Professor Wu's Rulebook

Kurt Vonnegut and the first Earth Day

“The Environmental movement is a big soppy pillow,” said Vonnegut. “Nobody’s going to do anything.”

On 22 April 1970, the world celebrated the first ever ‘Earth Day’ – a protest against pollution, and a celebration of the planet.

Kurt Vonnegut, the legendary author who once advised humans simply to “stop poisoning the air, water and top soil” was at the first ever Earth Day, too. He was there with thousands of other human beings, too, who had all come to the same conclusion: the planet on which they lived was in grave trouble and something had to be done.

The thing that had to be done, they decided, was to hold this protest, which was also a celebration. Some protestors put on gas masks; others took brooms to the streets to brush away litter. Kurt Vonnegut spoke outside a library.

A protestor at the first ever Earth Day in 1970 wears a gas mask while sniffing flowers. Photograph via Associated Press.

These are some of the things he said when he answered questions from reporters and Earth Day goers.

“The Environmental movement is a big soppy pillow,” said Vonnegut. “Nobody’s going to do anything.”

He said this because nobody had done anything to stop the planet dying so far, and nobody seemed inclined to do anything in future, either.

He said this because he was also a pessimist, which he mentioned himself. He said:

“It is unusual,” he began, “for a total pessimist to be speaking at a spring celebration. Anyway here we all are — the peaceful demonstrators. Mostly white… President Nixon has our power and our money and the best thing for him to do is get out of the war business. Will he do it? No.”

And, as the war goes one, meanwhile we are free to walk up and down Fifth Avenue picking up the trash missed by the Sanitation Department.… We can surely look forward to some great advertising campaigns.… Now polluters are looked upon as ordinary Joes just doing their jobs. In the future, they will be looked upon as swine.… Will the president do anything about pollution? Probably not.”

Even though he was a pessimist, and even though he didn’t think the President would do anything about pollution, Vonnegut did at least try to console the crowd as he finished talking. He said:

“Those who try their best to save the planet will find a loose, cheerful, sexy brass band waiting to honor them right outside the Pearly Gates. What will the band be playing? ‘When the Saints Come Marching In.’ ”

That is what Kurt Vonnegut said at the first ever Earth Day. There have been Earth Days ever since – once a year. And, ever since, human beings have carried on poisoning the air, water, and top soil of the planet – they also started doing new things, too, like setting fire to the Amazon.

Kurt Vonnegut carried on saying the same things about the world, too.

Not long after Earth Day, he told students at Bennington College:

You, too, have been swindled, if people have persuaded you that it is now up to you to save the world. It isn’t up to you. You don’t have the money and the power. You don’t have the appearance of grave maturity—even though you may be gravely mature. You don’t even know how to handle dynamite. It is up to older people to save the world. You can help them.

When it really is time for you to save the world, when you have some power and know your way around, when people can’t mock you for looking so young, I suggest that you work for a socialist form of government. Free Enterprise is much too hard on the old and the sick and the shy and the poor and the stupid, and on people nobody likes. The just can’t cut the mustard under Free Enterprise. They lack that certain something that Nelson Rockefeller, for instance, so abundantly has.

So let’s divide up the wealth more fairly than we have divided it up so far. Let’s make sure that everybody has enough to eat, and a decent place to live, and medical help when he needs it. Let’s stop spending money on weapons, which don’t work anyway, thank God, and spend money on each other. It isn’t moonbeams to talk of modest plenty for all. They have it in Sweden. We can have it here. Dwight David Eisenhower once pointed out that Sweden, with its many utopian programs, had a high rate of alcoholism and suicide and youthful unrest. Even so, I would like to see America try socialism. If we start drinking heavily and killing ourselves, and if our children start acting crazy, we can go back to good old Free Enterprise again.

Later, Kurt Vonnegut told us: “We could have saved the earth, but we were too damned cheap.

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