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New Mexico activist recalls helping organize the first Earth Day

Arturo Sandoval helped organize the first Earth Day celebration in 1970.
New Mexico PBS
Arturo Sandoval helped organize the first Earth Day celebration in 1970.

In 1970, New Mexico’s Arturo Sandoval was recruited to help organize the nation’s first Earth Day, a massive movement that helped incite cultural and congressional action.

Reporter Laura Paskus, host of “Our Land” on New Mexico PBS, spoke with Sandoval about the early days of the environmental movement, and his vision for the future . He also talks about the Center of Southwest Culture, which he founded, and two of its current projects, Story Riders and ¡Sembrando Salud!

See the full interview online, Part 1 and Part 2, or on “New Mexico in Focus” Friday at 7 p.m.

ARTURO SANDOVAL: Back in the late 60s and 70s, you know, the Black civil rights movement, the Chicano civil rights movement, the Indigenous civil rights movement, the women's movement for equal rights, were all flourishing. We could organize and protest, and actually get results and change things, both locally and nationally. So Earth Day had that kind of impact, because there was this underlying unease, I think, in the country, but people didn't feel there was any way for them to express their unease at what was happening to the environment, and it was ready to explode. There needed to be a spark just to get it going. And that's what Earth Day did. And, and I think that's still the largest single protest event in US history, it was 20 million people at over 10,000 sites. So it just blew up way beyond what we had hoped to do.

And it had big impact. You know, we got the Clean Air Act out of it, we got the Clean Water Act out of it. President Nixon, of all people, created the Environmental Protection Agency, we got the Endangered Species Act. And in the period of the 70s, immediately following Earth Day, in that decade and a half following Earth Day, Congress enacted over 50 major environmental protection laws.

So it looked to us at that time, that we had made a significant impact, and that the environment was going to be in a better place. And for a short period it was and then something happened over the last 30 years. We ran into an enemy that was much better organized than us, much more disciplined. And that was unfettered capitalism. If capitalism is unfettered, if there's no balance, if there's no control to try to rein in the excesses, then we end up with what we have today, which is really serious climate change issues.

LAURA PASKUS: In the early 2000s, I interviewed Russell Train, who was an early EPA administrator, and I asked him, “Do you think that any of these laws could be passed today?” And he said, “No, because the lobbyists didn't know what was happening at that moment. And now, you know, the lobbyists are lined up.”

SANDOVAL: I mean, there's 139 countries that are going to be participating in this year's Earth Day. And that's probably 1.2 billion people across the globe. But despite that, what's happened is the major polluters, they just took over Earth Day. So they say they're green, they claim to be very eco-friendly, and they have their staff in Chevron t-shirts are planting trees Capitalism is great at co-opting any threat to its existence. And that's what happened with the environmental movement.

PASKUS: So I feel like something that many of us struggle with is divisiveness, and disinformation. And I would love to hear your thoughts on how we recognize and respect one another's differences, while also building relationships and sowing love and figuring out ways to sustain long term movements.

SANDOVAL: So I think there's a lot of really fantastic communities and people actively working within the existing political system, and they're having an impact here in New Mexico. I know there's a lot of groups that are working to change issues, and I think they've changed the makeup of the legislature. There's younger, more progressive people now in leadership positions in both the House and Senate. And that's a good thing, because overall, we're getting better legislation that comes out of that, that is helping poor communities and more impacted communities. So we have to do the ongoing work everyday like voting, blah, blah, “I don't think so” -- we can get cynical, it's easy to get cynical. We have to do that. But we can also do our own things, we have to start creating our own systems that are maybe small-scale, but that can grow over time that we own that we control that benefit us directly. And that force us to become smarter, more adept, and more agile in everything we do.

Now, I try to follow what Martin Luther King said, which is, in his famous speech, we should judge each other by the content of our character, and not the color of our skin. Really, are you a person of good soul and good heart? And if you are, I'm willing to engage with you and I don't care what color you are or anything else. And I think that's the path for us to find the humanity in each other, and then try to nurture that the reason there's so much hatred, I think, in the world is we're always looking for what how we're different. Instead of the fact that, you know, we're these little creatures on this beautiful small planet, spinning through space. And we're Earthlings. You know, that's all we are. There's really no difference between us and we should celebrate the cultural uniqueness of each other. But we're on this ship together. And if we don't figure out how to fix it, we're all going to go under together.

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