THE RED FLAG WENT UP for me two decades ago. I was living in Los Angeles and driving somewhere (of course) when an ad came on the radio imploring listeners to “Join the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ted Danson at the Santa Monica Pier for Earth Day!” Now I appreciate the work of the Turtles, and Mr. Danson, as much as the next person, but it didn’t seem right. Sure, I could pilot my fossil-fuel burner to the pier and pose for pictures with the Cheers star. And then what? Quiz the Turtles on greenhouse gases? Wouldn’t it be more earth-friendly to stay home and think green thoughts?
Earth Day began in 1970, the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson, Democrat of Wisconsin, as a mass environmental teach-in about air and water pollution galvanized by a 1969 oil spill off the California coast. Nelson persuaded Representative Pete McCloskey to serve as his cochair — yes, it seems odd today that a then-Republican helped inaugurate Earth Day, but let’s not forget it was Richard Nixon who signed the Clean Air Act. Now, more than 40 years — and several huge domestic oil spills — later, Earth Day is bigger than ever. The Earth Day Network boasts more than 1 billion participants in 192 countries. That size is part of my ambivalence.