems of pollution and Europe wanted to catch up,” says Milder.

The founding of Greenpeace International, 1979. Credit: Greenpeace / Rex Weyler

Across the pond a different kind of agitation was sprouting. Similarly to Europe, ecology (the study of how organisms interact with one another) and care for the environment wasn’t a new concept. The Sierra Club, for instance, created by the Scottish-American preservationist John Muir, was set up in 1892. It was this organization that served as the petri-dish from which Greenpeace would grow from. 

Rex Weyler is a founding member of Greenpeace, along with being an accomplished author, photographer and ecologist. He was a member of the Sierra Club too, until he, and others, felt they weren’t doing enough.

“Greenpeace got started as a committee of the Sierra Club in British Columbia,” he tells me. “But the Sierra Club wasn’t willing to do something like take a boat up and sail into a nuclear test zone. So Greenpeace had to, of course, separate and become its own thing.”

Weyler was in Canada after resisting the draft for the Vietnam War. He noticed ecology movements burgeoning in California. It was here he, and others, began to think of environmental activism in a different way.

“One thing I remember is they parked a car in the middle of an intersection on a street in Berkeley and brought sledgehammers and basically smashed the car into the pavement, destroyed the car. And their action was, of course, to demonstrate and point out the environmental impact of automobiles and car culture and so forth. Now that was kind of one of the more radical environmental things that I was aware of at that time,” says Weyler.

But this was an isolated incident. There wasn’t a dedicated environmental activist movement, a collective, enacting these sorts of stunts, or, as Weyler puts it, ‘street theatre’.

“I’d lived in Holland for a while. I had been involved with the Provo activism in Amsterdam, which was very, very creative, and I kind of got an inspiration for how you could achieve results with very creative street actions, which had a big influence on what we did later in Greenpeace. The Provos had something of an ecology awareness. But it wasn’t an ecology movement, it was a social movement, it was a social people’s rights movement.

The public consciousness in the USA was, rightly, focused more on the civil rights movements of the time. But things like the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill began to turn heads.

“I remember, you know, being in that area, that that was a big deal, in that beaches were being fouled by oil and people at that time weren’t really aware of the toxic issues and impacts, but that began to creep into the conversation,” says Weyler. “Not only would the beaches be fouled and unpleasant, but these were actually toxic substances. Toxic not only to humans, but everything else that lived in the ecosystem.”

Phyllis Cormack at sea, 1976. Credit: Greenpeace / Rex Weyler

It was on the back of this spill and other environmental hazards that the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, soon to be Greenpeace, decided to sail an old 1940s wooden fishing trawler called the Phyllis Cormack to Amchitka, an Alaskan island and nuclear testing ground. It was an idea, Weyler tells me, cribbed from the Quakers. They were also heavily influenced by the work of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan.

“Marshall McLuhan said ‘get out of the ivory tower and get into the control tower’. I don’t know if that’s a direct quote, but it’s pretty close to exactly what he said. He says there’s an intellectual understanding of human rights and ecology and so forth but rather than just writing academic papers about it, what you need to do is use the electronic media that’s available to tell your story. And so essentially Marshall McLuhan was telling us, ‘this is how you do it’. You don’t need to have a violent revolution to change things.”

The idea of a war waged in new media would, and remain, central to Greenpeace’s tactics going forward. The next voyage of the Phyllis Cormack in 1975 laid bare the horrors of whaling, with nauseating photos of disemboweled creatures spread for all to see.

Still then as now, they were seen as kooks and eccentrics. 

“We were mocked from day one, but we were prepared to be mocked. And we knew we would be mocked and certainly mocked by the self-interested,” Weyler says.

“The term ‘tree hugger’ was a way to mock environmentalists, but the original tree huggers in India were serious environmental activists who were trying to protect the forest, and yeah, they held arms and they surrounded the giant trees to keep them from being cut down. So there was a sense that it was a badge of honour to be called a tree hugger, but they used that, of course, to mock us.”

Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Campaign, 1979. Credit: Greenpeace / Rex Weyler

Respect for the land in America had started generations before with the Native people. It was in their honour that they named another ship, Rainbow Warrior, which was sunk in New Zealand in 1985 by the French secret service. A crew member, photographer Fernando Pereira, drowned as a result.

When I look at Extinction Rebellion, those people remind me of myself and my friends in the 1970s

While the journey to modern environmentalism has been filled with internationalism and togetherness, it’s important to remember the prickles of pain that’ve gone with it. It’s sad that these warnings from history ultimately went unheeded, and we find ourselves in the desperate mire of near-collapse today.

While the world has changed almost incomprehensibly since the 1970s, the methods of environmental agitation perhaps have not. The term ‘street theatre’ brings vividly to mind the actions of Extinction Rebellion in the last couple of years. It’s something Weyler has noticed as well. 

“Sometimes I’m just amazed at how effective Extinction Rebellion has been at capturing the media,” he says. “When I look at the Extinction Rebellion thing, those people remind me of myself and my friends in the 1970s. That’s what we were doing. We were outraged. We felt it was urgent and the existing ecology groups or environmental groups weren’t doing enough and we had to take to the streets.”

Rainbow Warrior crew member, 1978. Credit: Greenpeace / Pieter Lagendyk

Could Weyler have predicted that the environmental collapse we're currently living through would be so bad?

“In the 1980s, when we first raised this issue, oil industry spokespeople mocked us as if we were conjuring a new ecology crisis for our own benefit. However, the oil companies themselves had been doing the same research, and in 1982, Exxon prepared an internal ‘Engineering Report’ accurately predicting both CO2 accumulation and the resulting temperature change. Today, we are exactly where they predicted: over 415 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere and over 1°C in heating since the industrial revolution.”

"Global heating is on the trajectory about which we warned. Biodiversity collapse is on the trajectory we anticipated. The toxic waste crisis is worse than Rachel Carson warned. Perhaps the most painful reality of a lifetime in ecology is that one can take no joy from being proven right."

It's not all bad, though.

"I still find some joy in the world. Yesterday seven flocks of geese flew over our home, comprising over 2000 geese. Life goes on."

In the 50 years since the first Earth Day several hundred environmental activists have put their lives on the line for our planet, and in more than a few cases they’ve lost them as well. Today, we should remember the struggle of those who came before us, and ensure that their effort was not in vain by doing all we can to preserve the beauty they fought for.

Lead image: Darlington Nuclear Power Station March, 1979. Credit: Greenpeace / Kai Millyard