Earth Day 2010: On Lenin and Liberty

Nicolas Loris /

President Obama told a romanticized version of Earth Day’s founding in his video for Earth Day 2010, but there is more to the story than a grossly polluted river and a noble hero rising up to champion the defenseless Earth.

It was April 22, 1970, that Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, declared a national day of support for the Earth. He claimed to have thought up the idea in 1969, after seeing a devastating oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the Vietnam “teach-ins,” he thought to have a nationwide environmental “teach-in” to involve Americans in environmental issues. He sent letters to every state governor and many state institutions in 1969, trying to rally support for his radical idea. And in the end, he won: the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. On Vladimir Lenin’s 100th birthday.

While Lenin was alive, he often ordered Earth Day-like “subbotniks,” or days of mandatory ‘service’ in the community. This would typically focus on environmental improvement, including garbage removal and the collection of recyclables. At the height of the Soviet Union, a nationally mandated yearly subbotnik—called “Lenin’s Subbotnik”—was selected to fall around or on Lenin’s birthday. The date otherwise known as April 22.

While dictator, Lenin spoke glowingly of the efficacy of his subbotniks:

“We have shifted a huge mountain, a huge mass of conservatism, ignorance, stubborn adherence to the habits of “freedom of trade” and of the “free” buying and selling of human labour-power like any other commodity. We have begun to undermine and destroy the most deep-rooted prejudices, the firmest, age-long and ingrained habits. In a single year our subbotniks have made an immense stride forward.”

Maybe it’s just a bizarre coincidence that both Lenin’s Subbotnik and Earth Day fall on the same day. Kathleen Rogers of Earth Day Network “scoff[ed] at the rumored communist connection” in 2009, claiming that the real reason April 22nd was chosen was “because it fell on a Wednesday, the best part of the week to encourage a large turnout for the environmental rallies held across the country.” Ah, yes. It is common knowledge that Wednesdays are the best days for protest turnout.

Senator Nelson argued in the past that Lenin’s birthday was merely a coincidence, and that April 22 was picked because it wouldn’t conflict with college finals or religious holidays. The senator argued that any day he picked would have been the birthday of somebody bad or other—“On any given day, a lot of both good and bad people were born,” he said.

In a way, Lenin’s views on liberty mirror that of radical environmentalists. It is a paternalistic attitude that reduces freedom. Lenin once said, “It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.”

Environmentalists believe we need to ration liberty because they believe that is the only way we can preserve the environment for the future. They tell us we need to buy smaller cars, buy different light bulbs, ban certain products, eat less meat, pay higher energy prices and reduce economic growth to cap carbon dioxide emissions – to name a few. Czech President Vaclav Klaus said, “It becomes evident that while discussing climate we are not witnessing a clash of views about the environment, but a clash of views about human freedom.”

Economist Walter Block explains it as switching horses on the same wagon, saying, “Instead of formal socialism, these people adopted environmentalism as a better means toward their unchanged ends.”

A recent Rasmussen survey “shows that only 17% of adults believe most Americans would be willing to make major cutbacks in their lifestyle in order to help save the environment.” People do not want to trade in their freedom, especially when it does very little, if anything, to improve the nation’s environmental status.

That’s not to say we can’t or shouldn’t protect and improve the environment for ourselves and future generations. Americans are doing this every day. The real question is whether Americans should be forced to submit to major restrictions in their freedoms and to abandon stewardship of their own resources and possessions to the government. That such sacrifices would achieve little or no environmental gains should not be a surprise.

Allie Winegar Duzett, a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation, co-authored this post. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/About/Internships-Young-Leaders/The-Heritage-Foundation-Internship-Program