A half-century ago children challenged their elders to head off environmental challenges. These are their stories.
Today’s younger generation hasn’t been shy about sounding the alarm when it comes to the future of our planet. From 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations Climate Action – where she seethed, “you come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”– to last year's worldwide youth climate protest, kids are telling us they’re worried about the dire consequences they will face if we don’t take bold action on climate change.
So it’s striking to see that a half-century ago, children also challenged their elders to head off an environmental apocalypse. That’s one of the revealing themes from a 1971 book, “What Are You and Me Gonna Do?: Children’s Letters to Senator Gaylord Nelson About the Environment.” Nelson, the father of Tia Nelson, Outrider’s managing director, climate, had helped spark the modern environmental movement the previous year by launching the first Earth Day, a national, youth-driven sit-in that sparked the participation of about 2,000 college campuses and 10,000 elementary and high schools.
The children in Senator Nelson’s book, mostly aged 8-10, are now in their late 50s or early 60s. Some of the letters are dated April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day; some are dated before, and some are undated. This adorable book is both a time capsule and a timely reminder that young people often will push society to make progress, particularly when it comes to the planet they’re inheriting.
“These young people are asking why their leaders have taken such a beautiful world and are spoiling it for their children and grandchildren,” Senator Nelson writes in a foreword to the book, in words that are echoed by young people today. “They are asking why we don’t stop the destruction. Well, why don’t we?”
In the book, the children plead, sometimes politely, often with urgency, with Senator Nelson to save their planet for their generation.
“I’m ten years old and very worried about our growing environment,” writes a girl who describes herself as “a concerned fourth grader.”
“I sometimes wonder if you really do anything about it? Why, and you ask what do you mean why? Well, I mean why just stand (or sit) there reading my letter!! DO SOMETHING!!! Call the president! Do anything, but STOP POLLUTION!!!!” The girl, who sounds like she’s channeling Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip, underlines her capitalized words four times.
“I wish I could live a little longer, I am 10 years old,” writes another girl. “From what I hear we will only live for two more years and I will only be twelve years old. I won’t even be fully educated.”
“I go along with you on pollution I think it should try to be stopped,” writes one boy, in a letter dated that first Earth Day, 1970. “I think we should use electric car electric trains and electric buses. And another thing I am to (sic) young to die.”
In another letter sent on Earth Day, a boy writes, “I would hate to die when I am so young. I would like to help stop pollution … Keep up the good work.”
One girl asks Senator Nelson some practical and philosophical questions.
“I wish we could stop pollution, but I’m afraid the world will come to an end,” she writes on Earth Day. “I think that someone should make a law, so people don’t throw everything on the ground. Why do they? Do they want everyone to die? I think it’s very stupid. I have two other questions. What will happen when the world comes to an end? One girl said it will start over again. Will it?”
An 8-year-old boy makes the case that his generation will pay the price for inaction among his elders: “This is serious stuff. You won’t have to live in the air pollution we will. … All I ask of you is keep trying. I call that the winning spirit. Just keep trying.”
We were able to track down some of the letter-writers today. One, Ann Oberhauser, was a 5th grade student at an elementary school in Clintonville, Wisconsin. She informed Senator Nelson that her class voted 33-1 to ban DDT (the EPA would ban nearly all uses of the toxic pesticide in 1972).
Today, Oberhauser is director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Iowa State University. She said her letter was part of a class project.
“My parents were both dedicated environmentalists,” she recalled. “They did composting and recycling. That’s where a lot of that consciousness started.” Oberhauser says that today, she tries to incorporate concern for the environment into her daily life, and her grown children do too.
“It’s astounding how things change and stay the same,” she said. “We’ve advanced our understanding of how systems intertwine. Technology has helped us understand. But human behavior needs a lot more work. There’s not enough consciousness or concern about the severity of the climate change crisis.”
Mitchell Edley was an 8-year-old boy in Queens, N.Y. when he wrote to Senator Nelson that he wanted to “to grow up big and strong. I don’t want to be sick. People should walk or ride a bike or use the trains and buses. So will you please help me and the world live better please? and try to make car companies do something about the smoke from the back please.”
Next to the letter is a picture that he drew of a factory with smoke coming out of the smokestacks, and cars in front.
It turns out that Edley was talking from personal experience when he urged action on smoke coming from the back of cars.” Edley, who is retired, recalled that as a boy, he would sit in the back of his grandfather’s station wagon – he called it a “death trap” – and blue smoke would enter the car through the back window straight from the exhaust pipe.
Edley says that despite his call for people to bike or take mass transit, he’s not sure he’d call himself an environmentalist today. “I don’t go out of my way to pollute,” he said. “I’m not an extremist.”
But he said that the letter to Nelson probably had an effect on his outlook about the planet. He said he has a solar-powered dog van, which he called “very eco-friendly.”
Some of the letters expressed concern about wildlife. In a Nov. 18, 1969 letter, Winifred Montgomery wrote that she likes wolves, and was worried that unless something was done about the bounties on these animals, “I will not even remember what they look like when I grow up. Since I am 10 years old, I will grow up soon.”
She noted that her two brothers “wrote to other men that are real important like you” – Interior Secretary Walter Hickel and President Richard Nixon. “Will you please do something about it?”
Montgomery, now director of the Learning Strategies Center at a San Francisco high school, says that she wrote the letter after watching a TV show about bounties on wolves, along with the rest of her family. She, her parents, and her siblings were so incensed that they each wrote to a different person of authority. She was a student at an elementary school in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin at the time.
Montgomery recalled getting a big head after her letter appeared in print.
“It was so cool! I told my English teacher she couldn’t correct me anymore because I was a published author,” she said with a laugh.
Montgomery said that the 10-year-old version of herself would be “horrified” by the state of the environment today.
“The Amazon is burning, there’s ocean acidification – I’m an educator and my students are terrified,” she said.
Eric Loucks told Senator Nelson in a Dec. 9, 1969 letter that he was “greatly concerned” about pollution in Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers.
“I have been affected by this horrification many times. I would like to see some money appropriated to clean all the lakes in the country, not only Wisconsin, and I want to see it done right now,” he demanded, signing the letter “A future voter.”
Loucks, whose father was well known environmentalist Orie Loucks, recalled writing the letter as part of a school exercise, adding that seven to eight classmates from his middle school in Madison, Wisconsin were also published in the book. He said that his father talked about climate change way back in the 1970s.
“I was probably ahead of the rest of my class in understanding environmental threats, because of my dad,” said Loucks, who works as a civil engineer for the city of Austin, Texas. “I used flowery language to get attention.”
He said that in some ways society has made a lot of environmental progress, such as cleaning up hazardous and toxic waste sites.
But when it comes to climate change, Loucks said, “We’ve been the picture of inaction. Now we’re passed fixing it. The crisis will tear the country apart. The floods and other disasters will come too quickly for the government to react.”
Nelson’s book, however, shows that there will always be hope as long as kids think of innovative ways to make things better.
One boy suggests, “I think that we should get a car that runs on chicken manure. You could use chicken manure for driving around town. And then you could drive an electric car for driving out of town.”
Another suggests a clean car of the future through an illustration, one of many in the book. This crayon drawing shows a car with green exhaust coming out, and the words “300 miles” at the top, probably indicating the range of a car running on this fuel of the future. While we weren’t able to locate the artist, perhaps today he or she is working as an engineer for Tesla.