This year, Earth Day turns 40. And you probably think you know how it got its start. From Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin senator, right? Well, we take nothing away from Sen. Nelson. He deserves credit as a founding father of Earth Day, April 22, and as a result, the modern environmental movement. You may not know as much, though, about the Community Environmental Council, the Santa Barbara, California, group that formed in the wake of a massive oil spill on Jan. 28, 1969. It was that spill, from an oil platform off Santa Barbara's coast, that covered the beach and wildlife in oil, and helped give birth to a swell of awareness and action that inspired Nelson to successfully create a national Earth Day that began 40 years ago this month. The CEC is laying claim to its Earth Day roots this year with a mega celebration, and a book set for release around October. The CEC recently launched a "Fossil Free by '33" initiative to wean the Santa Barbara region off of fossil fuels. Dave Davis, the CEC's executive director, has been with the group from the start. You may be surprised at his thoughts on how far we've come, what still needs to be accomplished and how we should get there.
TREEHUGGER: So what were you doing 40 years ago?
DAVE DAVIS: I was a (college) junior the year of the oil spill. I came down here and helped clean up birds that were basically being killed ... From that particular action, it actually stimulated me to go back to school to become an urban planner, a 30-year career in protecting the environment. I was at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I was a senior when the CEC was founded. I was majoring in urban and regional economics.
TH: How did you go from economics to environmental action?
DD: There was a spark that was going on relative to the environment ... Today, we'd call it going viral. But you had a real movement happening, because from the consciousness that came out of that came the Clean Water Act (and subsequent environmental legislation). All of those things came of the consciousness, which in my mind really was lit in the Santa Barbara spill. It spread virally throughout the country. Locally, we took that as essentially a call to arms, to take the spirit and nature of that energy and channel it into trying to improve our world ...
The people who were there said 'This can't be a one-day activity. We've got to make this a cause for our lives.'
TH: And what's happened in the last 40 years?
DD: It's been 40 years of incremental success. Leading then, however, toward a much larger goal ... in the last 10 years, environmentalism has changed from attempting to stop bad things from happening to now trying to make good stuff happen.
Rather than stopping things, we have to learn how to make things happen, make energy conservation and energy independence real. Fossil fuels are a loser.
TH: What did Earth Day mean to you then and what does it mean to you now?
DD: It has changed. Here I am a student at that point in time, there as a participant. At times, it seemed like from the society's standpoint, there were these small cries in the wilderness that we had to make a change in how we did business ...
Today, I see my heroes as people like Al Gore saying climate change is so big, it will affect the environment in such catastrophic ways that we need new ways of working together.
TH: Like working with Corporate America?
DD: You bet, when you see things like USCAP (U.S. Climate Action Partnership), they're basically the ones advocating for essentially some controls on carbon emissions.
When you see Goldman Sachs out there saying 'We want to solve societal problems through market mechanisms,' the Environmental Defense Fund working with coalitions. Those kind of coalitions, I believe, long term, will be the ones to make a difference. You need different types of coalitions. You actually need to be proactive, to look forward, to take actions in advance rather than be reactive to the problems of the day.
TH: So back then you were struggling against the system, now you're working in the system?
DD: We're trying to make the system work for us ... working within the system to make the system benefit everyone.
TH: But working within the system, is that a radical enough approach for the big problems we face?
DD: No. You've got to find those leaders that are willing to go out there and be the shining example of how it's done ... I don't care what their hat says. If they can make that positive change, you need the early adopters, the innovators, to make that happen ...
Working with them, one of the reasons for that is the urgency of the matter. We feel that there is a decade a turn this ship. I don't think you're going to overthrow the capitalist system in a decade. In these 10 years, we've got to try to make it happen any way we can ...
I think we're fighting the last war. I think the issues of climate change, of energy, will affect our economic social fabric and environmental fabric for the next 30, 40 years in such a dramatic way, that everything else is an old issue.
TH: What are the old issues?
DD: I hate to say it. The old issues have to do with air quality, transportation, the whole question of land use and NIMBYism.