By Steven Cohen
Before there was a Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972 or a Clean Air Act or Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, in the summer of 1969, Pete Seeger and his friends had launched the sloop Clearwater, a sailing vessel, in an effort to build support for cleaning up America’s waterways. According to the Clearwater‘s website:
Seeger planted the seed that started Hudson River Sloop Clearwater when he and a few friends, decided to “build a boat to save the river” with the belief that a majestic replica of the sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries would bring people to the river where they could experience its beauty and be moved to preserve it…. Today, the sloop sails the Hudson River from New York City to Albany as a “Sailing Classroom”, laboratory, musical stage, and forum. Since her launch, over half a million people have been introduced to the Hudson River estuary. ..Seeger and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater played an important role in the passage of laws to clean up the nation’s waters. In 1972 Seeger and the Clearwater crew sailed the sloop to Washington, DC while Congress was debating the Clean Water Act. Seeger personally delivered a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures to Congress and then proceeded to hold a spontaneous concert in the halls of Congress. A few weeks later the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed in 1972 over then President Richard Nixon’s veto.
The romantic vision of environmental preservation in America in many ways began with Teddy Roosevelt and his friend, Sierra Club founder John Muir, and continued with the environmentalism of Pete Seeger. This spiritual and emotional connection to nature contributed to the development of a political movement to preserve the planet. As global economic development, toxic technology and population exploded over the past fifty years, the love of nature expressed by Seeger and Roosevelt has been supplanted by the sustainability perspective focused on the economic necessity of nature. In my opinion, it will take both views to hold back the relentless forces of destruction focused on short-term profits, regardless of the long-term costs.
You do not have to agree with every aspect of his politics to acknowledge Seeger’s moral stature and greatness. His recent death at the age of 94 reminded many of us of his role in history and of his stubborn courage and sheer determination. Seeger understood the transformative role that art could play in our politics and society, and used song to communicate his sense of justice. But while he offered to play his music before Congress, in 1955 he refused to testify about his political views before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1957 he was indicted for contempt of Congress, and although his 1961 conviction on that charge was overturned, he was prepared to go to jail for what he believed in.
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