Earth Day at 50 has lasting impact — both good and bad

David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 26, 2020

Earth Day’s 50th anniversary passed last week without much fanfare due to COVID-19’s restrictions on large gatherings. It is just as well. Looking back, I am more convinced than I was on the 25th anniversary — 1995 — that Earth Day is a counterproductive idea that has contributed to our current polarized political culture. Hear me out.

Don’t get me wrong, I value clean air and clean water, enjoy our natural surroundings and know global climate change is real, but I think preserving the environment is more likely through cooperation rather than conflict. There were millions of hunters, bird watchers, flower gardeners who were conservationists before Earth Day was established.

Even as a college freshman on Earth Day 1970 I was troubled by the few, but highly visible, people who were smashing automobiles, preaching about shutting down steel mills, and advocating abolishing private property to protect our natural resources from abuse. I went home after the semester and was fortunate to get a summer job in my Western Pennsylvania hometown that was once a steel town. All summer long I talked with steelworkers who hunted, fished and farmed but had no respect and paid no attention to political activists who the steelworkers heard challenging their way of life. I learned that summer that every political action, if perceived, has an equal and potentially stronger reaction.

The original Earth Day, April 22, 1970, was a day of teach-ins and citizen activities across the nation, but it was not the beginning of U.S. environmental policymaking. The founder of Earth Day, widely acknowledged to be the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson, patterned the idea after seeing anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins” in 1969 and aspired “to inspire a public demonstration so big it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and force the environmental issue onto the national political agenda.”

Nelson served in the U.S. Senate from 1962 to 1981 after serving as governor of Wisconsin. I talked with Sen. Nelson several times in 1995 to 1996, brought him to Mizzou in 1997 and met with him again in 2002. I consider him an admirable public servant. Somewhere along the line, however, the role and history of Earth Day 1970 took on a life of its own that retains an anti-technology, anti-business theme. I support raising environmental consciousness by student and citizen education to ensure we are aware of ocean dumping and fish kills, but street protests and the Sierra Club cannot compete with well-organized and well-funded business interest in the political system.

Since 1970, American politics has become more conflictual, more partisan, more polar and more self-interested. Looking back, it appears that a major stimulus for activating business interests was the August 1971 “Powell Memo” written by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell that outlined a strategy for counterbalancing criticisms of the American economic system by establishing think tanks, supporting authors and activating pro-business interests. Powell does not identify radical environmentalists by name, but he describes the anti-business and anti-technological orientation that they embraced. Since the Powell memo there has been an explosion of business interest groups lobbying in Washington, D.C. that far outweighs the political importance of environmental citizen action groups.

Textbooks, media accounts, even museums now overstate the historical achievement of Earth Day. The single most glaring incongruent fact at odds with the historical misinterpretation of Earth Day’s importance is President Richard Nixon signing the National Environmental Policy Act on January 1, 1970, almost four months before Earth Day 1970. Earlier, on May 29, 1969, Nixon established the cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council and devoted a great deal of his “State of the Union Address” to environmental issues. Weeks before, on Jan. 4, 1970, the Washington Post editorialized that the “environment is now a big issue.” TIME magazine initiated an “Environment” section of their weekly magazine in August 1969.

Similarly, both Congressional environmental legislating and American public opinion were becoming more “environmentalist” well before April 22, 1970. Following the first national water (1948) and air (1955) pollution control laws, Congress enacted landmark legislation such as the Wilderness Act of 1964, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1965 and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 well before Earth Day 1970.

Gallup polls show a tripling of the percent of the public selecting “reducing pollution of air and water” as a national problem from 17% in 1965 to 53% in 1970. Other opinion surveys show that the percent of the public viewing air and water pollution as “very serious or somewhat serious” increased from 28% to 69% for air pollution and 35% to 74% for water pollution over the same time period.

Getting the history of Earth Day 1970 right contributes to understanding the workings of the American political system. There is often an “anti-establishment, anti-technology” tenor held over from the first Earth Day to which many citizens object. We need to support more science-based education about how water quality and quantity is declining, how more severe weather is caused by human construction of new developments and deforestation and why fracking is not a good idea. While the myth of Earth Day 1970 may be an effective political mobilization tool, it contributes to the equally widespread view that elected officials are out of touch with public opinion and public problems and only wake up when millions of citizens rally in the streets.

Let’s move on.

A view of COVID-19 at different stages of life

David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN April 19, 2020

With plenty of time on my hands, I’ve been thinking of how COVID-19’s “shelter-at-home” and “social isolation” has such drastically different effects on different age groups. I am now semi-retired with a pension and Social Security and better able to deal with a pandemic-caused societal shutdown than any other time in my life. Is this what they meant by the “golden years”? Doesn’t seem fair.

Come along as I travel back to some typical years for baby boomers with a make-believe pandemic and imagine how things might have been.

Start with the early 1960s, when I was in about fifth grade. I would have been overjoyed to not have school for any reason. It would have saved me the time and energy of faking being sick and pretending I had done my homework. My parents, with eight kids in a three-bedroom house, would have been beside themselves. My father was a car salesman, and our family income depended on his commissions, so money would have been tighter than it already was. My mother would be ingenious with making up tasks, like counting the buttons in her button jar and voting on what dessert to bake for dinner, but she would have been worn out after 30 days. Heaven forbid, as she would say, no one got sick and required isolation. Fortunately, we lived on 7 acres in an old farmhouse that offered lots of running room and many fix-up projects that required our time. The boys, of which there were five ranging in age from 4 to 15 that year, would have slept out in the woods most nights from about May 1 through the summer. I might look back on that time as the golden years of my youth.

A few years later, say junior high, would have been rougher. I most likely would have been bored with the out-of-doors, with the books in the house and with being a big brother to lots of sibs. We would have argued endlessly about whether COVID-19 really existed, who had the power to tell us to stay home and when this isolation might be over. We would all be tired of tuna noodle casserole. My grandfather, who missed our grandmother, would call and want to talk about the 1918 Great Influenza, and I wouldn’t want to listen. I would tell him, “That was so long ago. It won’t ever happen again. If we can go to the moon, we can cure all that stuff.” My sisters would complain about him tying up our only phone. Once my father decided this was the year to expand the garden, he would have found six second-hand shovels and told us, “Keep digging.”

High school senior year would have been frustrating, with my last season of running track canceled, losing my part-time job washing cars and not having anywhere to go now that I could drive. Cabin fever mixed with senioritis is a volatile mix. Fortunately, the year before we had fixed up the basement for a bedroom that I shared with my older brother, so I could “hang out” and listen to our transistor radio. I finally asked a girl to the prom, but it would be canceled. No one would be able to sign my yearbook. My older brother and sister would return home from college, taking my place as “the oldest.” And they say, “These are the best years of your life”?

Freshman year in college with a pandemic would have turned into a bummer, after starting out with such promise. By March, I had finally made some friends, and I knew that I could do college work when we were sent home, where I would find that my bed and dresser had been taken over by a little brother. There would be no summer jobs. My parents would not set a curfew because there was no place to go. I heard there are books about other pandemics, but the public library would be closed.

Senior year in college would be disappointing and discouraging. I was called back for a job interview, but it would be canceled. I would move back home without going to graduation. We would mail our term papers to our professors, who would grade them over the summer and turn our “incompletes” into real letter grades. All that was on TV that year was the Watergate hearings.
Graduate school with a pandemic would be OK but mixed with apprehension. I would sleep in often but put the time to good use catching up on seminar readings because we could not meet at downtown bars for heavy conversation. We would worry that some universities might never reopen and academic jobs would disappear.

Starting a career, say as a professor at Mizzou in the mid-1980s, would have caused anxiety for all young faculty. The university would be closed, professional mail would be stopped and academic meetings would be canceled. If I didn’t publish, I would surely perish. I’d be under all kinds of new pressures. Having a family with young children and no office to go to would be challenging. There would be worries about university budget cuts, kids getting sick, how to replace the worn-out car and if the preschool would reopen. Reading “Green Eggs and Ham” again and again would be tougher than epistemology. We would worry about my mother, who had just moved into a retirement home for a sense of community but now sat alone in her room. My senior colleagues would surely have an easier life.

Retirement is good preparation for surviving a pandemic. No mandatory meetings, no deadlines to meet. There is plenty of time for walks. I had already started watching TV shows from the ’70s and ’80s that I missed. It’s a pity we can’t travel. I re-read old books that seem new. By now there is cable and the internet so I can stream the news 24/7 and see the Cardinals win the 2011 World Series again — and again. We had a Zoom family meeting the other day to sing Happy Birthday to my sister turning 72. Life can be sweet.

Spring is the season for social distancing, rebirth during pandemic

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 12, 2020

If we must have a pandemic, it’s good it came in spring. Spring is the season of rebirth, of freshness and green, of hope that one more cycle of the seasons will commence. Days are getting longer, coats are getting lighter, colors of the grass and trees are brighter. Red buds, magnolias and tulips are peaking, birds and squirrels seem to be everywhere. Peonies are only beginning to sprout to their ultimate three feet destinations. Spring is full of energy and promise. Spring is the season of optimism, of good intentions.

If we must stay at home, spring is the best time. Energy is flowing in both trees and kids calling us out for another lap of the block — while social distancing, of course. It is often a chore to get out in August’s heat and humidity and January can just be too damn cold. We can hunker down in December for the coming winter but hunkering while social isolating could be too much. About the only disadvantage of having a coronavirus pandemic in spring, if we must have one, is that its symptoms often are similar to those of spring allergies of pollen.

We don’t have a civic culture for celebrating the spring as we do for celebrating the coming of winter with Thanksgiving and Christmas. Aside from chocolate eggs and marshmallow chicks and bunnies, celebrations of spring have been influenced by the religious feasts of Passover and Easter. For people of the Christian faith, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” may be the best-known song of the Easter season. The Passover and Easter hold the promises of renewal and rebirth after journeys of struggle and hardship.

In spring 2020, while we are staying at home, a sense of recommitment and renewal is widespread on social media. A frequent sentiment is not wanting to return to normal after COVID-19 but to become something better. Often people express wanting to be more involved in their community as they always wanted to do but never quite follow through. There is hope and commitment here. It’s a widespread feeling.

An untitled poem went viral over the past several weeks with the preface “History repeats itself. Came across this poem written in 1869, reprinted during 1918 Pandemic. This is Timeless. It was written in 1869 by Kathleen O’Mara.”

And people stayed at home
And read books
And listened
And they rested
And did exercises
Someone met their shadow
And people began to think differently

And people healed.
And in the absence of people who
Lived in ignorant ways
Dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
The earth also began to heal
And when the danger ended and
And made art and played

People found themselves
They grieved for the dead
And made new choices
And dreamed of new visions
And created new ways of living
And completely healed the earth
Just as they were healed.

I instinctively liked the poem for its reconciling resignation with optimism. Words such as “listened” and “learned,” “healing” and “dreaming” and “think differently” and “new ways” grabbed my attention. But living in the internet age, I was immediately suspicious of the poem’s authenticity for what happened in 1869 that would motivate such thoughts? And what “exercises” were they doing in 1869? Moreover, how is it that this poem was rediscovered during the 1918 epidemic?

An internet search confirmed my suspicions. It turns out the poem was written last month, March 2020, not by Kathleen O’Mara, but by a Catherine aka Kitty O’Meara, a former teacher and chaplain living in Wisconsin on her blog called “The Daily Round.”

Oprah Winrey’s magazine has a good account of O’Meara’s writing.
How a poem, a quote, a photo goes viral in social media is anybody’s guess, except to say that it captures a widespread sentiment, feeling, perhaps a widely held wish. There seems little doubt that Kitty O’Meara of Wisconsin wrote “And the people stayed home” but how it was creatively doctored up to become a viral hit is less certain. It doesn’t really matter. O’Meara’s poem captures the spirit of our spring 2020. It captures a yearning for change, for betterment. It captures change, a rebirth, discovering a new way. It is full hopeful. If we must have a pandemic, it’s good it came in spring.

Homeless community needs available water, sanitation from city

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 7, 2020

Editor’s Note
David Webber’s column usually appears online on Friday and in print Sunday. This is an extra column from him in response to the City Council’s discussion of COVID-19 and the homeless community in Columbia.

I requested to make a public comment at Monday’s City Council meeting, but because of social distancing, no public comments were heard. Below are my expanded comments that I wish to send to the council.

Mayor Treece, City Council, city employees present:
I ask that you consider the drinking water and sanitation needs of the homeless in the downtown area. We all know the importance of drinking plenty of water and washing our hands with soap. There is no public availability of water downtown.

When I have mentioned this lack of water and toilets to several people, they say, “That can’t be true.” But it is true.

There is a portable toilet at Flat Branch Park and one behind Wabash Station, which is only open when buses are running. A single water fountain in Flat Branch Park may be turned on soon because of better weather.
The city should provide several portable toilets and drinking water 24/7 immediately.

The immediate cause of the drinking water and sanitation crisis is the closing of the public libraries and other public buildings and the “take-out only” requirement of downtown restaurants, but frankly the city should have provided sanitation facilities downtown long ago. You know, like the quality of the facilities located along the MKT trail.

As a runner, I know the pleasure of drinking water and sanitation facilities along the MKT trail, which are available 12 months a year.
Over the years, I have also noticed delivery trucks and businessmen pull into the MLK Garden or Forum Boulevard parking lots to use the facilities and head on down the road. But there are not quality sanitation facilities where unsheltered people hang out. Few homeless people use the MKT trail.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve provided bag lunches and bottled drinking water to 16 different street people. I know these people’s names; most of them know mine — so it is personal. I am not unusual in that regard.
In addition to the volunteers at Loaves and Fishes and Room at the Inn there are many people in Columbia who provide food to the unsheltered when they see the opportunity.

My hunch is that only five of the 16 street people I have spoken with have regular indoor shelter — mostly what you and I would call “couch surfing” and what social workers call “doubling up.” Some make brief stays at low-cost hotels, and then they are back on the streets. Several have public housing but can’t afford anything else. None of them has a car.
Several of them carried plastic bottles that were empty. Three of them are already mighty thin.

These folks are not likely to go to group camps, and about half avoid going to Turning Point and Loaves and Fishes because, well, the sentence I hear often is, “There is too much drama.”
They prefer to stay off by themselves or with one buddy. That may be a public benefit because of their fewer interactions.

Panhandlers face new challenges, too. Less road traffic and increased pressures on family incomes means less earnings flying a sign.
Fewer dollars in a cup mean more hunger and less shelter. Additionally, closing restaurants and now Lucky’s Market means fewer places to fetch food and water.

I propose that drinking water, hygiene water and toilet facilities be provided by the city in a downtown location seven days a week. Columbia and the Boone County Department of Health and Human Services should coordinate with other departments to locate such facilities.
If I am pressed for locations, I suggest the city parking lot east of the Armory on Ash Street and another in an alley behind a parking garage.
A portable toilet available 24/7 would take 24 hours to order, a hand washing station might take a bit long and I am unsure how to quickly make water available.
While I prefer a more ambitious plan to address the needs of the homeless, providing drinking water and sanitation facilities is a simple step that can be carried out quickly.

Ideally, Columbia would provide several day centers like Turning Point, a supervised community camp, some tiny houses, more mental health services, etc.
With likely increases in rent-related evictions as COVID-19 affects the economy, the number of street people will probably increase. Without water and sanitation, we are risking a public health crisis.

In the name of the 15 men and one woman I have shared bag lunches and bottled water with, I thank you for your consideration.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1985 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. His column usually runs in print on Sundays. This is an extra column from him in response to the City Council’s discussion of COVID-19 and the homeless community in Columbia.

Survey results show Columbians cautious and carrying on

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 5, 2020

Watching and listening to so much news about COVID-19 during this period of stay-at-home isolation can leave one asking, “Does anyone else feel like me?” To answer that, I conducted a survey of Columbians and found a high level of health concerns, generally positive view of city and county government decisions, mixed views of how well fellow citizens are doing at social distancing and agreement that the schools won’t open before June 1.

As of noon Thursday, 260 people responded to the survey. The single biggest surprise is the large gender gap, with women constituting 64% of the respondents and men 33%. Results also included three nonbinary persons. While women are almost always overrepresented in responses to surveys, the difference is jolting. I followed the same survey distribution process last April in a survey about the mayoral election and received a perfect gender balance. Apparently, men are not as concerned with things like pandemics.

To be clear: the survey is not statistically representative of Columbia. In addition to over-representing women, it under-represents citizens under 30 — only 8% — and has a median age in the upper 50s. Fully, 43% of the respondents are older than 61. Further, the respondents are not geographically representative. About 75% of the respondents reside in the 65203 ZIP code, which is much more than the 45% that is its share of Columbia’s population.

While the survey is not completely representative of Columbia’s diversity, it is more informative than my sitting at home speculating about how fellow citizens might feel or reading just one person’s views. This survey gave me 260 neighbors sharing their thoughts.

It is no surprise that Columbians report concern about their health due to COVID-19 — 37% say “very,” and 56% say “moderately.” Three-quarters of respondents say they are more concerned with health impacts; one-quarter say a bigger concern is finances.

Twenty-five people — that’s almost 10% — report as of noon Thursday that they already know someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, while 55% say it is “very likely” that they will know such a person, and 25% say “maybe.” Only 8% of respondents say they “will be surprised” if they know someone who has tested positive.

Seventy-five percent report they follow the news “a great deal,” with 22% replying they follow “just like I usually do.” Only 6.5% say, “not so much.” One person added they are “trying to be informed but not overwhelmed.”

City and country government performance is viewed as generally positive but mixed, with 27% replying that they have done “very well—seem to be on top of the situation” and 54% saying they have done “satisfactory—doing as they should.” Only 13% think they “don’t seem to know what they are doing.” A few respondents compared all three levels of government, with one saying local government did “better than the state and federal reactions but still not enough.” Stay-at-home orders are almost universally viewed as necessary, with 73% saying such orders should have come sooner. Only four individuals think the orders are unnecessary.

One-third report they are working from home, 19% say they are isolated, only 10% report they have kids staying home from school and 4% — 10 people — have lost their jobs.

People deal differently with staying at home. The largest response — 29%— is that they are reading and exercising, with 24% saying, “nothing new, but that’s OK.” Almost 30% say they are taking care of their families or helping other people in need. Individual responses such as “I’m freaking out” and “I had to send my kids to their grandparents because I’m an essential” worker makes this crisis real.

About 20% indicate that their neighbors and shoppers are not doing very well in social distancing, with 43% saying they are doing OK and 33% replying they are “doing very well — better than expected.” Several respondents added that their neighbors are doing much better than their fellow shoppers.

Columbians have differing views about when to expect COVID-19 to peak, but we may be on the optimistic side. The most frequent response (29%) is April 30, followed by the 21% who say April 15. May 1 is the choice of 13%, May 15 the choice of 15% and May 31 is the choice of 10%. A few people are expecting it will be well into the summer. Several news research projections, one cited by Stephanie Browning, director of the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services, estimate the peak will be about May 21.

Perhaps one of the most notable findings is that only 8% — 20 people — expect the public schools to resume fully before June 1. Only 30% of respondents have children in schools, with half of them saying its been “up and down” and a “real challenge” to adjust.

As an indicator of when things will really return to normal, the survey asked when Major League Baseball would return. More than one-third replied “it won’t in 2020,” followed by 22% saying the Fourth of July, with Aug. 1 the choice of 11% an saying the Fourth of July, with Aug. 1 the choice of 11% and 10% picking June 15. Only 17 people, about 7%, said Memorial Day. Some 15% responded with some form of “I don’t give a care.”

Overall, Columbians appear to be positive, cautious and carrying on.
Complete results for the survey of local reactions and concerns are available at online at this link: bit.ly/MissourianCOVIDSurveyResults.

In addition to looking at the numbers, read some of the responses that appear under “other” for each of the questions.