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Florida fueled the first Earth Day; now we need another one


Earth Day is coming up next Monday, which will probably elicit a fervent “meh” from a lot of people. These days, Earth Day seems more like a marketing gimmick than a holiday, not unlike President’s Day. It’s more about greenbacks than being green.

When I worked for Florida’s largest daily newspaper, I used to get lots of companies’ story pitches connected to this annual “celebration.” Some started months early. Many were downright ludicrous.

“Make every laundry day a celebration of Earth Day with (insert name of product here),” said one, apparently unaware of the term “greenwashing.” Another urged me to write about how their “nonstick pots and pans have been tested to be recyclable.” I think they’d recycled the story pitch, too.

But waaaaaay back when it first launched in 1970, Earth Day was the most effective protest action since the American Revolution, which you may recall spawned both a new nation and two Broadway shows, “1776” and “Hamilton.”

Thanks to that first Earth Day, we got the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and a bunch of other environmental regulations. We also got the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The environment became so popular, even the people making the junk being thrown out as roadside litter ran ads encouraging everyone to pick up their trash.

Politicians from then-President Richard Nixon on down scrambled to make those things happen because they saw the turnout for Earth Day. An estimated 20 million Americans — a tenth of the nation’s population — flooded the streets for it. That was five times bigger than the biggest anti-Vietnam War rallies, 20 times bigger than the biggest civil rights protest.

People were, in the immortal words of the movie “Network,” mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.

They turned out to protest the rampant pollution they were seeing (and breathing). A lot of the protests were about things that had happened or were happening in Florida — problems with both pollution and development.

“DDT was literally wiping the alligators out,” recalled December McSherry, a 73-year-old activist in Alachua County who marched in New York in that first Earth Day protest. She said she carried a sign that said, “Save the Glades.”

With what’s been going on in Florida in recent years, I think it might take another protest like that first one to get the attention of our current crop of “leaders.”

Book ’em

The impetus for that first Earth Day came from a book published eight years before. The 1962 bestseller was Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which is all about the dangers of pesticides.

My taste in books leans more toward mysteries and history, so I didn’t get around to reading “Silent Spring” until a couple of years ago. I wish I had read it sooner because an awful lot of it was about Florida.

According to Carson’s biographer, William Souder, Carson visited Florida three times, all while she was working on two earlier books, “The Sea Around Us” and “The Edge of the Sea.” At one point, he said, even though she could barely swim, she put on a diver’s helmet and plunged into Biscayne Bay — but only for 10 minutes.

But she knew how to read scientific papers and research reports, he says. There were a lot of them about the alarming results of rampant pesticide use in Florida in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1945, a B-25 flew over MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to test-spray a new substance called DDT that was supposed to kill mosquitoes. Officials declared the test to be a big success. The fact that a whole flock of ducks also died was a mere coincidence, they said.

Oh, and then the mosquitoes came back, so they had to spray some more.

The apparent success of DDT led to widespread spraying of the stuff, clouds of it billowing out of planes and trucks and handheld devices, with little concern for what else might be affected. Eagles, for instance.

As it turned out, a retired banker named Charles Broley, whose hobby was banding Florida eagles to track their travels, became the first to raise the alarm about the impact on our national symbol.

Broley is such a hero, I’d rather see a statue of him instead of all those Confederate traitors that some of our legislators love so much.

Broley would scale a rope ladder to the nests to band the birds. He saw up close that the population was dropping. He saw eggs failing to hatch. He concluded DDT was to blame because it was poisoning the fish that the birds ate.

“I am firmly convinced,” he wrote to the editors of Audubon Magazine, “that about 80% of the Florida bald eagles are sterile.”

Similar collateral damage occurred when the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared war on fire ants, a non-native species from South America. The spraying of toxic pesticides dieldrin and heptachlor wiped out fish, birds, dogs, cats, and livestock.

Meanwhile, the fire ants developed a resistance and spread even further.

Carson included all these examples in her book, alarming the nation about what we were doing to nature — and to ourselves.

“I think Carson’s reliance on these findings from Florida was important,” said Souder, whose book about her is called “On a Farther Shore.” “Florida was one of many accidental ‘test labs’ in which we learned some of the perils of pesticide use, especially when applied through aerial spraying, which poisons an entire landscape and not just the pests you’re after.”

Other events drove home Carson’s message, including the death of 26 million fish in Lake Thonotosassa in 1969. It was the worst fishkill in the nation’s history. The lake had been polluted by discharges from four food processing plants, because there were no rules against it.

A Wisconsin senator, Gaylord Nelson, proposed organizing environmental “teach-ins” around the country to show people what was happening. That became the impetus for that first Earth Day.

The Dead Orange Parade

Those first Earth Day events didn’t just happen in New York and Los Angeles. In Gainesville, for instance, students lay down on the ground and spelled out “UF Earth Day” with their bodies. One organizer said, “It was fun.”

At Florida State, everyone took the day more seriously. (A few years later, FSU students started the “streaking” craze, so they weren’t all THAT serious.)

Some FSU professors canceled classes so kids could participate. The auditorium screened 17 films, and three bands rocked the green. Protesters donned gas masks to symbolize the threat of air pollution. The yearbook for that year ran stories on the dangers of pesticides and the destructive Cross-Florida Barge Canal.

Some of the most radical actions happened in South Florida.

According to Jack E. Davis’ biography of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, “An Everglades Providence,” some Miami activists organized a “Dead Orange Parade,” a spoof of the Orange Bowl Parade with two dozen floats. There was a globe in a coffin, a toilet used as a stand-in for Biscayne Bay, and a surfboard that complained about feces in the water.

“Students at Palm Beach Junior College gave a ‘Polluter of the Week’ award to the county for dumping partially treated sewage into Lake Worth,” Davis reported.

(I asked Davis what Douglas did to celebrate. “She had a cocktail,” he said.)

In Tallahassee, believe it or not, some lawmakers listened. In the House, they passed bills to restrict the use of DDT, outlaw the sale of alligator hides, and limit the sale of state-owned submerged land.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, they did a favor for the phosphate industry. Some things just don’t change.

And that’s why I think it’s time for another protest of some sort.

Come back, Iron Eyes

Fast forward 54 years and where are we today? In a heap of trouble once more, that’s where.

Don’t get me wrong — we’ve made some progress. Eagles have rebounded, we’ve preserved lots of environmentally important land, and we are at least trying to revive the Everglades. But we still have beaucoup problems, too.

Although DDT has been banned, plenty of other pesticides and herbicides continue to poison our state’s wildlife.

In 2021, for instance, a UF study found more than half of the manatees they sampled had glyphosate in their blood. That’s the active ingredient in Roundup, which is also sold under the names Rodeo and AquaNeat.

“Glyphosate is the most used herbicide worldwide and it is intensively used in Florida as a sugarcane ripener and to control invasive aquatic plants,” the UF study noted. “This chronic exposure in Florida water bodies may have consequences for Florida manatees’ immune and renal systems.”

Monsanto has reached settlement agreements in nearly 100,000 Roundup lawsuits filed by humans harmed by its herbicide and has paid out approximately $11 billion. But where’s the Monsanto millions to help out our manatees?

Meanwhile, we have a disastrous die-off in the Keys, where 44 species, including endangered smallmouth sawfish, have been seen spinning frantically before they expire. There has been some suggestion that they are all victims of excess nitrogen in the water.

Speaking of nasty stuff in the water, blue-green algae blooms are popping up on both sides of the state again, fueled by our pollution. There’s a Health Department alert about blooms in both Lee County on the west coast and Martin County on the east coast.

You may recall that our esteemed Gov. Ron “Who Can I Bully Next to Get Back on Fox News?” DeSantis once promised to get rid of our blue-green algae problem the way he would get rid of diversity programs in the state’s universities. But then he didn’t.

Instead, we’re paying millions of dollars to an Israeli company to dump its hydrogen peroxide-based product in our waterways. It makes the algae blooms dissipate, but only for a bit. Then crews have to treat it all over again (sound familiar?).

Meanwhile, the polluters who made Florida No. 1 in the nation for polluted lakes and No. 2 for polluted estuaries get to keep on dumping foul stuff in the water, not unlike what happened with Lake Thonotosassa in 1969.

Remember the 1970 surfboard message about feces in the water? Every year, hundreds of Florida beaches have to close because the poop level has registered as too high for humans. Over and over, our sewer plants and sewage lines spill into our waterways.

Our elected representatives aren’t exactly leaping to fix the problem. This year our Legislature voted to spend $25 million on a water pollution study that will tell us nothing we don’t already know but will give them an excuse to further delay action.

And what was their reaction to the underwater heat wave last year that laid waste to the coral reefs off South Florida? They passed a law (which DeSantis signed) that eliminates most of the mentions of the term “climate change” from state law.

I don’t think another Earth Day march would reverse these bad trends. In Florida, our elected leaders have become accustomed to ignoring or opposing what the voters want, or overriding what they approve.

Instead, we must do something truly drastic to get their attention. I say we add a provision to Florida’s Constitution to allow the recall of any state official who has angered the voters, from the governor on down — but with one special provision.

Instead of returning them to civilian life, the recalled politician would be assigned to pick up trash along Florida’s roadways for the duration of their term.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


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