Rivers catching fire and noxious gases so dense they fell people by the dozens. Sound like something out of a dystopian fantasy? No, we’re talking about mid-20th-century America, when rivers were clogged with factory waste, garbage, and sewage; industry spewed toxic chemicals into the atmosphere by the ton; and pesticides like DDT killed not just insects, but birds, animals, and humans. In When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story (Apprentice Shop Books), award-winning author Linda Crotta Brennan writes about the inception of the Earth Day movement and the growth of environmentalism in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Linda is the author of more than a dozen non-fiction and fiction books for young readers on topics ranging from the American revolution to economics.
Thank you, Linda, for sharing some Wicked Cool History stuff with us today.
How did you get interested in the Earth Day story?
I’ve always been interested in the environment. My husband and I are active with our local Audubon Society. Two of my three daughters are environmental scientists. So when my publisher at Apprentice Shop Books put out a call for proposals for books about pivotal moments in U.S. history, the story of Earth Day leapt out at me as the perfect topic.
In When Rivers Burned, you profile Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes, who were the driving forces behind the first Earth Day in 1970 and bringing environmental issues to the forefront of American political discussion. Do you have a favorite anecdote about each of these men?
Senator Gaylord Nelson had been trying to focus the nation’s attention on the environment for years. Only two weeks after he was elected senator, he organized a “conservation tour” for then-president Kennedy, but the environment was constantly overshadowed by the other issues of the day: the nuclear arms race, civil rights, Vietnam.
In 1969, Nelson was on a plane flying out to inspect an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, when he picked up a magazine with an article about a “teach-in” on the Vietnam War. “That’s it!” he said. “Why not have an environmental ‘teach-in’ and get everybody involved!” That “teach-in” became the world’s first Earth Day.
Nelson hired Denis Hayes, who was a grad student at Harvard, to get “everybody involved.” It was a low-budget, low-tech effort. There was no internet or cell phones. Instead, Hayes had an “addressograph” with metal plates that he used to print out address labels to mail off the fliers he and his small but enthusiastic staff mimeographed in their tiny office. Yet with these primitive tools, they managed to create the largest demonstration in U.S. history.
You frankly address many controversial subjects in your book, including the zero population growth movement and climate change. How have readers responded to these challenging issues?
On the whole, readers have been very positive. Many have said my book made them realize how bad things used to be.
Do you think Americans are more sensitive to environmental issues than they were back in the 1960s?
In some ways they are. Americans are more aware of the issues. But they have also been desensitized by hearing so much about them. They’ve become blasé. This frustrates Denis Hayes. In one of his interviews with me, he complained that often environmentalists alert people to a problem and laws are passed so that the problem is averted. Then when nothing bad happens, the environmentalists are accused of being alarmist. But the problems are real, and we still need to pay attention.
You write about how the Earth Day movement led to major reductions in environmental pollutants, clean water and air legislation, and protection for endangered species. But you make it clear that there’s still a long way to go. What are the biggest challenges facing the environmental movement in the 21st century? Do you think we’ll be able to overcome them?
I’m not sure that I’m qualified to say what the biggest environmental issues are, but certainly climate change is right up there. All but a tiny fraction of scientists agree that this is a real problem, and that it’s caused by human activity. We’re already experiencing the repercussions, with more frequent, powerful, and deadly storms, extended droughts, greater temperature fluctuations, and so much more.
My husband and I have volunteered with the North American Butterfly Association’s survey for many years. I’m alarmed by the precipitous drop in the number of butterfly species and individuals in the past three years. There are also fewer bird species in my backyard. This saddens me.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research for When Rivers Burned?
I learned about the power of a handful of inspired individuals to make a difference. Senator Nelson and Denis Hayes didn’t have much in the way of financial resources, but they still managed to change global awareness about the environment.
Honestly, the publisher contacted me and asked me to write this book. I hadn’t grown up in Rhode Island and didn’t know the story of Rhode Island’s first regiment. But I was honored to have the opportunity to spread the word about these brave men.
Many people still don’t know that there was a mostly black regiment that fought in the American Revolution. (Not the Black Regiment of the Civil War.) The ranks of the Rhode Island First Regiment were filled by slaves who were offered their freedom in return for fighting.
At that time, slavery was widespread in the north. Newport, RI was the second largest slaving port in the country. After the Revolutionary War, attitudes toward slavery changed, partly as a result of the bravery of black soldiers. In the words of Dr. Harris, who had fought alongside the Black Regiment, “Liberty, independence, freedom, were in every man’s mouth. They were the sounds at which they rallied, and under which they fought and bled. The word slavery then filled their hearts with horror. They fought because they would not be slaves.” How could men who fought for freedom accept the enslavement of others? In the years following the Revolution, most Northern states passed legislation ending slavery.
You’ve written about the birth of the United States and environmentalism in the late 20th century, and have profiled 100 state heroines for the American Notable Women Series. Out of all the people and topics you’ve researched, do you have a favorite time period or historical figure, and why?
I just finished a biography of an important figure of the Great Depression and World War II, which will be coming out next year, and I’m tossing around an idea for a book about the Industrial Revolution. So the 1700’s, the 1800’s, the 1930’s, the 1960-70’s…picking one is like having to choose my favorite child.
I’m drawn to stories about people who triumphed over great odds to make the world a better place, no matter what the era. I’m particularly interested in bringing to light the little-known story, such as the story of the Black Regiment.
You’ve also written an eight-part series for children called Simple Economics, covering topics from taxes to the stock market. Why do you feel it’s important for children to understand these topics at an early age?
Truthfully, the publisher asked me to write that series. But in our society, money is power, so yes, I think it’s important to teach children about economics. And in writing those books, I deliberately created a diverse cast, so all young readers might see themselves as active participants in their economy.
Thank you, Linda!
Thank you so much for having me as a guest of Wicked Cool History! I welcome readers to stop by my blog (where I showcase other marvelous authors and illustrators) at http://lcbrennan.blogspot.com/ and visit my website at www.lindacrottabrennan.com