It may be sheer coincidence, but it’s all too fitting that the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, would occur on V.I. Lenin’s 100th birthday, given that most of the modern environmentalist movement grew out of the far left student movement of the 1960s. In that milieu, it wasn’t rare to see people brandishing and citing Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book as a source of wisdom. And many in the anti-war movement accused the capitalist chemical companies of growing rich by producing napalm and Agent Orange to drop on the people and forests of Viet Nam.
Another popular book of the time was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which claimed chemical companies were profiting by poisoning the entire planet with DDT. The new environmentalist movement had found its “Little Green Book.”
And I was there.
I would periodically drive down in my Volkswagen from New Jersey to D.C. for various gatherings and marches. There was always a small libertarian contingent with the black-and-gold anarcho-capitalist flags at most of the major anti-war marches.
Most of the news I got on the student movement came from my friend the late Wilson A. Clark, Jr., a maverick Misesian, Randian, Schumacherite, small-is-beautiful libertarian and author of Energy for Survival and Energy, Vulnerability and War. Wilson later went to work for Gov. Jerry Brown as his alternative energy guru. He supported solar and wind power for libertarian reasons—so neither the state nor Con-Ed could pull the plug on you, and you could live free off the national grid (much like Karl Hess, Sr. and the recently retired Rep. Roscoe Bartlett). Unfortunately, Wilson died in an auto accident on January 30, 1983 at age 36, as he swerved to avoid a deer.
Wilson told me that the greatest coup was holding Earth Day on Lenin’s Birthday and that most of the environmental movement’s leaders still didn’t get it. You can find endless discussions on how April 22 was selected. It had to be in the spring. It had to be during spring break, when most college kids were free, and when there were no exams. On and on.
While it is entirely possible, and indeed probable, that Gaylord Nelson and other establishment greens did not deliberately pick Lenin’s birthday to celebrate Earth Day, I believe the young anti-capitalist students knew precisely what they were doing in selecting April 22. Was it sheer coincidence they would select Lenin’s 100th birthday—out of 365 days in the year—to celebrate the first Earth Day? I find it hard to believe.
Most environmental economists of the time believed that only socialist countries would ably protect the environment, because the governments there were acting for the good of all mankind, while capitalists in the West cared only about profit maximization and not a whit about the environment. Thus it was no surprise that the conventional wisdom would turn a generation of young people towards socialism as the only way to protect the Earth.
This idea arose for a number of reasons, but primarily because pollution and environmental degradation first became a visible problem in the capitalist West, where the Industrial Revolution had begun. Most critics of the free market, whether Marxists or modern environmentalists, claimed that environmental degradation was an inherent and inescapable problems of a system of production for profit and of private ownership.
That assumption led to the widespread belief that environmental misuse would disappear if the state were to own all the means of production, and the economic system were driven not by individual profit seekers, but by professional managers acting in the public interest, producing for the good of all and taking all costs into consideration. If property and industry were state-owned, the state would ensure that the interests of the general public would be protected and the common good would be advanced.
Lenin and the early communists did believe that environmental degradation would disappear under communism. And in fact, pollution and environmental degradation were “outlawed” in the constitutions of most communist countries. Thus it was little surprise that the youth of the nascent environmental movement would view Lenin and socialism as the path to preserving the planet.
But throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as more and more cracks opened in the Iron Curtain, economists and journalists were able to visit the communist countries and reported discovering a degree of environmental degradation far beyond that present in the West—from the gold dome of Sigismund Chapel of Wawel Cathedral in Cracow dissolving from acid rain to the drying up of the Aral Sea. Yet, the socialist environmental paradigm endured.
A decade later as the Bamboo Curtain began to crumble the same conundrum was discovered in China. And again environmental economists and political scientists were bewildered. Some even suggested that because they knew their paradigm was correct, the only plausible reason was that Mao had been a mistake, and that perhaps if they had had a better chairman, a thousand flowers would indeed be blooming.
So on the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day, we sadly see the continuing belief in command-and-control economic systems. Government ownership of the land, water, and natural resources continues to grow with each passing year. The mass of governmental regulatory agencies, bureaucrats, and the sheer staggering number of new environmental regulations passed every year take us further away from any solution.
Over time the theory of free market environmentalism and private conservation has been developed and continued to grow, demonstrating that the root cause of environmental degradation had been the absence of clearly defined and enforceable property rights in land, water, air, natural resources, and wildlife, and that the expansion of the use of the institutions of a free society—property rights, markets, and prices—would have largely prevented or greatly reduced the levels of environmental degradation.
Had the first Earth Day been celebrated on Adam Smith's birthday, June 16, instead of Vladimir Lenin’s, the Earth would be a freer, more prosperous and greener place. But that is a story for another day.