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Former Rep. Pete McCloskey receives Sierra Club award

By Alexandra Wexler | 8 Oct 2010

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The Sierra Club honored fomer Rep. Pete McCloskey, co-founder of Earth Day.

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These days it’s not too hard to find Californians in favor of legalizing marijuana, but most people who went to hear former Congressman Pete McCloskey speak in Redwood City last Saturday were amused to find out that he is one of them.

“I’d vote to legalize marijuana,” said the 83-year-old ex-Marine and one-time Republican Party candidate for president.  “In much of rural southern California… that’s the main cash crop.  If we legalize it, the price will go down, and everybody’s using it already anyway.”

His view on Proposition 19 is classic McCloskey, a man who defies any mold.  A staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, he also happens to be the co-founder of Earth Day, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in April.

In the auditorium of Sequoia High School, McCloskey addressed a crowd about the environmental challenges of our time. He was honored with the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club’s first Environmental Hero Award.

McCloskey served in the House of Representatives for 16 years and is perhaps best known for being the Republican sponsor of the first Earth Day, a bipartisan effort to raise environmental awareness among young people.  McCloskey said he believed it was an important cause in a society steadily increasing its consumption of natural resources.

“In 1970, we had 25 years since the end of World War II, steady development, steady increased consumption, steady growth in the standard of living,” he said. “We went from no car to one car to two cars to radios to television.  In that 25 years… we saw the greatest growth that had ever occurred in any country in history.”

McCloskey raised $100,000 and hired Stanford University’s student body president at the time, Denis Hayes, to organize the first Earth Day. “He brought about 22 kids to Washington, none above the age of 21, and those kids staffed the Earth Day effort,” McCloskey recalled.

According to McCloskey, the staffers wrote to the student body presidents of 10,000 high schools and 2,000 colleges, asking them if they would like to have an Earth Day.  The response was overwhelming.

“On that first Earth Day, about 20 million people came out to the streets to protest what they mainly saw as environmental pollution– air, water, land…” said Lisa Swann, vice president of communication for the Earth Day Network.  “The U.S. Congress ended up passing a number of environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.  The day accomplished what it set out to do.”

From tree plantings in small villages in Africa, to full-scale environmental celebrations in Rabat, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo, Earth Day now has a worldwide following. “We can safely say that about 1 billion people participate in Earth Day observances every year now,” Swann said, “It has become a global phenomenon, celebrated in about 192 countries.”

At Stanford this past April, a group called Students for a Sustainable Stanford organized an event they dubbed Future Fest to celebrate Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, according to Noel Crisostomo, the organization’s on-campus outreach coordinator. “We wanted to expand our reach beyond environmentalists,” he explained.

These days, McCloskey is focused more on the micro aspects of environmentalism, such as a proposal to build up to 12,000 luxury houses in the salt flats of Redwood City.  Locals like McCloskey are fighting to keep its “tidal plain” designation and maintain it as is.

McCloskey, whose family had been members of the Republican Party since before Lincoln, switched his party affiliation to Democrat in 2007.  A large part of that decision had to do with what is perhaps his most enduring legacy.

“Earth Day… has become the focus of almost hatred by today’s Republican leadership. Many still argue that global warming is a hoax, and that (former President George W.) Bush has been right to demean and suppress the arguments of scientists at the E.P.A., Fish & Wildlife and U.S. Geological Survey,” McCloskey wrote in an email to the Tracy Press of Tracy, Calif.

“We still have the environmental issues of our time,” he said on Saturday.  “But what those kids did on [the first] Earth Day changed the world.”

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