Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and millions, if not billions, of people are sheltering in place at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although most of us might not be spending the day as planned or desired, we still want to acknowledge the day.
The Brooklyn Public Library has developed a beautiful podcast episode, In Fifty Years, to honor the history of Earth Day while also addressing the climate crisis today. The Austin Public Library and the Mill Valley Public Library also contributed clips from our patrons about Earth Day and climate change but the pandemic altered our intended plans to include more voices and capture more stories from the original Earth Day. Despite the current crisis, staff at BPL did an excellent job developing this episode to recognize Earth Day in the context of a world pandemic.
In Fifty Years. Episode Transcript
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Fifty years ago today, the United States celebrated the first ever Earth Day.
Reporter Following a green-and-white mock-up of the American flag to the Washington monument grounds, the 2,000 original marchers had swelled to perhaps 10,000 or more by nightfall.
Adwoa Adusei That’s sound from ABC News in 1970, when the news station reported on Earth Day celebrations across the country. This episode of Borrowed, we’re going to be taking us back to 1970. The world has just seen itself in a picture for the first time, taken from the Apollo 8 mission in 1968.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Back here on Earth, the environmental movement was starting to take off. So, Rachel Carson had published her seminal book Silent Spring in 1962, which revealed just how dangerous chemicals like DDT and other pesticides were for the living environment. People across the country were becoming aware of how damaging air pollution from cars and factories were for public health and the health of our planet. On that first Earth Day in 1970, the estimates are that 20 million people took part across the country, with marches and demonstrations and teach-ins. In Boston, students staged a die-in at Logan Airport to protest the pollution being created by air travel. In California, an environmental group marched from Sacramento all the way to L.A. and it took six weeks.
Adwoa Adusei In New York City, for that first Earth Day, Mayor John Lindsay shut down 5th Avenue, from 59th all the way to 14th Street. Union Square became the terminous and center of the New York City Earth Day celebration.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, right here in Brooklyn, Prospect Park was shut down to cars, and that’s back when cars could still drive the whole length of it. The governor of New York at the time, Governor Rockefeller, took a bike ride through Prospect Park to promote green transportation, and he had photographers and radio reporters in tow.
Adwoa Adusei In Manhattan, the demonstrations were attended by over 100,000 people throughout the city. One speaker after another took to the steps of the New York Public Library in Manhattan. Mayor John Lindsay spoke to the crowd and we’re going to play a little bit of what he said that day. This audio comes to us courtesy NYC Municipal Archives.
John Lindsay New York City was quite beautiful today. And yet oddly enough the more beautiful it can look on an occasion like this, the more we are reminded that the business of pollution is the twin brother of the business of poverty and despair.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Earth Day back in 1970 was framed a little differently I think, than we think of the environmental movement today. A lot of the focus, pretty broadly, was this idea that it was a personal responsibility. That we should clean up our litter and everyone needs to do their part.
John Lindsay And that contribution and commitment goes all the way from the business of taking on each person’s shoulders the responsibility for stopping the littering, for ending the attitude and the indifference, the respect for alternate side parking regulations, and simple housekeeping matters of this kind.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras I like how alternate side parking was a problem 50 years ago, and it’s a problem today.
Adwoa Adusei Yeah, that’s what people say, right? But Mayor Lindsay also made sure to call for bigger, more structural changes to save the Earth.
John Lindsay I do think that we therefore have a right to call upon our national leaders as well as ourselves to stop the insanity of the use of our resources towards the military industrial complex in this country. And I think, too, that we have a right to ask that the industrial might and technical know-how of America, by carrot and stick systems, by laws, by persuasion, by cooperation, be turned towards the business of the saving of our environment.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras You heard Mayor Lindsay there mention the military industrial complex, and that’s because in 1970, America was in the middle of the Vietnam War, which was incredibly unpopular and a deadly conflict. And, for a lot of people in 1970, it felt like end times. So, these calls for environmental justice and for peace were urgent and passionate.
Adwoa Adusei But, of course, it wasn’t the end of times. Here we are, 50 years later, very much still facing an environmental crisis. And Earth Day is here again.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras But, instead of the Vietnam War, we are now battling the coronavirus pandemic.
Adwoa Adusei So, we’re going to take the opportunity here on Borrowed to look back to the first Earth Day, and ask what that means for us today. I’m Adwoa Adusei.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You’re listening to Borrowed: stories that start at the library.
Adwoa Adusei Before we go any further, I do want to point out that our voices might still sound a bit strange, and that’s because here in New York, we’re still on lockdown, and Krissa and I are recording from our separate apartments.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s right. But, we are no less thrilled to be bringing you our latest Borrowed episode. We’re still here for you, remotely, and we hope you’re all doing okay.
Adwoa Adusei So, to get back to Earth Day, another speech on April 22 in 1970 that resonated with us when we were doing our research on the first Earth Day was from Margaret Mead, the anthropologist made famous by her studies of Samoan culture. Professor Mead was teaching at Columbia at the time, and she spoke to a crowd at the Natural History Museum. Here’s sound from that speech. It’s a little fuzzy but it’s also courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives.
Reporter Dr. Mead, I’d just like to ask you this: in your own opinion, how would you characterize the present dangers faced in this country right now today?
Margaret Mead Well, we face killing, lake by lake, stream by stream, estuary by estuary, all our waters where our fish breath and we face our cities strangling themselves in waste, in decayed schools, deteriorated buildings …
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Dr. Mead’s outlook was very grim in that speech in 1970. And today, I don’t think she’d love to know that state of the environment is in fact even grimmer. The Union of Concerned Scientists is predicting that by the end of the 21st century, 100 million people will be displaced by sea level rise and 800 million people who live in poverty will go hungry because of damage to crops. And, according to the IPCC, which is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to prevent the worst of the impacts of climate change, we have to keep the global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, and doing that requires the world to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. So, on the 80th anniversary of Earth Day, in 30 years, every society on our planet has to make drastic changes to the way we live.
Adwoa Adusei Even in 1970, people were thinking about what a future impacted by climate crisis would look like. Here’s another journalist questioning Margaret Mead:
Reporter Do you have … some people will say a specific date in the future, if corrective measures are not taken by then, man will not survive?
Margaret Mead We don’t know that much. I mean, there are people who say … people who say in 20 years the Earth will begin to be uninhabitable. I should say it’s begun to become uninhabitable in many places right now.
Reporter Including New York?
Margaret Mead Well, New York is one of the least habitable cities. It’s a place I prefer to live, but I can’t think why.
Adwoa Adusei I see what you did there, Margaret. Margaret Mead just made a joke there about New York being uninhabitable, but I think this is good place to mention that social and economic inequality really determine who is impacted by climate change. Here in the West, we tend not to see what we don’t want to see, but over this 50 year span, there are lots of “uninhabitable” spaces where people have no choice but to live and stay.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Exactly, and it gets closer to home, too. Social and economic inequality impacts people’s susceptibility to environmental disasters, even right here in Brooklyn. Greenpoint, which of course is now such a trendy place to live, was actually a very working class neighborhood in the middle of the 20th century, and it was the site of one of the largest oil spills in the United States. It destroyed the natural environment there and endangered human health. And, as we learned with Superstorm Sandy, Brooklyn neighborhoods that have been historical disinvested, like Coney Island and Redhook, took years to recover from the impact of that storm. We’ve got Borrowed episodes about both of those moments in history, and we’ll put links to those in the show notes so that you can listen back.
Adwoa Adusei So, to return to the the question that the journalist asked Margaret Mead 50 years ago: how long until we start seeing the worst of the environmental degradation? It’s a scary question, and for many communities, it’s already too late to reverse climate change. Scientists still don’t know, and that fear and uncertainty can paralyze us. So we were listening pretty closely when Dr. Mead was asked this next question.
Reporter What areas do you see for optimism, Dr. Mead?
Margaret Mead Man has solved many, many problems in the past. We’ve learned to set ourselves a problem and solve it. There’s no reason why we can’t do it. We have the tools, we have the computers. Without them, I’d hate to think what we’d do. We’ve got everything now except the political and moral will.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras It may have been a little bit hard to hear the end of that tape there, but it bears repeating. Dr. Mead said: “We’ve got everything now, except the political and moral will.” And, that feels pretty consistent with the situation we’re in today: we still do have the tools and the intelligence to solve this problem. We just lack this idea of political and moral will, as a nation, to act aggressively and not let up on fixing climate change.
Adwoa Adusei From an individual standpoint, this is still a really important question: What gives us hope? So, a few months ago, Brooklyn Public Library collaborated with two other library systems: Mill Valley Public Library in California and Austin Public Library in Texas, and asked similar questions to the ones that Margaret Mead was asked 50 years ago. The first question was: what motivates you to act on climate change? And the second question was: what gives you hope?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, let’s hear some answers to that first question.
Andrew Murphy What motivates you to act on climate change?
Glenda Sharpe Um, my children and my grandchild, and the fact that I got to grow up in such a beautiful area and I don’t want to see the destruction and it made impossible for people to enjoy life as much as I’ve enjoyed life.
Kate Abel I’m motivated by the richness and uniqueness of planet earth. While there may be life on other planets, we haven’t found it yet. And it may not resemble anything we’ve known. Humans are just one of myriad species on the planet and we no more deserve it than does every other creature.
Susan Augenbraun Terror? Honestly. I mean, it’s … you know, I guess maybe some people do, but I don’t come to activism because I enjoy it or because it’s fun. I do it because I can’t stand to think about, like, the idea of not acting when the crisis is so severe.
Christina Shin Since becoming pregnant, I feel a greater sense of urgency and commitment with acting on climate change. I question and wonder, what will my daughter inherit?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That was Glenda Sharpe from Mill Valley, California, Kate Abel from Austin, Texas, Susan Augenbraun from right here in Brooklyn, and Christina Shin from Austin again.
Adwoa Adusei At Brooklyn Public Library, our producer Virginia visited an event at Central hosted by 350 Brooklyn, the local chapter of a national environmental action organization. That event was part of a monthly series on climate change that has been happening at the library for a while, and although all events at the library have stopped because of the coronavirus pandemic, that particular panel back in February was pretty relevant to today’s episode because it was all about how climate change impacts public health. Nurses from the New York State Nurses Association and a public health professional spoke about the illnesses that are caused by environmental pollution — illnesses such as asthma, cancer, and heat stroke. Here’s Denise Patel, who moderated the discussion. She’s a public heath professional who works at Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.
Denise Patel I was working in New Jersey when Superstorm Sandy hit. Superstorm Sandy really gave me the impetus to look at the health impacts of climate change. And when I started doing that, I learned about all the other ways that climate change is going to be impacting our health. Everything from the disasters that we see in the news to crop devastation, to the increases of allergies because of prolonged warmer seasons, the spread of infectious diseases.
Dora Acevedo What really motivated me was going on the medical missions.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That last voice was Dora Acevedo, a nurse practitioner at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx.
Dora Acevedo I’ve been to Puerto Rico right after Maria. I’ve been to the Philippines two years after Typhoon Haiyan, you know, and you see the devastation. It’s like … and these are storms that were mega storms. And then just seeing the changes, particularly where I live. Because I live around trees and grass: plants have blooming sooner, the animals are acting differently. It just makes you more scared. And then now, all these new viruses are coming out, you know?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That virus she’s mentioning there at the end, that was Covid-19. Back in February, when we collected these interviews, the virus was just beginning to shut down whole provinces in China.
Adwoa Adusei At the panel, Dora talked about how rising temperatures and global climate change impacts all organisms, including vectors or transmitters of viruses like mosquitos, bats and ticks. She pointed out that, as our climate continues to change, it’s hard to predict how it will impact the spread of diseases. As of now, there is no evidence that climate change increased the spread of Covid-19, but we do know that other diseases, like malaria and yellow fever, which are usually confined to areas with high average temperatures, have been spreading to new places as environments heat up.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And there have been a few articles written recently comparing the threat of climate change to the current pandemic, making the point that, as disruptive as this current health crisis has been, the impacts that climate change will have are going to be even more disruptive if we continue on this path. Right now, nurses like Dora are on the front lines of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic in the Bronx. But, months earlier, she was already making that connection between the health of her community and the climate crisis.
Adwoa Adusei It’s strange to go back even just two months, to the lead up to Earth Day 2020. Before the coronavirus pandemic, students and environmental activists were planning massive strikes for Earth Day. Marches were being planned for New York City, to recapture some of the urgency and energy of the first Earth Day back in 1970, when New Yorkers took to the streets.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Now, those strikes have gone digital. We’ll put links on our webpage to some ways you can participate in the global action on Earth Day this year.
Adwoa Adusei And since we can’t gather in big crowds, we wanted to crowd-source some nature sounds from around Brooklyn and farther afield. We asked people to open their doors and record their environment, to leave us all with a little bit more hope. We asked that last question that was posed to Margaret Mead 50 years ago, on the first Earth Day: what areas do you see for optimism? Or, what gives you hope?
Mimi Bluestone What most gives me hope is seeing the growth of the climate movement, seeing the increased awareness among the general public of the climate crisis, catastrophe, emergency …
Virginia Marshall I’m sitting on my stoop in Clinton Hill and there is a bumble bee crawling into a crack in front of me. The streets have been relatively clear recently because everyone is staying inside, which means there’s more sounds of nature around.
Jen I hate to say this, but I don’t have a lot of hope. I tend to … and it’s not that I always try to see the worst, it’s just I’ve seen example and example of, you know, people trying to do better and just getting thwarted at every turn, and I don’t have a lot of hope. That’s really sad, but it doesn’t stop me from trying.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras I’m sitting in this triangular garden space in the northeast corner of Sunset Park, the park itself after which the neighborhood is named. Since the pandemic and since the social distancing and lockdown measures that the state has taken, this has become as far afield as I’ll bring my son once or twice a week. Just to get a little nature, and grass and peer at wood chip piles and look for ants. He has noticed and we have noticed the minute changes in the vegetation here in this garden in a way that I probably wouldn’t have in other Springs because I’m just walking past it and normally I’m just looking and saying, “oh the daffodils are out.” But now that I’ve been in this triangle of garden for twice a week for a month, I’m noticing different plants and when they’re blooming …
Tula You know what gives me hope is that there are many, many people out there, young people … they give me hope because they’re speaking up, they’re doing things. My generation is not doing anything. They’re just very complacent and just very much involved with their own material existence.
Sarah I think the optimism of young people, like little children who plant a tree or, you know, see a flower and get excited, and they’re not so jaded. You know, they pause and look at things like that. And, that gives me hope that we can turn this around.
Adwoa Adusei That was Mimi Bluestone from Brooklyn, Jennifer, Tula and Sarah from Mill Valley, with narration and nature sounds from Sarah Ivry in Salisbury, Connecticut, and from our producer Virginia and Krissa — all in Brooklyn.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And now it’s time for our Book Match segment. Virginia spoke with Margaret Day, who put together a list of book recommendations for earth day.
Virginia Marshall Margaret, thank you so much for joining us on Borrowed today.
Margaret Day Thank you for having me.
Virginia Marshall So, you’ve got a list of books for our listeners for Earth Day this year. I’d love if you could tell me about a few of your favorite titles.
Margaret Day Sure, so I have a lot of favorite titles. It was hard for me to put together this list. But one fun thing I thought it would be great to do is reach out to non-profits working on the front lines of the environmental movement and ask them to provide us with personal recommendations of books that inspired them and would inspire other readers to take climate action. So, the first book that I have here is a recommendation from our partner, 350 Brooklyn. The book is Rising: Dispatches from the American Shore by Elizabeth Rush. Rush travels around the United States to the Gulf Coast, Miami, the Bay Area, the Northeast and our very own New York City, and she reports on the impact of climate change and rising seas on our coastal communities.
Virginia Marshall That sounds awesome. What’s the next book that you have for us?
Margaret Day My next book was recommended by the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy who has done incredible work to restore city parkland on the Brooklyn waterfront. Their pick is the 2006 best-selling book by Mark Kurlansky: The Big Oyster. This is a history of New York told through the surprising and entertaining history of the oyster which once thrived in New York harbor but was then tragically wiped out after only 100 years of human intervention.
Virginia Marshall That’s awesome and I want to mention, too, that I was so surprised when I learned that there used to be oysters around Brooklyn’s waterways. And is there anything in the book about how they’re coming back?
Margaret Day Yes, definitely. There’s a lot of work going on right now to restore the oyster beds around New York City. They are really important for filtering our water. So, as organizations like Jamaica Bay Parks Conservancy and there’s also a great group called the Billion Oyster Project, as they work to restore our oyster beds, we will have cleaner water.
Virginia Marshall Speaking of the waterfront, I can actually hear the seagulls in your backyard now.
Margaret Day That’s true, they’re right outside.
Virginia Marshall You must be right on the water there.
Margaret Day I am right on the water. I live right on Jamaica Bay, which is an area where you can find oyster beds and where they are working to restore.
Virginia Marshall That is really cool. And you have one more book for us.
Margaret Day I do. My third and final recommendation is from the NYC chapter of Sunrise Movement, a super energetic and youth-led organization fighting for political action on climate change. And the book they chose is called This is an Uprising: How Non-Violent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century by Paul and Mark Engler. It was published in 2016. So the Engler brother offer a compelling investigation of non-violent mobilizations throughout history. This includes environmental movements like Earth First, but they really dive into a whole diversity of movements and they break down the strategies that led to their successes. And then, last thing I should mention is that Sunrise is starting a book club. So, listeners that are hungry for reading groups should check out the NYC chapter online. Looks like they have some great titles lined up.
Virginia Marshall Great, well listeners you can find a whole lot more books that Margaret and these local organizations have chosen especially for Earth Day, by going to our website: BKLYN library [dot] org [slash] podcasts. Margaret, thank you so much.
Margaret Day Thank you for having me.
Adwoa Adusei And we promised you another group storytelling project. Over three days, people from all across New York and even out of state contributed one sentence to a growing story.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras This one ended up being a bit dystopian, but we all had fun. And, listeners, you can create your own group story to stay connected with your community during lockdown — check out our webpage for instructions on how to do that. And now, the story:
Reaching her hand out, as if it could touch beyond the glass pane, Eve thought to herself: Wow, it really does look like a giant floating blue marble. Her throat closed as she felt a sudden, keen pang of just how many years it would be before there was even the chance of seeing her family again, but then Eve breathed in deep, closed her eyes, and tried to focus on the exciting discoveries she would make on the new planet.
Suddenly Eve’s scalp prickled, and as she turned her head slowly, she saw something that shouldn’t be this far out. Feeling the chill of the sterile recycled air, Eve studied the object on her screen. It looked like an old satellite that had gone dark centuries ago, only with scintillating crystalline protuberances growing out of it.
Could it be? No, Eve thought to herself, it can’t. Eve couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen something like it. But then, a trickle of fear … She reached desperately for the controls trying to contact mission base, they needed to know that it was back. They needed to know that they were trying to invade again. She set her jaw grimly, trying not to think of the last time the Titans came. She opened the communications link, trying to calm the storm in her brain.
But something was wrong with the linkup: when Eve pushed the button, the only sound that came from the sound panel in front of her was a crackle and then a long, low beep. She’d have to try reasoning with the Titans directly … But how? Eve new that all forms of communication had been tried in those days, when the Titans came and nearly wiped out humanity. But nothing worked, and when the invaders left as suddenly as they arrived, no one left alive knew what they looked like or what they wanted.
But Eve wasn’t alive. An advanced AI bot created centuries ago by the very same family she still served, Eve battled the Titans then and she would face them again now. She knew what they wanted then: but what if things had changed? Eve clenched her fists as the crystals on the satellite began to glow.
Eve jumped out of her seat and walked toward the escape pod, calculating how quickly she could reach the satellite, and hoping the pod’s protective shield would be enough. Enclosed in a container not much bigger than herself, she exited the relative safety of the ship and entered the true vastness of the universe. The glowing satellite seemed to twist in space toward her. Then, just as she shifted into cruising speed, Eve saw a flash of green light and the pod halted. A voice, seemingly in her head and yet echoing all around her, boomed a message. Although crisply audible, the message was utterly incomprehensible to Eve, who could not even discern what language it was in. Nevertheless, it left her with a sinking feeling–a bad omen in an environment lacking gravity–that she should not go on.
Eve had decided to leave work in the first place because of its own internal warfare that had emerged after the Titans’ departure. And as new societies formed and the competition for resources severed the ties among its people, Eve realized that of all the emotions she had evolved to feel, sadness was the one she could no longer bear. As a centuries old AI bot, she had become fluent in dozens if not hundreds of languages and could communicate with both humans and animals, this being her first language barrier in decades, she wondered if this could be her true mission. Maybe she wasn’t escaping earth, maybe she was going to finally save it.
Using a cleverly encoded neural network, Eve sat in a paused escape pod, and learned the language of the Titans. Finally she could understand what they had been trying to tell her all along. A flash of green light again shot forth from the ancient artifact, and the same message Eve had heard before, once incomprehensible, now boomed with astonishing clarity: “FOR THE LAST TIME, TURN OFF THE BLINKERS OF YOUR SPACE STATION. THE NEUTRON RAYS HAVE BEEN ERODING OUR ATMOSPHERE FOR A MILLENNIA. EITHER LEARN HOW TO OPERATE YOUR VEHICLE PROPERLY OR GET OUT OF SPACE.”
Stunned, and still bathed in the green light of the interstellar warning, Eve could perceive a murmur in the distance.
“Do you think they’ll get it this time, Glorbax?”
“If they haven’t figured out neural networks by now, then they deserve to be annihilated again. Oh crap, this was still recording…”
Elated at finally decoding the Titan’s message, Eve’s mood darkened once she realized there was no one left in the station to turn off the blinkers. Her mission to save the few humans left on earth was futile.
But what if I don’t have to save them, Eve thought. They’ve never treated me as an equal anyway. And with that, she says to the Titans: “I choose option B! Get them out of space!” She presses the emergency bomb release button and aims the bomb towards the ship. As the ship explodes and the blinkers fade away, she rides off into the horizon and thinks to herself, “Rock and roll never dies!”
Adwoa, Flatbush, Brooklyn. Yesha from Flatbush, Brooklyn. Carl Fossum, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Hasina, from Queens. Lauren, from Greenpoint. Kat, from Redhook, Brooklyn. Virginia, from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Christopher, Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. Rachel Tiemann, South Slope, Brooklyn. Cassie Hickman, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Melissa, Kensington, Brooklyn. Anna Williams, Astoria, Queens. Becky, Manhattan. Brynna, from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Zoe Marshall, SoHo. Jamnah, SoHo, Manhattan. David Giles, Queens. Elizabeth Kurth, Kristiana Kruth, Alexander Kurth, Chelmsford, Massachusetts.
Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Adwoa Adusei, and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, BKLYNLibrary.org/podcasts.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras We’d like to thank Mill Valley Public Library and Austin Public Library who collaborated in asking staff and patrons to share their hopes and motivations about climate change. A special shout out to the podcast and climate change project called Borrowed Time, which was started by Andrew Murphey at Mill Valley Public Library .. it’s a place for public libraries across the country to share what they are doing to act on climate change. You can see what they’re up to at borrowed-time.org
Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed will be back in two weeks. Until then, open your window and give thanks for the outdoors. We’ll get back out there soon.