Can the Earth Be Saved?

Walter Cronkite and the creation of Earth Day

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While Cronkite had been cognizant of Commoner as a serious anti-nuke scientist, it was the professor's 1966 book, Science and Survival, which he read to prep for Earth Day, that sparked his environmentalism. Commoner was remonstrating against what happens when the industrial order spins madly out of control, when society so fully believes in technology that it arrogantly treats nature as its slave. "Science can reveal the depth of the crisis," Commoner concluded, "but only social action can resolve it."

Only after Commoner had first laid out the planetary crisis did Cronkite say on the CBS News Special Report, "Good evening." It was clear that Cronkite was riding on the side of the Earth Day organizers and demanding ecological balance in the country. Earth Day was the nationwide "environmental awareness day" that Commoner had long called for. In cities all across America, millions of citizens took part in teach-ins protesting the poisoning of Mother Earth. In New York City, much of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street were closed to traffic. Cronkite wandered all around New York watching Americans improvise Earth Day with Frisbee contests, folk music, and pure-oxygen breathing exercises. Union Square became a beehive of the environmentally aware waving placards and chanting "Save the planet," creating what The New York Times called an "ecological carnival" for pedestrians. A leading organizer of Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., thanked Frank Stanton and Cronkite for "devoting extensive time and energy to the task of educating the nation on the problem."

It's hard to measure the precise impact Cronkite had on the first Earth Day. As a commentator, he was brilliantly colorful in describing Earth Day on air as the opening salvo in a battle to protect from destruction the blue-green planet photographed by the Apollo astronauts. To hear him bemoan the "littered Earth" and "filthy waters," calling the widespread desecration a "crime against humanity," certainly seized viewers' attention. Cronkite and Bonn had helped legitimize Earth Day as the major news event of the spring. In his Special Report commentary, Cronkite perhaps overreported the day's arrests and police altercations and Earth Day's extreme activists, who looked more like disaffected hippies than up-and-coming biologists. But merely by taking a deeply personal interest in Earth Day and treating the grassroots event as serious news, he lent his credibility to the environmental cause. "Whenever he mentioned it on the air," Sam Love, an Earth Day organizer, noted, "I noticed that the mail increased. I always thought CBS and Cronkite helped make the events because they gave it validation."

A Lifeboat in Nature

Never before had Cronkite been so daring about promoting public policy as in Eye on the World. The book is a clumsily constructed omnibus of CBS News's reporting on the major trends and stories of 1970, with an emphasis on ecology. Cronkite edited it and provided analysis and commentary. The big four villains of Eye on the World were Dow Chemical, the Florida Power & Light Company, Consolidated Edison, and Chevron Oil Company. (Union Carbide apparently caught a break for longtime sponsorship of CBS's The Twenty-First Century.) Cronkite took aim squarely at corporate polluters. With uncanny prescience, he scolded them for the damage carbon dioxide was causing to the planet's health. Long before Al Gore made "global warming" household words in his 2006 Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Cronkite sounded the alarm on the CBS Evening News and in Eye on the World. "Every year American power plants pour more than 800 million tons of carbon dioxide into the skies," Cronkite warned. "Some scientists suspect that carbon dioxide can turn the planet into a kind of greenhouse, sealing in heat so that temperatures gradually rise until the polar icecaps melt and a new deluge covers the lands of the earth."

In 1970 and 1971, Cronkite became personally involved in two save-the-coast conservation initiatives. When an oil slick marred the waters off Edgartown, Mass., he became engaged with the Martha's Vineyard Eco-Action and Catastrophe Committee. While Cronkite himself didn't carry a "Don't Oil Our Ducks" placard, he did run a picture of his young, environmentally minded friends on the Vineyard in Eye on the World, and he helped them raise money. Furthermore, he lent his prestige to a grassroots effort to stop heavy industrial users – such as oil refineries and bulk shipping stations – from damaging coastal areas in Texas, Delaware, and Maryland. Deeply involved with the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund, he grew determined to learn how to identify the numerous species of waterfowl. On a couple of occasions, he described Roger Tory Peterson's Guide to the Birds as his favorite book. Whenever Cronkite went to Austin to visit his daughter Kathy, he brought with him Peterson's Field Guide to Texas and Adjacent States. In 1980, he would get to collaborate with Peterson on the book Save the Birds. Cronkite's message in the manifesto was that if the birds die, we all die.

CBS Evening News won an Emmy Award for its "Can the World Be Saved?" segments. After that, all CBS reporters were anxious for environmental assignments; the airing of occasional "Can the World Be Saved?" segment lasted until 1980. By the 21st century, Earth Day had grown into an unofficial calendar holiday almost like Valentine's Day or Mother's Day. To commemorate its 20th anniversary, the René Dubos Center for Human Environment presented Cronkite with its prestigious Only One Earth Award; his citation touted his promotion of environmental literacy. It was an honor he treasured. At the New York Hilton gala, more than one thousand environmentally minded citizens stood up to toast the man who helped put Earth Day and the New Environmentalism on the TV media map.

For the rest of his life, Cronkite would credit Earthrise, Silent Spring, and The Closing Circle with opening his mind to the planet's peril. But it was sailing at Martha's Vineyard on his yacht Wyntje, a galaxy of stars overhead, that led him to worship God as the master of the universe. "It's about your own relationship with Mother Nature," he said. "At sea you are in league with her. But she's watching you with that cocked eye." When a Texas teenager asked Cronkite in 2000 what was the most significant event of his lifetime, without hesitation he said, "the conquest of space." He added that he still dreamed of walking on the moon for the cosmic experience of seeing Earth, "this little lifeboat, floating out there in space."


Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University. Cronkite will be published this May by HarperCollins. Brinkley will speak at BookPeople on Friday, June 8, at 7pm.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Walter Cronkite, CBS News, Earth Day, green movement, space exploration, NASA, Earthrise, Apollo 8, ecology, UT-Austin, University of Texas

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