Fifty years ago, it felt like humans were going to take saving the planet seriously. We made great progress. Unfortunately, bad presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Kindly Old Moderate George Bush went far to undermine this effort, turning environmentalism into a partisan issue and creating the terrible world in which we now live. But it’s worth remembering back to those moments that inspired us as a species to do better. The always wonderful Bill McKibben on the 50th anniversary of the legendary Earthrise photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8.
Back on Earth, the seeds of the modern environmental movement had already been planted. Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring earlier in the decade, beginning the process of wiping some of the shine off modernity. David Brower had led the Sierra Club through the great fight to save the Grand Canyon, turning it in the process into the first great green group. And soon there would be a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, and the Cuyahoga River would burst into flames. People were beginning to realize that there were limits to the abuse nature could take at the hands of growth.
But suddenly those limits were visible. Everything we had was there before us: a blue-and-white shimmering egg hanging in the monochrome void. You could see it aswirl with the motion of clouds, gloriously alive in the midst of the endless vacuum.
When we think of the Apollo missions, we often herald NASA’s accomplishments as technical. We put a man in orbit, and then we landed more on the moon. And yet one of the most important achievements of the decades of space exploration was artistic — this one photograph taken 50 years ago this month that showed us nothing about the rest of the galaxy and everything about our home.
It explained, I think, the tenor of the first Earth Day, which followed about 15 months later. Organized as a “national environmental teach-in” by Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson and Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey, the day used an image of Earth from space as its unofficial flag. The event drew 20 million Americans into the streets ― a tenth of the population at the time, probably the largest day of political action in American history.
Though it emerged from the fraught and divisive politics of the late 1960s, there was a sweetness to Earth Day. The event had a sense of unity because ― and this was the point made so clear in the Earthrise image ― we were clearly all in it together.
“Earth Day is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space,” wrote Margaret Mead.
The effect of that unity was startling. Within the next few years, the Environmental Protection Agency was created and the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts were signed into law by President Richard Nixon, a man who lacked a scintilla of environmental awareness or interest but who responded to the movement overtaking Washington at the time.
That burst of legislation, emulated around the planet, was a remarkable recognition that we needed to control ourselves if we were to preserve that lonely, lovely sphere floating in the darkness.
“Limits to Growth,” a 1972 treatise based on simple computer models that flagged our fast-approaching planetary boundaries, was an attempt at a troubleshooting guide for what we’d begun to call “Spaceship Earth.” The Whole Earth Catalog, with a picture of the Earth from space on its cover, was the hippie-ish operating manual. For a while, it looked as if it all might take: By 1978, a decade after Apollo 8 returned to terra firma, pollsters reported that 30 percent of Americans were “pro-growth,” 31 percent were “anti-growth,” and 39 percent were “highly uncertain.” We almost built a new world.
Part of the history of what is left of human civilization after climate change’s impacts become overwhelming is how we almost built that new world and then decided to triple down on the old world.