‘Crazy Times,’ Concerts and Composting: Earth Day Then and Now
April 19, 2023
The police were looking for one of his friends on suspicion of bombing the statue of General Burnside in downtown Providence during the summer of 1970 when Will Collette thought it might be time to leave the anti-war movement and get into environmentalism.
“I was looking for something that was a little bit more gentle,” Collette, a lifelong Rhode Islander and organizer, recalled more than 50 years later. That’s how he got involved in the state’s first Earth Day events.
Collette and others who recently spoke with ecoRI News about organizing Earth Days over the years said a lot has changed about the day — and environmentalism in general — during the six decades since its conception.
When Collette was shifting his activism focus in the early ’70s, he said, a lot of other folks were doing the same thing.
“It was crazy times,” Collette recalled. “I found that a lot of people in the very early sort of populist environmental movement were, pretty much like me, refugees from the antiwar movement … looking for something where you could do something good and useful, but not necessarily have to get bloody for it.”
Collette was on the propaganda committee for Ecology Action, where he would meet his wife, Cathy, a fellow activist. He described the first Earth Day events as mostly a lot of speeches, many focused on how to use the courts “to stop the bad guys.”
It was “a lot of people turning out, about a third of them pretty stoned, you know, having a good time, celebrating good fellowship, applauding everybody who stood up and said something, no matter how stupid or useless,” he said.
Shortly after the event, there was an argument within Ecology Action over the direction of its activism. Some, including Collette, wanted to go after big businesses that were dumping pollutants in Narragansett Bay; others wanted to require pleasure boats to have holding tanks.
“I gave a short speech basically saying I’d like to clarify the choices we’re looking at: One is to go after corporate criminals who are shortening everybody’s life in this room, all of our families, as opposed to putting all of our efforts into keeping people from pissing in the bay,” he said. “We lost.”
Then he left. “Basically, I said, ‘[Expletive] it, I don’t need this in my life. This is not going anywhere.’”
After a few years of other activism and organizing, Collette returned to the environment working with Lois Gibbs at what would become the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.
Looking back on those earlier years of environmental activism, although he said they were calmer than his involvement in the anti-war movement, he still had some big fights — particularly when he worked with Gibbs.
He once got into a yelling match with some guys over a proposed waste management site near a river in Louisiana. The men turned out to be from the local Ku Klux Klan, and the sheriff had to escort him out of the county.
After a life spent going after big fish, Collette has some disdain for what Earth Day is today. A Charlestown resident, he said the town cleanups on Earth Day in neighborhoods by the ocean bother him.
“You want people to volunteer to go and clean up rich people’s backyards. Really, is that what you want?” he said. But still, he appreciates that the environment is something that people at least care a lot more about now than they did back then.
Earth Day had a resurgence in Rhode Island in the ’90s to gear up for the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the holiday. An Earth Day Committee was formed to organize statewide events to celebrate the accomplishment of the federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts.
Terri Bisson worked for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management at the time and collaborated with the committee. At first, they held a lot of environmental fairs to teach people about better practices, she said.
“But then what happened was we sort of had this epiphany where we felt like we were preaching to the choir because a lot of them were attended by people who were already active in environmental issues and causes,” Bisson said.
The committee decided to “bump things up,” and began formulating ways to get sponsors to offset the costs for bigger events. They went from five people meeting at someone’s house to a full-fledged nonprofit organization.
They started holding concerts.
“The idea was to use entertainment and, you know, good music and things like that to draw people in,” Bisson said. “Then, while you had them there, then you would have the environmental exhibits and educational programs going on during those things.”
They brought in the Marshall Tucker Band, Billy Gillman, James Montgomery, and other big names.
When the Marshall Tucker Band performed at Goddard Memorial State Park in Warwick, “they had to shut the exit down on the highway or cause problems on 95,” said Jim Corwin, who was the manager of rock station WHJY at the time and helped organize the concerts.
“We had 10,000 people come to Goddard State Park. I may be exaggerating there, but there [was] way too many people,” he recalled. “The concert went off, you know, and people had a great time. And at the end of it, the park was trashed.”
It took a week to clean up the park, he said.
Seeing as that was slightly counter to the environmental mission of the day, and because late April weather in Rhode Island can be fickle, they decided to move the concerts inside.
During that time, Bisson also started overseeing cleanup initiatives. The state went from a few cleanups every year to over a hundred, Bisson said. She also helped start the state’s recycling program and found ways to try to simplify the process for residents.
“I don’t think there was a lot before we began all this,” Bisson said, but in the 15 years she was organizing Earth Day events while working at DEM (of 37 years total there) she said they built a lot of momentum.
Around 2006, because of budget cuts, the department stopped directly overseeing a lot of Earth Day work and handed over control to local nonprofits, Bisson said.
She said she has more hope for the greater fight against climate change, but less for people taking more personal responsibility for how their actions impact the environment.
“I think people are so distracted by social media and all that stuff today that these things aren’t necessarily on the top of their minds,” Bisson said.
Eugenia Marks, a former Audubon Society policy director who worked with Bisson on the Earth Day Committee, said she also has mixed feelings. She noted how much public awareness has increased since she started organizing for Earth Day in the ‘90s. “So, I think that Earth Day has been a success,” she said.
“There are still problems where people don’t comprehend or don’t take the time to comprehend. And quite frankly, I deal with it in my own family,” she said, laughing and explaining that her granddaughter had received an award at school for recycling but needs to be reminded to do it when she is at home.
“If we can continue the … educational system in a way that lets people be curious and try to find solutions, I’ll have hope,” Marks said.
Corwin eventually moved on from creating events for rock stars to organizing environmental programs for kids, something he still does today as co-director of the Rhode Island Schools Recycling Club.
The program helps schools increase recycling and composting. “Our goal is to get food waste reduced by 50% by 2030, which is in line with EPA and the USDA goals. And I think we’re already well on the way there,” he said in a phone interview. “We’ll get there much sooner than 2030.”
Corwin still participates in other environmental events and cleanups, but he said working in schools feels special because he can see the impact he’s having.
When he first started working in environmentalism, hauling tires out of the Blackstone River, he didn’t know about the importance of recycling or that composting was a concept.
“Young people can change their behavior and learn behaviors,” Corwin said. “Sometimes I’m skeptical about whether adults do that.”
He’s optimistic about the environment’s future, he said before hopping off the phone to head to a new school joining the club.
There was plenty to work on in 1970, there is even more to work on now.