On Wednesday, April 22, 1970, I was finishing my 11th year of teaching and my first year as mathematics professor at Southwest Minnesota State College (SMSC).
SMSC went through several name changes, first to Southwest State College, then Southwest State University and finally Southwest Minnesota State University. The college was in just its third year having been born in the turbulent times of the Vietnam War and subject to great student and faculty activism. Some of the protests, mostly those about the Vietnam War, spilled over from the campus onto the streets of the city of Marshall. There were sit-ins and teach-ins and many anti-war rallies with the accompanying shouts and placards.
In the midst of that turmoil, however, there was another groundswell, a populist movement that grew throughout the United States. The movement started from a speech given by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson in the fall of 1969 He gave two talks that fall announcing an idea for a nationwide teach-in regarding environmental issues. He suggested April 22, 1970, be the date for such teach-ins as it was not at the end of any college quarter or semester, was probably past the spring breaks, not in the middle of any well-known religious time period, and likely a time of nice spring weather. Such was the birth of Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
The growth of the movement was truly grassroots. There were autonomous groups organized in large cities and small. Ultimately there were an estimated 20 million demonstrators and thousands of schools, colleges, and communities that participated.
I helped organize a reference library of materials related to the environment, supplying a number of my own books and pamphlets to the college library for a special loan section. With several other faculty, I also helped organized an essay contest both for college students and for high school students.
My contribution to Earth Day in the classroom was in discussing the economic and environmental impact of what at that time was being proposed as an SST SuperSonic Transport. The presentation discussed the speed of sound, likelihood of sonic booms over a large area, shape of the plane to reduce drag, fuel efficiency, length of runways needed for such a plane, travel-time saving, etc. Though I tried not to be pro or con and just give facts, I am pretty sure that most of the students knew my biases based on outside-of-class conversations.
The SST did become a reality commercially in 1976 with the flight of the Concorde planes. The Concorde was developed cooperatively by the French and English with the first test flights actually taking place in 1969.
Concorde flights took place over a period of 27 years with the final flight on Nov. 26, 2003. There were just 20 Concordes built, about half owned by British Airways and half by France. Originally New York banned the planes and so the landings were at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. However, the flights were so successful, that New York eliminated the ban and the Concordes landed both at Dulles (Washington) and at JFK (New York). The planes cut the time crossing the Atlantic Ocean by at least half. The greatest tragedy with the Concorde was on July 25, 2000, when one crashed in Paris shortly after takeoff for N.Y. One hundred thirteen people lost their lives - 100 passengers, nine crewmembers, and four persons on the ground.
After the planes were grounded in 2003, an analysis showed that the Concorde flights were profitable for British Airways. However, the restrictions on the number of airports available, the sonic boom problem, air safety problems after 9/11, and other difficulties overpowered the ability to operate the planes.
Tomorrow will be the 41st Earth Day. The movement still lives albeit with some different emphases. Pollution control, recycling, smaller carbon footprints, "green" construction, and other related concerns and solutions have come to the fore.
In this cynical age, some are liable to underestimate the ability of the public to effect change, but changes inspired from that first Earth Day have occurred. Probably the most direct result was the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. If my readers remember back, the problem was what is called "point source" pollution of our water in lakes and streams. "Point source" means pollution from industrial and municipal waste dumping into streams. That problem is now fairly well regulated and controlled. The concern now is with non-point source, general runoff from fertilizers, waste flushed from streets and other paved areas. Enough said. Hope you are helping prevent pollution by recycling. Happy Earth Day.
Until next time: Oh, Fiddlesticks!