Sunday is Earth Day. Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin’s charismatic former Governor and U.S. senator is the founder of Earth Day. According to the Wilderness Society:

In 1969, as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson came up with one of the most powerful ideas of his time: Earth Day. Inspired by the teach-ins dealing with the Vietnam War, Earth Day was an instant success, drawing 20 million participants the first year (1970). American Heritage Magazine called the first Earth Day “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.

I met Senator Nelson when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. He was 74 and still super passionate about preserving our planet. Along with John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, Teddy Roosevelt and David Brower, Nelson was an important figure in the development of the modern environmental movement in the United States.

Now that green is hip, trendy and cool, it is good to remember back to a time, when saving the planet wasn’t so popular. One of the most influential pieces of media that brought the environment to the consciousness of Americans back in the 1970s was the brilliant “People Start Pollution” PSA that aired in 1971. According to Snopes.com:

Three events which occurred during the year between March 1970 and March 1971 helped bring the concept of “ecology” into millions of homes and made it a catchword of the era. One was the first annual Earth Day, observed on 21 March 1970. The second was Look magazine’s promotion of the ecology flag in its 21 April 1970 edition, a symbol that was soon to become as prominent a part of American culture as the ubiquitous peace sign. The third — and perhaps the most effective and unforgettable was the television debut of Keep America Beautiful’s landmark “People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It” public service ad on the second Earth Day in March 1971.

In that enduring minute-long TV spot, viewers watched an Indian paddle his canoe up a polluted and flotsam-filled river, stream past belching smokestacks, come ashore at a litter-strewn river bank, and walk to the edge of a highway, where the occupant of a passing automobile thoughtlessly tossed a bag of trash out the car window to burst open at the astonished visitor’s feet. When the camera moved upwards for a close-up, a single tear was seen rolling down the Indian’s face as the narrator dramatically intoned: “People start pollution; people can stop it.”

That “crying Indian,” as he would later sometimes be referred to, was Iron Eyes Cody, an actor who throughout his life claimed to be of Cherokee/Cree extraction. Yet his asserted ancestry was just as artificial as the tear that rolled down his cheek in that television spot — the tear was glycerin, and the “Indian” a second-generation Italian-American.

It really doesn’t matter that old Iron Eyes was a fake. The PSA was and is still brilliant. There has never been a better environmental message since then. And here you can see it here in all its glory.

SERGE DEDINA

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