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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

April 14, 1995

Air Date: April 14, 1995


Earth Day at 25 Years: A Retrospective of the Environmental Movement / Terry FitzPatrick

The first Earth Day in1970 brought environmentalism into the mainstream with an unprecedented ground swell of participation. Reporter Terry FitzPatrick examines the events that shaped the movement, and talks to some of its founders about what they believe it has yet to achieve. (15:16)

A Look Ahead: The Environmental Justice Movement

There's a growing consensus that the future of environmentalism lies in local organizing. Russ Lopez, Director of the Boston based Environmental Diversity Forum, talks with host Steve Curwood about how people-of-color groups are working for justice in their communities by addressing environmental problems. Lopez also discusses the prospects for alliances between urban social action groups, scientists and mainstream environmentalists in the years ahead. (05:41)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Stephanie O'Neill, Ansel Martinez, Terry Fitzpatrick
GUEST: Russ Lopez

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Twenty-five years ago the first Earth Day raised millions of voices in defense of the planet, and politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon.

NIXON: Because there are no local or state boundaries to the problems of our environment, the Federal Government must play an active, positive role. We can and will set standards. We can and will exercise leadership.

CURWOOD: This week, a look back at environmental activism since the first Earth Day, and some predictions of where the eco-movement could be headed.

LOPEZ: I think that the environmental movement is actually very healthy right now. There is this tremendous growth on the local level in low-income communities, in urban communities, and I think ultimately that's going to reinvigorate the entire movement.

CURWOOD: Earth day at age 25, this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. For years critics have said that clean air regulations designed to reduce Los Angeles's smog have hurt the city's economy. They argue that spending on pollution controls puts industry at a competitive disadvantage. But that argument may be just hot air, according to new research. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.

O'NEILL: The study issued by the Institute for Economic and Environmental Studies at California State University, Fullerton, found that the world's most stringent air pollution regulations have not harmed the Los Angeles economy during the past 2 decades as widely feared. The study found no evidence showing that clean air rules increased the cost of doing business in the L.A. area, or anywhere else in California. Instead, it found even the most regulated businesses grew 247% since 1969, a rate equal to that of the entire nation and, more importantly, faster than those growth rates in regions with far fewer smog controls. The report was issued as California begins implementing a new, multi-billion-dollar air pollution plan that's been heavily criticized by industry and business officials who fear the controls will cause them to suffer a competitive disadvantage. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

MULLINS: The consensus reached at the recently concluded 120-nation meeting of the Global Warming Convention was far stronger than many participants had expected. So says Richard Benedict, the former US ambassador, who helped negotiate international protocols to protect the ozone layer. Benedict disputes claims that the global warming agreement reached in Berlin is toothless because it doesn't set firm limits on greenhouse gases. Benedict points out that the agreement does set up a 2-year negotiating process for reducing greenhouse gases and thus is a strong step forward.

A team of doctors at Duke University may have discovered the cause of the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome. According to their research, funded by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, a combination of anti-nerve gas pills and insecticides given to troops may have caused the unexplained illness reported by about 37,000 veterans. To test their hypothesis, the researchers exposed chickens to a similar combination of chemicals, and found that in every case the lab animals suffered nervous system damage like that found in veterans. Dr. Mohammed Abudonia, the team's lead scientist, says that although their findings are preliminary, he's confident they now have more than a hypothesis. The Department of Defense, which is conducting its own research on rats, cautions that it is still impossible to say how these chemicals would affect people.

The Chernobyl nuclear power station, site of the world's worst nuclear accident, will shut down by the year 2000, according to a Ukrainian official. The Ukrainian government has been under tremendous pressure from Western countries to close the plan. A recent study by the European Union warned that the sarcophagus enclosing reactor number 4, where the meltdown took place, is in danger of collapsing. Cash-strapped Ukraine is balking at closing the plant because of the estimated $4 billion cost. A spokesman at the Ukrainian embassy said some Western nations have committed to funding the project, but would not say how much they will be willing to pay.

New accounting standards will put more of the cost of cleaning toxic waste sites on the books of corporations. Hazardous waste clean-up costs are approaching three quarters of a trillion dollars nationwide, yet much of that liability is missing from the accounting books of polluting firms. The new standards devised by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants will require companies to list potential clean-up costs. The Institute says this will give investors and regulators a more accurate view of a company's financial position.

And while many people think there are more than enough potholes on the roads, one town in California is protecting them under the Environmental Quality Act. From San Francisco, Ansel Martinez has this report.

MARTINEZ: Downtown Davis was built during California's heyday, around the turn of the century. Old Victorian homes, parks, and tall trees appear today as a refuge from so many freeways and high-rises. The city also has dirt and gravel alleys, and when City Hall suggested paving over the gritty side streets, City Councilwoman Julie Partanski led a group of citizens to protest. Partanski invoked the California Environmental Quality Act to protect the alleys and their potholes.

PARTANSKI: Paved alleys in a town are just completely different. There's a gentleness that's lost, you know. It's - in the urban environment, there's all this pavement everywhere and here you have a softer material used for the road. And it feels completely different. And it's a relief from the hubbub of the city to be able to walk down sort of what feels like a country lane. It feels like you're in the country.

MARTINEZ: Partanski's position was well-supported, and City Hall backed down from an ambitious plan to lay more concrete and pavement, preferring to study the matter and consulting neighbors before additional action is taken. For Living on Earth, this is Ansel Martinez in San Francisco.

MULLINS: And that's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Earth Day at 25 Years: A Retrospective of the Environmental Movement

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Twenty-five years ago the world celebrated the first Earth Day, and a broad social movement began. Environmental awareness has since moved from the margins to the mainstream of US society. Green thinking has become popular in schools and welcome in the work place. Many of us now link the environment to our food and water, our homes, and even the cars we drive. And just how did environmental activism gain this success? Reporter Terry Fitzpatrick of member station KPLU in Seattle tells us the story.

FITZPATRICK: If you look at the headlines of 1960, you'd never think America was on the verge of an environmental revolution.

(John F. Kennedy: "If I'm elected president, or whoever may be, I think we should...")

FITZPATRICK: As John F. Kennedy was promising a new generation of leadership, he was also stressing the need for economic development, not conservation.

(Kennedy: "The development of the resources of this country to prepare the way for the 300 million people who are going to live here in 40 years, I think, is is an essential requirement...")

FITZPATRICK: But shortly after Kennedy took office, the environment edged into the popular culture. The book Silent Spring revealed the dangers of pesticides. Another book, The Population Bomb, became a bestseller. Musicians like Tom Lehrer were singing about pollution.

(Lehrer: "If you visit American city, you will find it very pretty. Just two things of which you must beware: don't drink the water and don't breathe the air. Pollution, pollution, they got smog and sewage and mud. Turn on your tap, and get hot and cold running crud...")

FITZPATRICK: Still, the environmental movement had yet to coalesce. The issues of clean air and water were viewed as intellectual concerns. Banning atomic bomb tests and creating wilderness areas weren't seen as related issues. Activists like Dennis Hayes felt limited.

HAYES: All of this was coming together but they were separate strands. Nobody sort of put them together in a concerted effort that got them a higher priority in people's minds or linked them all together as being emblematic of a - of a shared set of values.

FITZPATRICK: Ironically, one of the crowning technological achievements of the 60s, President Kennedy's space program, would inadvertently provide America with a shared experience that helped inspire the environmental movement.

(Frank Borman?: "This transmission is coming to you approximately halfway between the moon and the earth." Ground Control: "Roger.")

FITZPATRICK: It was Christmas, and for the first time ever, people could see pictures of the Earth as one planet: a fragile home in a forbidding blackness.

(Borman?: "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.")

FITZPATRICK: The image of one Earth helped to unify the country, and on April 22, 1970, concern for the health of the planet exploded in an unprecedented display of support.

("This is a CBS News special. Earth Day: A question of survival. With CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite." Cronkite: "Good evening. A unique day in American history is ending: a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival...")

FITZPATRICK: Earth Day was part teach-in, part mass mobilization. Its organizer, Dennis Hayes, spoke at a rally in Washington.

(Hayes: "We are systematically destroying our land, our streams, and our seas. We foul our air, deaden our senses, and pollute our bodies. That's what America's become. That's what we have to challenge...")

FITZPATRICK: It was a challenge not everyone was willing to accept.

(News broadcast: "Some quarters saw more than coincidence in the fact that Earth Day occurred on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lenin, the father of Soviet communism. And the Comptroller General of Georgia, James Bentley, sent out $1,600 worth of telegrams warning that Earth Day might be a Communist plot.")

FITZPATRICK: But Earth Day events attracted 20 million participants: more than enough to dispel the critics and create the political momentum that Dennis Hayes was seeking.

HAYES: What we wanted to have was people at the end of it who understood these issues, cared about them passionately, were prepared to vote on the basis of such issues, were prepared to make changes in their own lives - in everything from the number of children that they had to the kind of automobile that they drove, on the basis of what they learned.

FITZPATRICK: It worked. It grabbed the attention of Congress. Leon Billings, then Chief of Staff for the Senate Air and Water Committees, says Earth Day turned environmentalism into an unstoppable political force.

BILLINGS: There was a tremendous wellspring of - of goodwill among young people who were looking for something to be for, after the bloodletting of the Vietnam War demonstrations and so on. And the environmental issue was a perfect - I mean, it was a perfect opportunity


FITZPATRICK: Politicians had to support the environmental cause simply to survive, even president Nixon.

(Nixon: "Because there are no local or state boundaries to the problems of our environment, the Federal Government must play an active, positive role. We can and will set standards. We can and will exercise leadership. We are providing the necessary...")

FITZPATRICK: Leon Billings says Nixon didn't really are about the environment. What he cared about was the environmental vote, which was lining up to support Edmund Muskie's bid to challenge Nixon for President.

BILLINGS: The whole White House strategy was to try to cut Muskie off from that constituency through pre-empting those issues. We got into one of those wonderful points in American politics where you had political one-upsmanship as between Congress and the President.

FITZPATRICK: In short order, this one-upmanship resulted in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency; all these environmental landmarks were approved in just 3 years. The early 70s had become an environmental renaissance. The environment was even the province of musical superstars.

(Marvin Gaye?: "Whoa, oh, mercy, mercy me. Oh, things ain't what they used to be, no, no. Where did all the blue skies go? Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and sea...")

HAYES: Suddenly, here was a movement in which a - a middle-class housewife who had never done anything activist before in her life but cared passionately about the kind of world she was passing on to her kids - there was a role in this one for her.

FITZPATRICK: Dennis Hayes and other activists won praise from all directions. Even Republicans, like Williams Ruckleshaus, head of the newly-formed EPA.

RUCKLESHAUS: As a society, we owe a debt to those who have made the environment a call to action. They are for the most part sincere, dedicated, and fair-minded advocates of environmental responsibility.

FITZPATRICK: But it wasn't an unbroken string of environmental victories; there were major defeats. The first big fight under the Endangered Species Act was lost when Congress approved a dam that wiped out a fish called the snail darter. In the wake of the OPEC oil embargo, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was approved. As the 70s drew to a close, environmentalism had lost some of its magic. But then came Love Canal.

(Broadcaster: "An unusual hostage incident is underway in Niagara Falls, New York tonight. No weapons are involved, as 2 officials of the Environmental Protection Agency are being held against their will by members of the Love Canal Homeowners Association at the group's headquarters. The two hostages are...")

FITZPATRICK: Residents of Niagara Falls, America's honeymoon capital, were getting sick because of chemical leaks from the Love Canal dump site. Angry homeowners were fighting back. This was a blue collar town. People like Lois Gibbs hadn't been part of the environmental consciousness that swept the country.

GIBBS: When I lived in Niagara Falls, and we smelled chemicals, and we had black clouds, we had brown clouds, we had white clouds, I mean it was terrible. We smelled that and we thought: good economy. We didn't think air pollution poison because we didn't understand. Because nobody was talking about it at our level.

FITZPATRICK: But soon the entire nation was talking about toxic waste. This was just the first of many communities to learn that chemical dumping could threaten human health. Love Canal was evaluated; so was Times Beach, Missouri. Then, the Superfund list was developed, detailing America's worst hazardous waste sites.

GIBBS: The release of the list woke up America in a way that they had never been woken up before, because every local paper took the list and talked about the sites in their community. Everybody said, "I've got a Love Canal," and so people really became concerned. They saw their self-interest and they wanted something done immediately.

FITZPATRICK: Lois Gibbs founded a clearinghouse to help others who were fighting toxic dump sites. It was the beginning of a second wave of environmental awareness among working class people.

GIBBS: None of us were trained organizers. None of us had any experience in even being an environmentalist. If you were to ask my neighbors today if they were an environmentalist they would say no. What we're about is fighting for justice.

FITZPATRICK: Other events continued to strengthen support for the environment, most notably the nuclear power accident at Three Mile Island. But suddenly, in 1981, the movement was on the defensive. Ronald Reagan took over the White House. To Reagan, environmental groups were special interests that hurt the economy. It was time for business to have a stronger voice. Leading the charge was Secretary of the Interior James Watt.

(Watt: "Businessmen pay taxes. Businesspeople have rights. All Americans won in November, and those liberals from the special interest groups are furious that the positions of power have been opened up to America for Americans. And that's our objective...")

FITZPATRICK: Watt wanted to roll back environmental programs and open more public lands to things like mining and grazing. But the Reagan revolution foundered when it came to the environment. Congress was unwilling to water down the landmark legislation that Leon Billings had helped to craft a decade before.

BILLINGS: We survived the Reagan-Watt era, these policies survived, because of their militancy. People, the American public, saw what they were proposing as too radical.

FITZPATRICK: Watt unwittingly helped his opponents. He showed a remarkable lack of political finesse, such as this comment when announcing his appointments to a Federal commission.

(Watt: I've appointed the Lenos Commission, 5 members: 3 Democrats, 2 Republicans. Every kind of mix you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, 2 Jews and a cripple. And ... ")

FITZPATRICK: Watt undermined the Administration's credibility on environmental policy. Even Vice President George Bush distanced himself from the Reagan record. In his run for the White House in 1988, Bush said he'd be the environmental president. Later, events like the Exxon Valdez oil spill hardened public resolve to protect the environment. But as the movement approached its 20th anniversary, activists were worried by the lesson they'd learned during the Reagan years: that legislative gains are vulnerable to changing political tides. Dennis Hayes was steering the emphasis of Earth Day 1990 toward a broader societal goal and away from a focus on government.

HAYES: There was a widespread correct perception that some of those laws had not worked terribly well, and that we probably had to do some things that affected the culture, affected the society in ways other than by placing legal restrictions and regulatory restrictions upon something that reached into people's behavior.

(Woman: "We have 3 types of trash bins around; they're not hard to miss. We have one for aluminum only, one for bottles and one for just trash. So help us trash your trash. Thanks.")

FITZPATRICK: Earth Day 1990 focused on individual environmental responsibility: things like recycling, waste reduction, energy conservation. The event revitalized the movement, but it felt more like a festival than political rally. It was a place to take the kids.

(Girl: "We are a student group showing adults that kids care about the environment, too." Woman: "Your exhibit's called The Next Generation. Why?" Girl: "Because we're the next generation; it's going to be our world in about 30 years. So we better make sure it has a future.")

FITZPATRICK: What does the future hold? One of the nation's premiere environmentalists is now Vice President, but advocates for property rights and economic growth seem to control the political agenda. Activists like Lois Gibbs say to meet this challenge, the movement needs to build its grass roots support among minorities, working people, and others directly affected by environmental problems.

GIBBS: Historically, we talked about rivers and air and endangered species and trees and so forth. This next 25 years is going to be really looking at people. And people are going to become the endangered species, and people are going to be the ones who define the laws that affect our environment and affect the way we do things.

FITZPATRICK: Long-time organizers like Dennis Hayes think the movement should also rekindle the ideals of 1970. He feels Earth Day's big message - building an environmentally-sustainable economy - has largely been lost.

HAYES: This has been much more a reformist movement. Its achievements start from a presumption that, that the fundamentals are good. What we need to do is scrub up around the edges and make things a little bit cleaner. And partly as a consequence of that, most of our heroic victories and expensive victories over the last 25 years have stopped the nation from getting very much worse during that period. But we haven't really profoundly improved in very many areas.

FITZPATRICK: Profound improvement, says Hayes, includes a lowering of the birth rate and a dramatic drop in the use of natural resources. He says we must change the way we think about the Earth: a spiritual transformation. Although the environmental revolution has come a long way in this fundamental regard, the revolution has just begun. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry Fitzpatrick reporting.

Back to top


A Look Ahead: The Environmental Justice Movement

CURWOOD: Now, let's look at the environmental movement as it heads into its next 25 years. Where is it going? What will it mean to people? In Washington, some see the government retreating from environmental protection, and predict dark days ahead for the environmental lobby. But others suggest that the future could be bright if traditional environmentalists join with the emerging environmental justice movement, one that links environmental degradation to poverty, discrimination, and the quality of urban life. Among them is Russ Lopez, executive director of the Environmental Diversity Forum in Boston.

LOPEZ: I think that the environmental movement is actually very healthy right now. There is this tremendous growth on the local level in low-income communities, in urban communities, and I think ultimately that's going to reinvigorate the entire movement. When the mainstream environmental groups tap into the energy that exists on the local level, they'll be empowered to get more of their agenda across nationally.

CURWOOD: Explain for me what is bringing more and more people of color to the environmental movement.

LOPEZ: Well I think there's a growing sophistication that problems that have existed for a very, very long time are really environmental, whether it be a group that's concerned about a vacant piece of land that's being dumped on. Whether it be somebody who has a problem with lead paint. It's only for the first time are they seeing their issue is environmental. And I think people are beginning to look at their communities as a whole. That you just can't concentrate on the lack of jobs. You just can't concentrate on infant mortality. And once you start thinking about the broad issues, then you're really starting to think like an environmentalist.

CURWOOD: Russ Lopez, do you think that people of color are welcome in the environmental movement?

LOPEZ: Um, yes. Um, I had to stop and think about that for a moment. I think the problem is that it's, like any group of people environmentalists have their own language and their own way of doing things, and people who are familiar are always the ones you feel most comfortable with. But I think that as a whole, the environmental movement really is ready to, like, accept the enthusiasm of this new group of people into it.

CURWOOD: This hasn't been typical of the environmental movement historically.

LOPEZ: No, and actually, there was a recent study done by a gentleman in Santa Barbara that looked at the difference between the environmental justice movement and the environmental movement. Environmental justice advocates tend to come from a social action, social justice background, where environmentalists are much more likely to be scientists and lawyers. And so people haven't not even shared a language in terms of how to think about the environment. I think one of the problems with the environmental movement was that it was anti-urban from the start. A lot of people think that the beginning of the environmental movement was when Thoreau went off to Walden Pond to leave the evils of Concord, Mass. and the cities of Massachusetts at that time. The other great founders of the environmental movement, you know, John Muir, Audubon, they were all getting away from what was seen as the evilness of cities. And I think that translates into today, and why there's such an anti-urban bias. Plus, I think that a lot of environmentalists, you know, your feelings about the environmental movement are never divorced from your, your general feelings about life. And a lot of people who live in the suburbs are terrified of ever going into cities, and are terrified of ever meeting a person of color. So I think that kind of preconceived bias carries into their dealings with people of color.

CURWOOD: What are the incentives for these groups to get together?

LOPEZ: Well, they need each other. As an example, the Clean Air Act did a lot to make our urban areas cleaner. Ozone levels are down, oxides and nitrogen levels are down. Unfortunately, recent data shows that that didn't necessarily translate into better health, because it didn't look at particulates, which has now turned out to be major factor in lowering life expectancies of people in cities. And you ask anybody on the street, they say a bus goes by, I need to hold my breath. And from the neighbors' point of view, it's nobody's going to believe, if a mother of 2 children stands up in a meeting and says this is a problem, government doesn't listen. If the scientist stands up and says, and she says, I've studied this problem and it's real, government and other people look up. You know, you can't refute a scientist as much as you can refute a neighborhood. So I think that if they had worked together, the scientist with the neighborhood people, the air would be safer for most people in this country now.

CURWOOD: Now, let's talk about global issues for a moment. How does a grass roots movement engage with some of the global issues? Let's look at the threat of global warming for one. How is that made relevant in poor communities, peoples of color in grass roots organization?

LOPEZ: First of all, I think that people of color and low-income people are very much aware of issues like ozone depletion and global warming. And also, so much of our overuse of energy and other resources comes from inappropriate land use patterns, the inappropriate way we've built up our cities. And as long as we keep polluting cities and make them undesirable places to live, people will go out into the countryside and convert more farmland and rural areas into suburban development, which means more energy, which means more production of greenhouse gases. So we can make our cities better, we can change that increasing pattern of destruction.

CURWOOD: So what's the general lesson to be drawn?

LOPEZ: I think the most important lesson from the environmental justice movement as a whole is that everybody has something to contribute. Because improving the environment of the world and locally really takes everybody, and that you can't dismiss somebody's opinion or value simply because they're not like you.

CURWOOD: Well thank you very much for taking this time. Russ Lopez is Executive Director of the Environmental Diversity Forum in Boston, Massachusetts.

LOPEZ: Thanks.

Back to top

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. If you'd like a transcript or a tape, send a check for $10 to Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. You can send us your comments as well, or call our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG.

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Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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