Earth Day and Population: A Missed Opportunity


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An NPG Forum Paper
by Leon Kolankiewicz


I was a skinny sophomore at a suburban high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the time of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. That rapidly receding, epochal event is now nearly half a century ago, but in the weeks leading up to it, I can still vividly recall our school announcements over the intercom as I sat in my homeroom every morning. Juxtaposed against ho-hum, ordinary news of how our varsity baseball and track & field teams had fared or upcoming student elections, there was an arresting litany of messages, day after day: ominous warnings of how we human beings were abusing Mother Earth and that there would be hell to pay for this crime against nature.

In essence, the solemn message I remember hearing was that we humans were out of control. We were mindless rather than mindful. Not only were there too many of us, but each and every one – at least in already affluent countries like the United States – was living high on the hog and living high on borrowed time, carrying on self-indulgent lifestyles that were unsustainable (although the words “unsustainable” and “sustainability” would not be coined for another couple of decades). At the same time, the dominant Earth Day theme was not one of futility, fatalism, or hopelessness, but one of hopefulness. Humanity was neither doomed nor preordained to foul its nest; we had to do better, and we could do better.

That first Earth Day was the brainchild of U.S. Senator and former Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson (D-WI). Nelson (Figure 1) initially got the idea from the protests and “teach-ins” against the Vietnam War that had proliferated in the late 1960s. For years he had been pondering “How are we going to get the nation to wake up and pay attention to the most important challenge the human species faces on the planet?” Back in 1963, Nelson had persuaded President John F. Kennedy to make a tour of eight states, speaking out on the need to conserve natural resources. But this was an idea still ahead of its time; notwithstanding the dashing “Camelot” as a spokesman, the news media and the American public largely ignored the tour and its conservation theme.

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Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon Kolankiewicz is an “all-around ecologist” whose professional career spans three decades, three countries, and more than 30 states. He received a B.S. in forestry & wildlife management from Virginia Tech and an M.S. in environmental planning from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada). His career includes stints with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, National Marine Fisheries Service, University of Washington, University of New Mexico, Orange County Environmental Management Agency, Carrying Capacity Network, and as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras. As an environmental consultant, Leon has written, edited and managed many environmental impact statements on a variety of projects for multiple federal agencies and prepared more than 40 comprehensive conservation plans for national wildlife refuges from Alaska to the Caribbean. He has also authored reports examining the role of population growth in aggravating pressures on natural resources and the environment.
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