green peace sign‘Well, it’s 1969, okay, all across the USA’

ALSO SPRACH JAMES OSTERBERG, aka Iggy Pop, on the Stooges’ eponymous first LP, released 40 years ago—the year the Eagle landed on the moon, the Woodstock music festival celebrated peace and love, John and Yoko held a few “Bed-Ins for Peace,” Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burst into flame, Charlie Manson and “family” ran murderously rampant, Vietnam War protests spread, the Chicago Eight were tried and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) passed in Congress.

Looking back—after the initial wow factor wears off of just what an amazing year it was in matters social, political, scientific, cultural and environmental—what true change was wrought that has impacted the world today? How firmly was the establishment actually shaken? And keep in mind that while August 1969’s Woodstock spelled peaceful coexistence for the most part, December 1969’s death at Altamont displayed a darker side of the hippie dream. From a green perspective, where it’s always better to be a carpe diem realist than a laissez faire optimist, a lot of positive change was truly wrought, a good portion of the establishment was legitimately shaken. Nineteen-sixty-nine was more than just okay.

LET’S TAKE A LOOK AT NASA’S IMPACT on the environmental movement. Sure, the cold war space race was an integral part of our no-holds-barred one-upmanship versus the USSR—tactical nuclear missiles launched from orbit and pinpointed on terrestrial targets was one part science fantasy, one part How soon can we actually do this before the enemy does? In 1969, NASA successfully carried out four Apollo missions (9-12), putting humans on the moon twice—in August with Apollo 11, and in November with Apollo 12. It was a remarkable achievement; at one point, NASA employed 400,000 people while OCDing on achieving JFK’s dream of putting a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.

Earth in spaceBut it was the breathtaking view of Earth from space, our fragile blue sphere in an infinite sea of blackness, that altered perceptions. Craig Nelson, in his excellent Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon (New York: Viking, 2009), puts it this way:

Project Apollo and the first Moon landing would have a profound effect on another aspect of science, in a very unexpected way. The speaker at one NASA scientific banquet was British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who had predicted in 1948 that, once a photograph of the Earth had been taken from space, a whole new way of thinking about the planet would result. As he told the attendees: “You have noticed how, quite suddenly, everybody has become seriously concerned to protect the natural environment. It happened almost overnight, and one can understand how one can ask the question, ‘Where did this idea come from?’ You could say, of course, from biologists, from conservationists, from ecologists, but after all, they’ve really been saying these things for many years past, and previously they’ve never even got on base. Something new has happened to create a worldwide awareness of our planet as a unique and precious place. It seems to me more than a coincidence that this awareness should have happened at exactly the moment man took his first step into space.”

James William Gibson, in A Reenchanted World (see our book review post on this fine tome), reports how this brand of reverence was carried decades forward:

At the time of the Apollo moon missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, astronauts did not typically express their feelings in public. But in 1983, when American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts met in Paris to form the Association of Space Explorers, they spoke of their “enhanced reverence for the Earth as a result of their space flight experience.” A committee of the new organization began work on a massive collection of interviews with space explorers, presented together with an array of beautiful photographs. Three years later, it was published as The Home Planet.

River on fireMonumental things were happening on the Earth, too. With the shock-and-awe flashpoints of an 800 square-mile-wide oil slick forming off the coast of Santa Barbara, thanks to aging burst pipes of an oil platform (it would wash ashore and cover 30 miles of beaches), on January 31, 1969, to Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River bursting into flame on June 22, 1969 (two bridges on the river were almost destroyed by the flames), environmental concern escalated—What the hell are we doing to our planet? Is the space program not just about beating the Ruskies but finding a future way off our soon-to-be-ruined, polluted-beyond-help Earth?

Time, aboard the 1969 nostalgia train in 2009, succinctly captures this sentiment in 1969: Woodstock, the Moon and Manson: The Turbulent End of the ‘60s (New York, Time Books, 2009):

The 1960s are often portrayed as a period of utopian dreams and revolutionary schemes, all of which failed to materialize. But among the lasting legacies of the period’s social activism is our modern understanding of the importance of the environment, which was parked in part by the woes of 1969—even if the sparks emerged from a polluted, burning river. …

By late October 1969, Time was reporting on “a new conservation passion: using the law as a weapon to help save the environment … the nation’s rising awareness of ecology has moved scores of judges to listen.”

So, in the nascent Nixon era, we have the genesis of the EPA and OSHA, the passing of NEPA in Congress, the passing of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, the founding of Friends of the Earth and activists proposing Earth Day (the first Earth Day celebration took place the following year, April 22, 1970—a 40-year anniversary to be celebrated next year). Not a bad track record for the first year of a new administration mired down in an unpopular war and surrounded by social upheavals both generational and ideological. Sound familiar?

Woodstock_music_festival_posterWhile the music festival at Woodstock showed that we could get along, at least the youth of the era, aided by “long hair” music and an openness to alternative lifestyles (yes, we’re talking drugs, free love and Eastern thought here), issues such as the Vietnam War and its vociferous protesters (let’s throw in Lennon’s “All we are saying is give peace a chance”), the cold war, the Tate-LiBianca murders, the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont, and the Black Panthers (founder Bobby Seale was one of the Chicago Eight) and struggle for racial equality all shouted from the mountaintop that there was still a lot of divisiveness out there.

Fortunately, with the triumphs of Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins et al., a bigger picture was emerging, literally, an in-focus view of how we’re all in this together, on this small, fragile blue sphere, surrounded by unfathomable darkness. We needed to start sharing resources, to come to some sort of an understanding and to get along, especially when disruptive differences threaten us all (and human nature dictates that that will always be in the mix). What we say, what we believe, what we do matter a great deal—think global, act local, as tired a cliché as it is, should really be a part of our DNA; the connection cannot be denied, the golden rule a global in effect, the good things in life shared, or as John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The Good Society: “[The essence of the good society] is that every member, regardless of gender, race or ethnic origin, should have access to a rewarding life. … There must be economic opportunity for all …”

Then and now? Where are we today? Some things change, some things stay the same. A lot of us get it (I’d like to think a majority), are whole-heartedly committed to betterment and to change, the collective is effective (be it 400,000 mud-soaked Woodstockers 40 years ago sharing their dreams or dedicated members of preparing for the International Day of Climate Action on October 24, 2009). An invitation to the “good society” should indeed be open to all; we should all be part of a great dialogue, be it discussing health-care reform, getting the nation back to work, terrorism, water rights, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, the melting ice caps or—let me close with this—the breathtaking images the newly refurbished Hubble Space Telescope are capturing. Let’s reach for the stars! It’s 2009—and more than just okay.


2 Responses to “69|09: The More Things Change …”

  1. Leslie Newman says:

    Thanks for the reminder about how impactful the first Earth from space photo was and still is. Great article, Allen.

  2. James William Gibson says:

    Thanks for including my discussion of how the Apollo missions lead to conversion experiences among the astronauts. The space flights and photgraphs also helped James Lovelock formulate the Gaia hypothesis, and Gaia in turn permeated our culture in many different ways.

    Bill Gibson
    Author, A Reenchanted World