Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Interview with an Earth Day organizer

I’m editing a weekly children’s publication for the Denver Post these days, and we did an Earth Day issue in which, on the front page, the young reporters talked about what they do (not “ought to do”) to help the environment, while I interviewed Morey Wolfson, who had been the organizer of the 1970 Earth Day observance in Denver. Morey is now the Transmission Program Manager at the Governor's Energy Office and has been (or still is, in some cases) Executive Assistant to the Commissioners at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, a member of NREL's Federal Energy Management Program Team, member of the CRES Board of Directors, Solar Program Manager for the Colorado Energy Science Center, and sustainability consultant to David Owen Tryba Architects. I didn’t get to use much of this interview in the paper, so thought I’d share it here.

So how old were you when this happened, and how did it happen?

I was 24. I was involved in student government at Colorado University Denver, and student governments across the country were contacted by the national organizers. We looked at it and several of us saw that a lot of students at CU Denver were starting to think creatively about the environment. As it was, we had the third largest indoor event in the country at Currigan Hall. We had about 5,000 people there, and Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was the person who had started it all, came and spoke to us.

Nelson spoke there? That’s not bad!

It was a very good turnout. A lot of people bicycled in, and it was a young crowd. There were quite a few high school students whose teachers had looked at it and decided to let them leave school if they promised that they were going to go down to Currigan Hall. And there were a lot of college students, and a lot of just environmentally interested people.

This was more of a teach-in than a demonstration most places. Was that the case in Denver?

Yes, there were a bunch of speakers, and a lot of them were older people who were berating the younger people for not being more concerned with the environment. But it was a real mix of different kinds of concerns.

It’s hard to believe how little regulation there was in those days, until Nixon started the EPA.

They consolidated under the EPA a lot of very small and fractured governmental groups, and there were all these monumental laws being passed in '69, '70, '71, things that we now take for granted, 40 years later. It was a different period.

The Platte River was an open sewer. I'm a fourth generation Denverite, and I remember the big flood that wiped out the South Platte (in 1965), and, at that time, there were a lot of factories that used the river as a place to dump their effluents.Today you can go down on the riverwalk, and I'm not sure I'd put my kids in the water, but people do and you can do that today.

I kind of get the impression that, in subsequent years, there was more clean-up and fewer speeches on Earth Day.

I was involved in the activities over the following years for about five years, and, what we did in the following years was that we weren't holding teach-ins. It was more of the community clean up sorts of things. You'd see school children and community groups like Rotary organizing community clean up projects. I think it took the first Earth Day to get people to concentrate on the environment, and each year it grew from there.

It set forth a credibility, and I also think it was something that the older generation could relate to better. Parents could say to their kid, well, okay, you're only 14, but you can go get involved in this kind of counter-culture movement, because there was no element of “patriotism” involved. And I think people did start thinking more about the environment.

A lot of things stemmed from Earth Day and will for a long time. A lot of observers feel that it was a monumental part of American history because it helped set out the thought that allowed American people to show an example to the world.

One of the things I find, as we all get older, is that my friends who were in the Movement haven’t sold out, that the idea that the hippies all cut their hair and went to Wall Street is a lie. They’re teachers, social workers, they’re working with government agencies, they’re still trying to make things better.

I find that a lot of people I've come to know over time who are now involved in public service were inspired by not just Earth Day but by the women's movement, the Hispanic movement, the African-American movement. I think 1965 to 1975 was a period when a lot of these things were all coming together, and the people who were involved in those times were learning to find their voices and they continue now not in "protest" but because, as they grew older, they have gotten into positions of authority.

Was that first Earth Day a “protest” or a “demonstration”?

I think there was more "protest" later. I don't think we were as informed about the details at the time, and, you know, you protest after three or four years of trying, trying, trying, then you protest because you don't feel you're getting anywhere. But we weren't yet in that "we're sick and tired of this" place back then.

There were some powerful things that went on then. That picture of Spaceship Earth, which I think is one of the most viewed photographs ever, was on the front page of magazines, and then you have the man on the moon and Woodstock. I think the pump had been primed, and then you had the Santa Barbara oil spill and DDT issues, and the fact that Congress was moving to pass environmental laws, but it was all at the federal level and we needed legislation at the state level in order for it to work.

So, was it fun?

I had a lot of fun, yeah! It got a lot of people together, we had parties, and we had a lot of stuff to talk about after we pulled it off. Yeah, it was fun!


Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Interesting - and that got me to google thistle! I had no idea it was an invasive-species problem.

Maggie Chamberlin Holben, APR said...

Hi Nellie -- I was there with you at Currigan Hall and vividly remember Gaylord Nelson's speech. Thanks for the info about it being the 3rd largest inaugural event.

Mike said...

Actually, Maggie, I missed it -- I came to Colorado about six weeks later, for a writers' conference at CU, and ended up staying for 16 years. Got my first non-collegiate byline in the "Straight Creek Journal" which morphed into "Westword." My first byline that came with a check was in the Rocky.

Those were the days, my friend.