Earth Day Ain’t What It Used to Be

The seed potatoes and bags of “K-Mag” background fertilizer arrived this morning on the Paris Farmers Union truck. With that safely stowed on a pallet in the wood/tractor shed I met up with a group of wetland ecology students who were studying a vernal pool on the farm woodlot.

With a few hundred tomato and lettuce plants getting acclimated to the soil in the high-tunnel structure other seedling signaled the need for re-potting. Such were my sketchy contributions to Earth Day….. that, and writing this column.

The original Earth Day occurred in a simpler time, before Business-as-Usual became utterly hegemonic. Inspired by a 1969 UNESCO conference, Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed a “nationwide environmental teach-in be held on April 22, 1970.”  (Wikipedia) So-called “teach-ins” had become an organizing/educational activity stateside during the  U.S. war against Vietnam. The notion struck a chord. “More than 20 million people poured out on the streets, and the first Earth Day remains the largest single-day protest in human history.“ (Wikipedia)

Earth Day Coordinator Denis Hayes was quick to point out however that the event’s success was hugely based on efforts from “non-environmentally focused partners”—— especially the United Auto Workers and their leader Walter Reuther: “The most influential outside financial and operational supporter of the first Earth Day.” According to Hayes, ‘Without the UAW, the first Earth Day would likely have flopped.’ ” (Wikipedia)

Reuther was a bulwark in the  social movements of the 60s though he (and the populist agitation of organized/ informed labor) rarely get mentioned today in these ephemera-sodden TikTok times. He barely survived that first Earth Day. Back then the hegemonic types really played for keeps. Successful organizers and political leaders routinely meet untimely ends. Think of it as 20th century “cancel culture.”

Michael Parenti’s Dirty Truths devotes a chapter to “The Wonderful Life and Strange Death of Walter Reuther.” While the pivotal role in Earth Day goes unmentioned, Parenti notes the UAW’s prominent structural support for Martin Luther King and the “civil rights” movement.

Further: “Reuther sparked the creation of the Citizen’s Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition.…. The UAW leader pioneered a variety of innovative programs, including employer-funded health and pension plans, cost-of-living allowances, and a guaranteed annual wage. He fought for federally funded affordable housing, nationalized health care, government ownership of monopolistic industries, worker participation in economic planning and other proposals for redistributing power and wealth, all of which were taken as taken as threats to ruling-class interests——as indeed they were.”

A number of attempts on Walter and brother Victor Reuther’s lives  were made. In 1948 Walter was nearly killed by a shotgun blast, fired  though his kitchen window. Wounded in the chest and arm, he never fully recovered. Victor lost his right eye and part of his jaw in 1949: Shot while reading in his living room.

On a rainy night, May 9, 1970, weeks after the 1st Earth Day, Walter Reuther, his wife and others were killed in a plane crash in Northern Michigan. An NTSB investigation revealed seven “defects” in the plane’s altimeter which would have led the pilots to believe they were 200 feet further aloft than they actually were. In 1968 Victor and Walter had narrowly escaped death in another crash also involving a (suspiciously?) dysfunctional altimeter.

Decades after Reuther’s passing as another token Earth Day limps into history it might be worth remembering his words from late 1969; “The labor movement is about changing society….. What good is a dollar more an hour if your neighborhood is burning down? What good is another week’s vacation if the lake you used to go to, where you’ve got a cottage, is polluted and you can’t swim in it…..What good is another $100 pension if the world goes up in atomic smoke?”

The Hegemonists responded to such concerns with infamous, well-funded  propaganda campaigns like “Keep America Beautiful.”  With millions provided by oil companies and the plastics/packaging industry a series of so-called “public service announcements” saturated American media. The “crying (Italian) Indian” ads proposed that environmental problems simply stemmed from a failure of “personal responsibility.”

“People start pollution. People can stop it,” they portentously declared.


This “messaging” of course conveniently mis-directed public attention from private profiteers to deplorably unenlightened “consumers.” The problem wasn’t the PFAS-PFOA/ petro-chemical mob. It was “litter-bugs” who arrogantly refused to “put litter in its place.”

Today’s (non-profit) “Recycling Partnership” continues the distractive trope. Funding partners include ExxonMobil. Keurig, Dr. Pepper, and the American Chemistry Association among others.

Earth Day is no longer a “day of protest” against profit-based ecocide. Today it’s about “feel-good” with volunteers picking up trash, almost all of which will end up in a corporate landfill—— here in Maine, next to an Indian reservation—— as it happens.

Attention Earthlings: Earth Day ain’t what it used to be.

Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: