Apocalypse Whenever

Who could ever forget the end of life on earth?


Michael Clark is the executive director of Friends of the Earth, and he's a little anxious about this whole Earth Day thing. He's in a hurry. What's the rush? "We are driven by the fact that we don't have much time left to act, maybe 10 years," he told the New York Times late last year.

And you thought you had problems. The guy from the Times didn't say to Mike, "Yeah? Ten years? Then what happens?" because he didn't have to. The reporter, being an environmental reporter, already knows from talking to environmental activists (it's his job) what happens then: What happens then is it, the apocalypse, Armageddon, curtains, the end.

Environmentalists long ago learned what every auto mechanic and Bible-belt rabble-rouser and real-estate panic artist has always known: Bad news is profitable news. As a sales device, the apocalypse—unlike, say, oil deposits in the North Sea—is an endlessly renewable resource. It never goes away. The sound of the ticking clock fetches us all. News of looming doom works today, it will work tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow—just as it worked yesterday and the day before.

It certainly worked 20 years ago, around the time the first Earth Day was getting cranked up. Eco-pests never descended to strapping on sandwich boards and walking the length of Hollywood Boulevard and back again calling sinners to repent (their Earth Shoes would have made the trek impossibly painful); they didn't need to.

They had the press. The first Earth Day thus gained rivers of ink and miles of footage on the evening news and managed to induce a kind of coast-to-coast, day-long hysteria in which millions of normally sane Americans did things they would never have dreamed of doing for a fraternity hazing.

Time magazine described some of the proceedings in an article titled "Memento Mori" (literally, I think, "Memo for Morons"): "At the University of Wisconsin, 58 separate programs were staged, including a dawn 'earth service' of Sanskrit incantations. Car wreckings—followed by interment of the beasts—were a common protest. Some students at Florida Technological University held a trial to condemn a Chevrolet.…" In Cleveland, Time recounted cryptically, "a student held aloft a plastic bag full of garbage and intoned: 'This is my bag.'" (I don't understand it either.) There was much more: cooking cowpies, hugging pigs, listening to speeches by John Lindsay.

Why did Americans do such things? Because some of it was fun, of course, but more importantly because the end was near. Considering the reams of apocalyptic treatises then blanketing America, it's a wonder we didn't all start waving bags of garbage. To every side the chorus was singing the same tune that Michael Clark is crooning today. Norman Cousins, the editor, announced that "the human race is operating under the starkest of deadlines." Life magazine told us that by 1980 city dwellers would need gas masks. And NBC's Edwin Newman, his sunken eyes darkening with portent, warned his viewers that by 1980 the mighty rivers of this great nation "would have reached the boiling point."

Scary, yes. But a skeptic could ask, with some justification: What does Norman Cousins, widely recognized even then as an all-purpose crank, know? Or the editors of Life, for that matter? And Edwin Newman—wasn't grammar his thing?

The tribe of apocalyptics understood that it helps if your witch doctor is indeed a doctor, and to silence the skeptics the movement enlisted one Paul Ehrlich as chief whooper-upper. He was catholic in his alarmism, but it was the subject of "overpopulation" that really set his bells to ringing. He became the Quasimodo of the cause.

Now, Dr. Ehrlich was an entomologist by training, and some immediately recognized that after many years of rigorous study he had lost the capacity to distinguish between an army of hideous little arthropods swarming over his desk in a Stanford laboratory and an upwardly mobile population of Homo sapiens building tract houses in Palo Alto. Each for him was equally unpleasant; each brought chaos. But, hinged or unhinged, he was a doctor, and that seemed good enough for everybody. It was enough, in any event, for Playboy and Look and Reader's Digest and McCall's and the dozens of other slick magazines that got him to dispense his wisdom in their pages, and it was enough for Johnny Carson, who throughout the '70s made the bug man a regular guest on his show.

For Ehrlich had the tone just right. "We face a very real crisis this instant," he told Reader's Digest readers in 1968. This instant: petulant, barely choking down the sob, vaguely threatening to hold…my breath…until…you pay attention to me. But the tone, however undignified, was necessary; this was, let's not forget, apocalypse. Even if the world's food supply tripled by the year 2000, he continued in his Digest article, "it is already too late to prevent a drastic rise in the death rate through starvation." And how late is it, as Johnny's audience might have called out? "The time of famines will be upon us full-scale in 1975." But then a cruel shrug: "What's done is done."

Nevertheless, the inevitable end has a sunny side. It's already too late, but we still get to take drastic action. A Federal Department of Population and Environment, a head tax for families with children, mandatory birth-control education in the schools, lots of abortions, an end to "death control" (an apocalyptic term meaning "medical research"), and finally, soon or late, "compulsory birth regulation." Come again? "We might, for instance, institute a system whereby a temporary sterilant would be added to a staple food or to the water supply." Earth Day was a mother lode for fans of drastic action. And to think that right-wingers were worried about fluoride!

Had enough? Dr. Ehrlich lets no one off that easy. He leaves Digest readers with a dirge of questions to ponder. "We must look to the survivors," he writes, "if any."

"Will they have to wear smog masks as a matter of routine? [Yes! Haven't you been reading Life?] Will they enjoy mock steaks made from processed grass or seaweed? Will they accept regimentation and governmental control at a level previously unheard of? Above all, will they be able to retain their sanity in a world gone mad?"

The answer to the last question, quite obviously, is no. Dr. Ehrlich wouldn't let them. Before and during Earth Day and for years thereafter, he was inescapable, even if you were one of those rare Americans who never watched "The Tonight Show" or who never read Look or who never bought Playboy just for the articles. He called the American people a "cancer on the planet," and the cancer cooed. It embraced him, it cuddled with him, it set him upon its knee and bounced him up and down. "I'm booked a year ahead on personal appearances," he said in 1970, "and get around two dozen requests a day." His manifesto, The Population Bomb, sold a cool million, and he logged 80,000 miles a year. His vasectomy was covered in Life.

Apocalyptics is fun, as I say, and soon everybody was joining in. Eschatologists crowded the magazines, the op-ed pages, the airwaves. I have noted Norman and Ed, but space prevents me from servicing them all. Gaylord Nelson, then a senator from Wisconsin, deserves special mention if only because he (along with several dozen competitors) claimed credit for devising Earth Day. He used that paternity to elbow his way into the pages of Look and grab a national audience.

There he relieved himself of several predictions, all ecstatically dreadful. The breathing masks, of course, will be de rigeur by the 1980s, but only when we're outdoors. He cites the secretary of the Smithsonian, S. Dillon Ripley, to the effect that by 1995, "between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct." Not that we'll have time to miss the furry koala or the cretinous buffalo or the gentle giraffe, for a mere five years later, the natural environment will no longer be able to sustain any life at all.

Senator Nelson's prescriptions are much what you would expect of a senator from the state that gave us Robert LaFollette. Each urgently needed policy marches out with capital letters unfurled: a National Land Use Policy, a National Policy on Air and Water Quality, a National Policy on Resource Management, a National Policy on Oceans, a National Policy on Population. Having limned this impressive program, he makes the complaint that "thousands of government-agency offices are protected from public scrutiny by layer on layer of bureaucracy"—nothing, surely, that a National Policy on Bureaucratic Layers can't fix. And then, stirringly, he closes: "We need action. The cost of not acting will be far greater than anything we have yet imagined."

At this point the question naturally arises: How do we imagine a cost greater than the extinction of all life on earth by the year 2000? There's no evidence that anyone ever asked it of the Hon. Gaylord. Taken item for item, many of the eco-predictions were mutually exclusive by their very nature, and the key to understanding Earth Day then and now is to know that nature had absolutely nothing to do with it. And accuracy, thank God, had nothing to do with it either. We Americans never did, so far as I recall, get water rationing and a ban on flush toilets by 1974, though several eco-experts divined that these would be crucial; nor did we get food rationing by 1980; nor a 500-percent increase in dysentery by the mid-70s. (Imagine an outbreak of dysentery with no flush toilets!)

There was one other thing the apocalyptics were wrong about—Earth Day itself. A presidential candidate, Ehrlich predicted in 1970, would spring from the Day's fertile loins, and the doctor's own organization, Zero Population Growth, would form the nucleus of a new political party. Earth Day, he wrote, "is going to have a tremendous impact.…The movement is going to generate a lot of civil disobedience, similar to what we saw in the early days of civil rights.…Among other things, people are just going to stop paying their bills." Gladwin Hill, the national environmental reporter for the New York Times, said the occasion marked the beginning of "what may become the greatest movement ever to sweep the country." And the editors of The Progressive were also, as is their wont, wrong: Earth Day would "become the birthday of a new and more hopeful movement affecting all our lives in all ways."

Instead, as we now know, Earth Day 1970 went the way of all media events: It faded into the pages of Look and Time and Newsweek, yellowing in bound volumes, gathering dust in library stacks. It was a close call, however, and in the heaving bosom of every environmentalist there is a fountain of hope that never runs dry. Hence Earth Day 1990. The executive director of an organization boosting the great event, Christina Dresser, recently had this to say: "The point is not an event, but launching a decade of environmental activism." Don't worry. She'll be dead wrong.

Andrew Ferguson is an editorial writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.