The late John Walter, then-managing editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, used to call me aside once in a while to talk about a story a reporter was working on. On several of those occasions — and describing several different individual reporters over the years — he would say, “There’s a good (name withheld) and a bad (name withheld). Your job is to get the story out of the good (name withheld).”
“Name withheld” — referring to the person who was equally capable of doing very good or very bad work, in John’s opinion — comes from me, not John, who rarely minced words. But I’ve often thought you could say the same about the United States and the South and my home state of Georgia. There’s a good one and a bad one. As citizens, we take pride in the good and are embarrassed — or worse — by the bad.
John’s analyses — prompted by his assessments of his individual reporters’ strengths and weaknesses — came to mind again this afternoon as I spent some time looking back at stories and commentaries on the first Earth Day 40 years ago.
My reflections were prompted, in part, by reading Barack Obama’s proclamation of April 22, 2010, as Earth Day. In it, he says: “Forty years from today, when our children and grandchildren look back on what we did at this moment, let them say that we, too, met the challenges of our time and passed on a cleaner, healthier planet.”
Looking back four decades, that first Earth Day seemed to be a really momentous occasion. Here’s the way a CBS report began on the evening of April 22, 1970: “This is a CBS News special. Earth Day: A question of survival. With CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite.”
Cronkite then came on the air and said: “Good evening. A unique day in American history is ending: a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival …”
On that historic day of seeking our own survival, two of the most talked about people were Georgians — a good Georgian and a bad Georgian, or at least one who was doing good things and one who was not.
The good Georgian was Eugene Odum (pictured at left). A graduate of the University of North Carolina who later earned a doctorate at the University of Illinois, Odum was frequently invoked at environmental teach-ins as “the father of modern ecology.”
Initially interested in the study of birds, Odum soon began to understand how their lives related to their environment and, from there, how ecosystems were interrelated. He was hired to teach zoology at the University of Georgia in 1940 and quickly began to focus on developing ecology as an integrated system that brings all the sciences together. His 1953 textbook, “Fundamentals of Ecology,” is credited with launching modern ecological studies.
Odum also established the University of Georgia’s Marine Institute on Sapelo Island in 1954 and continued to write influential books until 1998. Three years ago, the Institute of Ecology he founded at UGA became the Odum School of Ecology, which, I’m told, is the first stand-alone academic unit of a research university dedicated to ecology.
While many people praised Odum on that first Earth Day, few singled him out as a symbol of an enlightened Georgia or the enlightened South. Many probably had little idea of his heritage. Unfortunately, the heritage of the “bad” Georgian was inescapable. It was hard to overlook because he was the state’s duly elected Comptroller General and a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor. (The title, Comptroller General, was changed to Commissioner of Insurance in 1983.)
Here’s a quote from another news broadcast on April 22, 1970: “Some quarters saw more than coincidence in the fact that Earth Day occurred on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lenin, the father of Soviet communism. And the Comptroller General of Georgia, James Bentley, sent out $1,600 worth of telegrams warning that Earth Day might be a Communist plot.”
Telegrams sound quaint, of course, and the idea that the public could be riled up over a politician wasting a mere $1,600 of taxpayer money seems oddly dated. But the idea of a politician engaging in political grandstanding over a silly exaggerated notion seems very much up-to-date.
Two days after that first Earth Day, on April 24, 1970, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran this editorial:
An Enemy of Earth Day
“James L. Bentley, Comptroller General of Georgia, is a man who thinks for himself. Mr. Bentley, a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, did not join the millions of ingenuous Americans who observed Earth Day. Not a timorous individual to be taken in by apocalyptical talk of environmental catastrophe, Mr. Bentley instead sent out $1,600 worth of telegrams to public officials and Georgia voters charging that Earth Day might be a Communist plot because it fell on Lenin’s birthday.
“Mr. Bentley may have only a sketchy idea of ecology, but he has a much firmer grasp of finance. The comptroller general sent the telegrams at the taxpayers’ expense. Public protest has led Mr. Bentley to doubt the political wisdom of his action, however. He has decided to pay for the telegrams to President Nixon and others.
“Somehow we cannot bring ourselves to regret Mr. Bentley’s decision to stand aloof from Earth Day activities. He probably wouldn’t have contributed much of value to the dialogue anyway.”
No doubt, Bentley probably wouldn’t have contributed much of value to the dialogue, but perhaps at least one lesson we should draw 40 years later is that, when we’re talking about the environment — which really is a life and death matter, as Walter Cronkite suggested — we should listen more to our scientists and a little less to our politicians.