Pollution by
(303 Stories)

Prompted By Earth Day

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

In 1965, Tom Lehrer recorded the song “Pollution,” purporting to give advice to a foreign traveler visiting the US.

If you visit American city
You will find it very pretty
Just two things which you must beware
Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.

At the time it seemed funny, since usually it was American tourists being told not to drink the water in other countries. Of course it couldn’t happen here. But it turned out that it could. By 2002 Lehrer was saying he couldn’t write satire any more because everything just made him angry, and the things that he once thought were funny had become scary instead. That was more than a decade before the water in Flint, Michigan was found to be undrinkable, causing unimaginable damage to the residents there.

In college I knew a few people who were talking about “ecology,” as it was called then. At the time, I was annoyed by the fact that they were focused on that, when other issues, such as the antiwar movement, feminism, and civil rights seemed so much more important. How could they be wasting their time with this ecology stuff?

Now, of course, it is all too clear that saving the environment may be the most important issue before us, because if we destroy the Earth, nothing else matters.

Earth Day was created in 1970 by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who wanted to make environmental protection part of the national political agenda. I only know this from researching it online, I have no memory of any Earth Day celebration in Cambridge in 1970. Amazingly, the huge turnout for Earth Day that first year led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. My only political recollections from the spring of 1970 are Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, the Kent State shootings, and the Harvard campus going out on strike for the second year in a row as a result. I’m glad that other people were paying attention to the environment even though I didn’t think it was important at the time.

When I moved to Davis, I encountered something called the Whole Earth Festival, a uniquely Davis event. Apparently it started in 1969 as an art project on the Quad to teach people about “activism, wellness, and environmental sustainability” in an interactive and creative way. The next year, when Earth Day was created nationally, the event was renamed the Whole Earth Festival and has been happening annually ever since. It’s a three-day festival which is held on Mothers Day weekend, so it does not coincide with Earth Day. When I went to it during my law school years in the spring of 1975-77, it was still a relatively small event that seemed like just a bunch of hippies smoking dope and listening to music. It was uncrowded enough that if there were other people there that you knew, you would probably see them. One year I bumped into my first college boyfriend, who had become something of a hippie. Turned out he had gotten married, moved to California, had a baby, and the whole family had taken Indian names (the baby was Narayana, I can’t remember what the adults were called).

Since that time the festival has become huge, with more than 30,000 visitors descending on the UC Davis Quad every year. They proudly call it a “zero-waste event” and have volunteers separating recyclables and compost from the garbage. It still seems pretty much like a hippie gathering, just on a much larger scale. And to advocate being an environmentalist in Davis is like preaching to the choir. Everyone is already pretty woke.

On the eve of Earth Day 2019, having seen an increasing number of fires and floods, earthquakes and hurricanes as the result of global warming, I ponder: what actions can we take to save the planet? I try to do my part. I have been driving an all-electric Nissan Leaf since 2011. I took my own tote bags to the grocery story even before they started charging for bags. I am a fanatic recycler of all things glass, paper, and plastic. I turn off lights all the time, and I don’t waste water. My pool is heated by solar panels. I use LED lightbulbs.  It doesn’t seem like enough, but maybe it would be if everybody did it. Especially if we can manage to elect a President and Senate majority next year who believe in science!


Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Marian says:

    Suzy, your story brought back so many fun memories, especially the hippies who took on Indian names. I was in high school in 1970 for the first Earth Day, and there were a few hippie “eco-freaks.” One guy, who would now be considered a stoner, learned that the optimal auto fuel efficiency speed was 35 mph, and he wouldn’t drive faster than that. Used to infuriate everyone behind him in the small town.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, I knew you would use Pollution as your title. I remember that song well and loved Tom Lehrer. He was really a visionary back in the day, and I can see why he stopped writing satire when his jokes became a bitter reality. (Remember New Math? My grandkids are living it now.) Thanks for sharing the history of Earth Day. We must work hard to elect political leadership that believes in science. Al Gore, anyone?

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    I DO remember the first Earth Day, celebrated by lots of my classmates at my high school who gathered newspapers to be recycled and did other tasks in the neighborhood to benefit the environment.

    But as the years go on and our current government reverses regulations to improve the environment and openly denies the science behind climate change (I just finished reading today’s Boston Globe which said that Hurricane Michael, which devastated the Florida Panhandle was upgraded to the level of the strongest storm), my fear of doom sets in. Our current leaders are in the pocket of the Koch brothers and others who benefit from denying that climate change is a clear and present danger.

    • Suzy says:

      Glad to hear about your high school celebrating the first Earth Day. I know things are looking bad right now, and I share your fear of doom, but I have to believe we can turn things around if the Dems take the government back in 2020.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Of course, Suzy, you had me with the reference to Tom Lehrer right at the beginning, and I was quite sure which lyrics of his you would pick. But, far beyond that, I really appreciated your history of Earth Day and your increasingly greater involvement in it and all things environmental.

    Yes, I think everyone here embraces environmentalism and bemoans the horrific anti-science politics we are dealing with now — that’s why I have found it hard to feel I have something new to say. But I really love your memories and touch points along the way, especially since I have at least some overlap with the earlier ones — like the first Earth Day, which I found “interesting,” but also wasn’t paying much attention to. So thanks for all you do and for keeping us “woke” now.

  5. A great chronicle of interwoven personal and political issues, Suzy! And what ‘better’ place to be to absorb ‘ecology’ than Davis! My cousin studied landscape architecture back then, in the crest of new environmental studies there, and was responsible for advocating, designing, and building eco-friendly housing in the area.

    I clearly recall my own ‘doctrinaire’ thinking about environmental issues back then. As with our space race, I felt strongly that we had more pressing worldly issues. Consciousness has come to us all, radically over the past decades.

    I found Lehrer’s comment about satire and anger sad and achingly familiar. Difficult to satirize a reality that has grown dangerous and grotesque.

  6. John Zussman says:

    Your title and lyric alone took me right back to That Was the Week That Was, the TV show for which Lehrer wrote that song, and like many on this site I could sing you plenty more of it! (BTW, did you know that Lehrer also wrote “Fight Fiercely, Harvard?”)

    Your story deftly captures how earnest we were in those days, and how certain we were that recycling and the Clean Air and Water Act would solve the problem. We didn’t know from climate change then. But we did know by the ‘80s, and it is on Reagan (who tore Carter’s solar panels off the White House) and the oil companies (who knew enough to design rigs that would withstand sea level rise) that we face such dire scenarios today.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks John. Excellent point about Reagan and the oil companies.

      My family used to gather around the TV to watch TW3 (as it was called) every week, and I once even wrote to them to ask them to send me one of the songs. (They didn’t. but they did send a very nice reply.) And OF COURSE I knew Lehrer wrote “Fight Fiercely Harvard,” I knew every word to that song, and ALL of his, long before I even thought of going to Harvard. The surprising thing is that the Harvard Band plays/sings it now as part of their standard repertoire, perhaps unaware of the irony.

Leave a Reply