Earthrise 1968: Thoughts on the Past and Future of the Environment and America

Earthrise2-NASA-apollo08_earthriseThe beautiful blue Earth rising above the barren, chalky surface of the moon in the darkness of space. That’s what astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders saw on December 24, 1968, from the cockpit of the command module of Apollo 8. These men were tasked with completing a challenging mission that involved testing navigation and communication systems and taking high-resolution photos of proposed Apollo landing sites and other areas of scientific interest. But amidst their work, they were awestruck by the view of our beautiful planet from more than 230,000 miles away. Lovell told mission control: “The Earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space.”

In many ways, 1968 was a challenging (and sometimes terrible) year in America. The U.S. was fighting a hot war in Vietnam (which had already taken about 17,000 American lives), Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, and racial strife was tearing apart the nation (riots in more than 100 cities after King’s murder left 39 people dead and more than 2,600 injured). But the astronauts’ journey had captivated the world and provided a comforting coda to the challenges of the past 12 months. Space exploration was still mysterious and mind-blowing. Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon and return safely to Earth. And this mission occurred 7 months before the Apollo 11 mission, in which Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon.

People marveled at this beautiful photo of our planet in the darkness of space. Earthrise became a metaphor for the fragility of life on earth. Many people realized that our planet, as Lovell had said, was an oasis in space that needed to be protected. Many credit the photo with the launch of the environmental movement in the United States. Just about 16 months after Earthrise, the first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. Other major milestones that followed include the:

  • Passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (1969)
  • Creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970)
  • Passage of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (1972)
  • Passage of the Endangered Species Act (1973)
  • Passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974)

Looking Back from 2018

Fifty years and a few days later, the world is vastly different in some ways (its population has more than doubled, and medical and technological breakthroughs have changed our lives), but disturbingly similar in others (war, violence, economic inequality, and racial, ethnic, gender, and other types of discrimination still bedevil us). At nearly age 50, I’m astonished by our inability to learn from our past.

Over the last 50 years—thanks, in part to Earthrise—we’ve made progress regarding protecting the environment. But many of these achievements are being reversed by President Trump, who has no understanding of the importance of protecting the environment. Our president, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and other agency and department heads are currently in the process of dismantling the very laws and regulations that have allowed our air, water, and soil quality to improve drastically from the dark days when air quality was so poor that people died in mass air inversions (Donora, Pennsylvania, 1948), our nation’s rivers were so polluted that they started on fire (Cuyahoga River in Ohio, 1969), and our soil was so contaminated that toxic industrial waste that had been buried underground bubbled up and sickened people and forced them to move from their neighborhoods (Love Canal in upstate New York, 1978), to provide just a few examples.

Since President Trump has taken office nearly 80 of the most rigorous Obama-era environmental laws and regulations have been blocked, delayed, or targeted for repeal, according to a New York Times analysis of data. For those of you who are not fans of President Obama, I wonder if you might be more outraged if his name was removed from the equation and you could see, law by law, regulation by regulation, the damage that the president is inflicting on the environment and, ultimately, you and your family. Removing environment protections is bad regardless of who is “minding the store.” The revocation of these laws and regulations has affected everyday people like you and me. Click here for some examples.

elclipse-pale blue dot-PIA00452_md
In 1990, Voyager 1 took this picture of Earth (what Carl Sagan coined the “Pale Blue Dot”) from a distance of more than 4 billion miles. Earth is a tiny speck just below the center on the far right scattered light ray. 

A Healthy Economy AND a Healthy Environment

We need jobs and a strong economy, but we also need healthy bodies and healthy neighborhoods. A booming economy matters not one iota unless we can breathe fresh air, drink clean water, plant crops in unpolluted soil, and visit untouched landscapes that recharge our souls and that provide an escape from screens and stores, highways and concrete, and Twitter wars and trolls. It’s not just enough to live—and have a few extra dollars in our wallets. It’s better to live a healthy life in which the needs of businesses and the relentless push of capitalism are leavened by concerns for a healthy environment.

But our views on protecting the environment have become another political codeword that tells others who we are.

Environmentalist = Democrat or Green Party member (although the business branch of the Democratic Party cares little about the environment)
Business and Economy First, Environment Second (or third or fourth) = Republican (with exceptions…Mother Jones recently published a great article about environmental conservatives.)

Although broad generalizations, that’s the general line of thinking in America. We need to get past the idea that protecting the environment is a Democratic, Green, or Republican issue, but a human issue that affects us whether we support or oppose raising taxes, blocking or severely limiting immigration, building a wall, bringing our soldiers home from Syria or Afghanistan, etc. (One of the nicest conversations I recently had was with a Republican friend who lamented the politicization of protecting the environment.) Despite our political differences, it seems that the majority of American agree on one thing. Seventy-four percent of U.S. adults who were surveyed by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in 2016 said the “country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.”

American capitalism doesn’t need to be a “winner takes all” game in which the success of companies and the strength of the economy takes precedence over every other concern. Fifty-six percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup in 2016 said that protection of the environment should be given top priority, “even at the risk of curbing economic growth” Americans don’t just want jobs, they want a healthy place to live. What good is a job if the air, water, and soil is so polluted that America becomes an environmental wasteland like areas in China, India, and other developing countries?

Protecting the Environment = Jobs

We are constantly told that protecting the environment causes job losses. While some jobs are lost due to the implementation of environmental laws and the use of renewable energy, there is actually a net-increase of jobs when the environment is protected. (Unfortunately, these net gains are not distributed evenly across the country, so states such as West Virginia that have major coal mining operations suffer job losses.)

Renewable energy is a viable energy source that contributes to U.S. energy independence, as well as provides cleaner energy production and hundreds of thousands of jobs. For example, in 2016, employment in just the wind and solar segments of the renewable energy industry reached more than 300,000, which greatly exceeded the 65,971 workers employed in the coal mining industry, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Solar installers and wind technicians are the two fastest-growing careers in the United States. Employment for solar photovoltaic installers is expected to grow by a whopping 105 percent through 2026, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Job opportunities for wind turbine technicians are expected to increase by 96 percent through 2026. The average level of growth for all careers is 7 percent.

More than 500,000 new jobs were created in the renewable energy industry in 2017, according to Forbes. This brought the total number of jobs in renewable energy worldwide to 10.3 million for the first time. The International Renewable Energy Agency predicts that up to 28 million new jobs could be created worldwide by 2050 if businesses and governments continue to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

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Earth 2068?

Viewing Earthrise makes me wonder what condition our world will be in 50 years. I may not be here in half a century, but I’m certainly curious and hopeful that our better angels will prevail over the dark impulses of our president and others who continue to make decisions that will negatively affect the environment for generations. Will we reverse course and implement common-sense laws and regulations that protect the environment, take serious steps to reverse global warming, protect the last remaining wild places on Earth, and develop programs that retrain workers left behind by advances in technology and/or the world’s desire for a cleaner environment? Will our leaders act like leaders, or will it be up to us to advocate for these changes?

People Power

In 1983, the great nature photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams said that “It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save our environment.” Unfortunately, we’re in this position again today. In the end, saving our planet is up to us. Democratic and Green party politicians, and the small percentage of ecofriendly Republicans in office, may be able to help stem the tide, but we as Americans need to do the hard work to take back our environmental future from President Trump and others who just don’t seem to understand the importance of protecting the environment. Because once our beautiful forests, grasslands, lakes, prairies, deserts, and other natural areas are gone, they are gone, no matter what members of the administration and corporate public relations departments tell us about reforestation and other doublespeak. Once our air, soil, and water becomes even more polluted, it will be that much harder to get our pre-Trump environment back. Once the word spreads abroad that our natural places have been  despoiled and our national monuments have been vastly reduced in size, tourist dollars will stop flowing to America. And if we continue to keep our heads in the sand about the dangers of global warming, environmental catastrophes of epic proportions will become commonplace and, at some point, this problem may be irreversible. Seems like a bad trade for a few thousand extra coal mining and fracking jobs. But there’s a solution to some of the job losses: those involved in technical positions in the coal and oil extraction industries are excellent candidates to work as solar and wind power technicians.

America Doesn’t Need to Become Great Again

America remains a great (and special) place—despite the cancer that currently inhabits our highest office. Not because we have the strongest military. Not because we are leaders in technology or health care innovation. But because we are a democracy, where change can still be made through the ballot box (despite efforts to suppress the vote and gerrymander election outcomes). We are also special because we are nation that loves and protects its outdoors. A nation—of Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and those with no party affiliation—that has created a set of laws and government agencies that protect what is special. A nation that has set aside tens of millions of acres of land that are unique—not because they make real estate developers and corporate shareholders wealthy, but because they harbor endangered or protected wildlife; serve as a buffer against storms, pollution, or flooding; or are just simply beautiful and a place of respite for those weary of the often chaotic, soul-sucking modern world. Places that refresh our spirits and make our imaginations run wild. A nation that is admired and often-visited by foreign tourists who want to experience our natural marvels (and spend their money in our towns and cities). We are a special nation because some of us realized how important the quality of our environment is to our mental and physical health and took steps to protect it. You can see this in our national parks and other National Park Service properties, and, at the local level, in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, which protects 70,000 acres of natural areas that would mostly be roads, subdivisions, and shopping malls if wise visionaries had not stepped in. The idea of my beloved Cap Sauers Holding turned into a Wal-Mart or Amazon distribution plant sends shivers up my spine.

Pictured Rocks


Despite the challenges that we face, I’m hopeful as 2019 dawns. There is too much at stake for us to give up in our efforts to make the world a better place—protecting the environment, reducing gun violence, and eliminating discrimination, poverty, opioid abuse, and other societal ills. Presidential administrations don’t last forever (at least in this country). I believe that we’ll get back to a better version of America. Every storm eventually dies out and the sun shines again.

Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes

Copyright (photos) #1 and #2: NASA; #3 U.S. Department of Energy; #4 Andrew Morkes

Afterthought: So who actually took Earthrise? Debate raged for many years. Click here for a fascinating discussion about this topic.



4 thoughts on “Earthrise 1968: Thoughts on the Past and Future of the Environment and America

  1. This is a good meditation. I’ve noticed over my life that the world seems to follow a pendulum swing. One of the best presidents, Obama, was followed by surely the very worst. I worry that many in the Democrat party want to drag us far left, in reaction to the far right of the current Republican party. I’m hoping cooler heads will prevail, and we will find our way back to the level-headed middle. You are absolutely correct, there are jobs in clean energy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I agree about the pendulum swinging. We make progress, and then we go backwards a bit, but I feel that we are continuing to move forward incrementally with each pendulum swing. It seems like moderate government, regardless of party, is the best approach–especially in a country of 320+ million. It’s pretty hard to apply northern European, small country governance ideas to a big messy democracy.


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