Green Before Green Was Cool
Victoria A. Brownworth
Coincidentally, environmental consciousness and sun poisoning struck me at the same time.
The date was April 22, 1970. It was the first Earth Day and I was one of 20 million participants worldwide.
I was a high school sophomore, an antiwar activist, an out lesbian and, like other young hippies of my generation, I was cause-hungry. I wanted to change the world. Saving the planet seemed a good place to start.
In Philadelphia, the Earth Day celebration was outdoors at Belmont Plateau, a hilly enclave overlooking the city in Fairmount Park. It was an extraordinarily beautiful spring day—hotter than usual for that time of year. There were speeches and music and no doubt a lot of people smoking pot. We all left with a greater knowledge of the importance of sustainability as we tossed away our trash and felt good about it.
By that evening, I had been infused with environmental purpose, and I’d also overdosed on sunshine. It took two full weeks to recover from the sun poisoning my Nordic skin got that day (I chalked it up as an example of the power of planetary forces), but I never recovered from the fear that humans might destroy the earth in my lifetime if we didn’t all get on the environmental bandwagon.
Environmentalism was slow to take hold in the majority community, but among hippies, queers and other cause-mongers, going green became a way of life early on.
For lesbians, it seemed a natural coalescence of form and function: How could we worship the Goddess and not reclaim the planet she had given us.
There’s some dispute over whether or not Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and acclaimed science writer, was a lesbian. She never married and had no romantic relationships with men. She did, however, have a long and deep romantic relationship with Dorothy Freeman, which lasted for 11 years, until Carson’s untimely death from cancer in 1964.
Carson was one of the first to signal the canary-in-the-coal-mine nature of environmental catastrophe. Like Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, was groundbreaking science. Carson took on the chemical industry, spurring a generation of activism; her work resulted in the banning of DDT, a destructive and dangerous pesticide that may even have been linked to her own cancer.
Carson’s work was slow to be accepted on a large scale. Unlike Gore, she didn’t win a Nobel Prize for her contribution to the planet, although Jimmy Carter did award her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously.
Today, however, Silent Spring is required reading and the word “sustainability” has not only become common parlance, it has spawned its own field of study at noted universities. The environmental alarms Carson sounded nearly 50 years ago echo daily in talk about going green, reducing carbon footprints, buying local, eschewing chemicals and lowering the planet’s temperature.
The hardcore members of the lesbian-feminist movement of the 1970s were intensely connected to earth issues. They lived a lifestyle that respected the earth, heeded Carson’s warnings and embraced concepts like recycling and reducing carbon footprints long before these ideas were accepted by the larger culture.
One area where lesbians broke ground was in food. Scientists like Carson have long posited that the disruption of the food chain is one of the first signs of that injury to the planet. In the 1970s, lesbians like Tee Corinne moved to women-owned land and created their own eco-friendly communes and communities, many of them in the Pacific Northwest, like Corinne’s home in Oregon.
As an early environmentalist, I was also deeply impressed by the work of Wangari Maathai, an environmental activist from Africa who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for preaching sustainability on the continent most damaged by deforestation.
The sustainability of the planet begins locally, as Maathai’s work so clearly demonstrated. We can’t save the polar bears and the ice caps without stopping needless waste wherever we live. All those landfills give off gases that make our planet hotter and more dangerous. Deforestation means a hotter planet and more extreme weather.
Growing their own food and reforesting land—these were early green initiatives among lesbians that have now become so widespread that even the Obamas have a vegetable garden at the White House (the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden) and the first lady has discussed the importance of buying locally grown food.
Each of us addresses the green issue individually, but we all need to embrace it and teach it, as those lesbian mentors I met in the 1970s taught me.
We can recycle everything now: clothes, food, paper products, glass and cans. And composting and growing your own has never been easier. Whatever you cannot grow, you can probably buy locally. And if you can’t buy it locally, do you really need it? Consider where products come from, who produces them and what else the company produces that might be damaging.
Going vegetarian helps too, because raising animals for food can be highly inefficient. Think of switching to clothes made of natural materials like cotton, linen, flax and wool. Cut out the chemicals in the garden and the house (vinegar, baking soda, salt and lemons are the best cleaners around, are incredibly cheap and don’t harm the environment). Use compact fluorescent bulbs in lights and LED lights outside. Unplug all unused appliances. Don’t buy or use things without thinking about what will happen to them after you are finished with them.
Part of going green is talking green. Not everyone can be a scientist of Carson’s caliber or a mover and shaker of Maathai’s intensity, but everyone can explain the impact of buying locally versus buying from states or countries far away. Everyone can explain why we must recycle. Everyone can talk about the perils of too much waste.
I like to think that lesbians helped to form the movement that is so vital to our planetary survival. But even if we didn’t start it, we can certainly do everything in our power to sustain it—and our planet.