When I first heard that the earth was in trouble by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Earth Day

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On my first day as a Stanford University student in the fall of 1968, the sun was intense in a cloudless sky, and I was bursting with excitement. I was one of only three students from Michigan in the freshman class—and there I was, feeling invincible. After enjoying a 10-cent coffee at Tresidder Union, I skipped over to the library to check it out. But as soon as I entered the large lobby, my feet came to a screeching halt in front of a huge, multi-panel display called THE POPULATION BOMB, created by Professor Paul Ehrlich. With increasing horror, I read that the human population was overwhelming the world’s resources and that if our numbers kept on increasing, we would soon destroy the planet. I became so upset that I retreated back to my dorm. I was no longer on the top of the world but felt crushed by its weight.

Immediately, I sought comfort from my R.A., who knew all about these dire environmental threats, which somehow had not made their way into my Michigander brain. “We baby boomers might be the marginal generation,” she said matter-of-factly. “The last generation to live a normal life span.” I was soon to find out that a knowledge of environmental issues was commonplace among Californians, who were at least a decade ahead of the folks back home. I remember one older student in particular, Denis Hayes, being quite outspoken about environmental protection. He became one of the organizers of the original Earth Day in 1970 and was the founder of the Earth Day Network.

Every Earth Day in my current hometown of Northbrook, IL, we walk through the garden club exhibits, take home free trees (our front and back yards are now home to ten adolescent trees, all acquired from Earth Day and making us those weird neighbors who don’t spent thousands on landscaping), and I think about my children, now old enough to have children of their own. I hope that my R.A. is wrong about my generation’s status as the last. My 26-year-old daughter frets about the possibility of watching her future child die of cancer or an epidemic, or having to deal with a child’s chronic illness. (The CDC recently announced that 43% of the kids in the U.S. have at least 1 of a list of 20 chronic illnesses.) I hope that their generation will be more effective in stopping the destruction than we were, and that they can tell their grandchildren about the time when the world’s people got together to save the planet for generations to come. I hope that time comes soon.

Profile photo of Joan Matthews Joan Matthews

Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    This is a wonderful story! I started college in the fall of ’68 as well, so I can relate to where you were. At my school, on the East Coast, people weren’t thinking as much about overpopulation and diminishing resources. As you say, California was ahead of the curve on this. Although I do remember having a biology professor who wrote BOMB and WOMB on the blackboard, and said that one or the other would cause the destruction of the planet.

    Welcome to Retrospect! I look forward to reading more of your stories.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    I was moved by your R.A.’s comment that boomers may be the last generation to live a normal life span. As a parent and grandparent, I share your hope that future generations and halt and even reverse the damage that mine has allowed to happen to the earth.

  3. John Zussman says:

    As a fellow Michigander who also graduated in 1968, I’ve definitely “been there!” Your fine story made me reflect back on how I became environmentally conscious. Like Suzy, I remember Tom Lehrer’s song “Pollution” from 1965, as well as Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” that turned out to be a harbinger of what we now call environmental thinking. It was part, I think, of our collective disillusionment with our country that began with JFK’s assassination and progressed through the civil rights movement and Vietnam.

    I don’t think I had an ecological epiphany so much as all the evidence gradually sinking in, so that by the time I arrived at Stanford four years after you did, environmentalism was assumed. No surprise that California was ahead of the game, having to deal with LA smog. Alas, it still is. Thanks for sharing this and welcome to Retrospect!

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