Tue. May 28th, 2024

The ’60s saw national teach-ins as a form of peaceful protest — it’s time to bring them back 

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May16,2024

On March 24, 1965, 200 faculty members at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor suspended classes and held 12 hours of seminars, rallies and speeches against the Vietnam War. A similar event occurred at Columbia University in New York City two days later. Soon, similar “teach-ins” spread to campuses across the United States.  

More than 100 took place within a few weeks, including one attended by 30,000 people at Berkeley and an all-day event in Washington, D.C., that drew international media coverage. “Leveraged by the mass and energy of the students, they awakened the conscience of the nation,” recalls Marshall Sahlins, who helped organize the inaugural event. 

The anti-war teach-ins became the inspiration for the first Earth Day.  

In 1969, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the leading environmentalist in Congress, flew over Santa Barbara, Calif., on the way to an event, and witnessed a horrific oil spill in the ocean below. Nelson wondered about organizing similar teach-ins for the environmental movement, which also was gaining momentum at the time. He recruited Denis Hayes, a young activist, to organize the first Earth Day. Hayes built a broad coalition of supportive organizations. The effort was so successful that 20 million Americans — 10 percent of the national population — participated.  

This massive show of political support for the environment inspired a decade of landmark legislation to protect the nation’s air, water and endangered species and regulate pesticides, other toxins and oil pollution.

Today, young Americans must launch a similar movement — a sustained outbreak of teach-ins that produce unrelenting pressure on governments, corporations and society to combat global climate change.  

These “adult-centered institutions” are controlled by generations that won’t suffer the profound economic, physical and emotional trauma their policies have set in motion. It’s a sad commentary on older Americans, but it now is up to children and young adults to save their future. 

It won’t be easy. The political pressure must become strong enough to overcome enormous odds. Fossil fuels are deeply embedded in the economy, public policies and lifestyles. Oil, coal and natural gas have produced formidable inertia and entrenched political power over the last 200 years. Their response to climate change shows they have no intention of accepting responsibility and using their resources to join the transition to clean energy. 

Oil companies sue environmental groups that protest against fossil fuels. On the other hand, more than 30 states and localities are suing big oil companies for past, present and future climate damages. But watchdog groups report that a “plethora of fossil-funded groups,” including the American Petroleum Association, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop one of the first cases going to trial. Republican attorneys general from 20 states have petitioned the court to support big oil. An investigation by two watchdog groups found that the Republican Attorneys General Association has received more than $10 million from fossil fuel companies, electric utilities and industry trade groups over the last decade. 

In addition, the Supreme Court handed the industry a significant victory in 2010 when it ruled that political spending by corporations is free speech. The ruling allows industries and wealthy individuals to make unlimited monetary contributions to campaigns. Oil and gas companies have already contributed over $96 million to election campaigns this year, including $15 million to House and Senate races. More than 87 percent goes to Republicans. 

Although many communities and companies have promised to eliminate climate-altering pollution, progress doesn’t match promises. 

Leading thinkers about climate action point out, “Today’s problems are interconnected. Movements must join forces to solve them.” We need a movement of movements — a coordinated campaign by America’s environmental organizations (estimates range as high as 30,600), clean energy groups, social justice groups, and so on to educate and mobilize the nation’s young. 

National teach-ins could involve both university and middle and high school students. An Earth Month poll released April 24 found that 72 percent of students at those levels say climate change is already affecting their lives. When asked what they felt about global warming, the most common responses were sadness, discouragement, helplessness and uneasiness. However, the poll found most students don’t talk about it. Those that do are significantly more likely to believe there are solutions. 

“These results speak to how engaging young people on climate change, empowering them of feel part of solutions, can counter feelings of climate despair,” according to the president of the Museum of Science, Tim Ritchie. 

What subjects might the teach-ins teach? 

First, the basics of global warming and its likely effects on the economy, careers and quality of life. Global warming already threatens the economic future of today’s youth. It reduces home values, increases insurance rates, endangers public health and safety and raises government spending and decreases revenues, putting upward pressure on taxes. Wildlife and habitats important to anglers and hunters are moving or dying. Decreasing snowfall threatens skiing. Lethal heat limits outdoor hobbies and sports, including jogging, biking, hiking, gardening and golfing. 

Second, what young Americans can do to mitigate the effects in their own lives, homes, communities and educational institutions. 

Third, what elected officials at all levels are doing to stop greenhouse gas pollution and accelerate the nation’s transition to clean energy, including the major presidential candidates’ positions on climate change. 

Fourth, the concepts of environmental and economic justice, the rights of nature, planetary boundaries and environmental stewardship. 

Fifth, how to affect the political process, including the basics of peaceful protest and civil disobedience and how they have been used in the past. 

Finally, emerging careers in a post-carbon economy and what education and training are necessary to succeed in them. 

A sustained mass movement by young Americans ended the Vietnam War. We need another one to end the war on nature. It must be relentless, uncompromising — and soon. 

William Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations on national climate and energy policies. He is a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “The ’60s saw national teach-ins as a form of peaceful protest — it’s time to bring them back ”
  1. Do you think organizing modern-day teach-ins would have the same impact as they did in the ’60s?

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