Exquisite Irony: The Funding of Earth Week

by Edward W. Furia, Earth Week Project Director, Philadelphia 1970

“Thirty per cent of the Earth Week Committee’s $30,000 budget came from business… and there was… delight that this money was being used to publicize how these same businesses caused pollution.”

– David Culhane, CBS News correspondent
CBS Special Report on Earth Day with Walter Cronkite

It was December 1969 and the Earth Week Committee had just been formed.  By any measure our plans for Earth Week, April 16-22, 1970 were extraordinarily ambitious, so much so that it was clear from the beginning that typical non-profit fund-raising initiatives such as selling posters, t-shirts and buttons would be unlikely to make even a slight dent in the our equally ambitious budget. Our Chairman, Austan Librach, asked his Professors in the Planning School if they could help us raise money so that we could begin operations. Except for $2500 that Professor Ann Strong got for the Committee from a non-profit City Planning organization, nothing more was raised at the outset to fund operations. Moreover, with no track record, no recognizable constituency, no 501(c)(3) tax status, we realized that seeking charitable donations from the usual foundation prospects was clearly likely to fail. Simply put, it became obvious that Earth Week would be stillborn if we couldn’t quickly raise a substantial amount of cash.

As Project Director of Earth Week I obviously wanted to raise funds for operations, but there was also a personal dimension to our funding dilemma. I had just graduated from Penn’s Law and City Planning Schools, and my personal savings were virtually gone. I needed a salary from the Committee if I was going to be able to work for them. Austan Librach, Earth Week’s Chairman, had agreed to pay me the same salary I would have made had I accepted a position as an Assistant District Attornerney under then DA Arlen Specter, but only if I succeeded in raising what was needed for my salary plus operations.

Thus motivated, I decided to seek funding from a major corporate sponsor whose enlightened self interest might coincide with one of the themes of Earth Week. The potential sponsor I chose was Philadelphia Gas Works, and the theme was a shared object of reducing urban air pollution. PGW had been pitching natural gas as a clean alternative to burning coal and oil. So the more that Earth Week succeeded in exposing the dangers of air pollution and the benefits of cleaner fuels, the more natural gas PGW was likely to sell.  I knew the chief marketing manager at PGW, having met him when PGW participated in a City Planning project that I and four other students had put together as part of our work toward our Masters’ degrees. I called him and told him we needed $10,000 in seed money to get Earth Week off the ground. We met with the legendary general manager of PGW, Charlie Simpson, who, after a few minutes of discussion, directed his assistant to have a check for $10,000 prepared to the order of the Earth Week Committee. It was almost too easy. Just ten days on the job and the funds for my salary and the Committee’s initial operating expenses were in the bank.

Over sixty corporate sponsors soon made in-kind contributions to Earth Week, many of them encouraged by Shel Gordon, a former Wall Street investment banker who acted as our Committee’s liaison with the business community. Among the items that we obtained from corporate in-kind contributors were a large photocopying machine from Xerox, all of the paper on which the Earth Day program was printed from Scott Paper, phones and phone service from Bell Telephone, etc., all of which was provided in return for a credit line in the official Earth Day Program.

Still, expenses were mounting in lock step with the exponential expansion of Earth Week Committee activities. Much more than in-kind contributions were going to be necessary.

We needed cash and fast.

Just as it was looking like our goals could not be realized for lack of funds, the Committee received an anonymous phone call from an individual (who has never been identified) telling us that the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce was raising $50,000 from its members to purchase a large full-color Sunday advertising supplement in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which the business community would defend its environmental record on the one hand and indirectly impugn the motives of the Earth Week Committee on the other. The caller also told the Committee that the Chamber had appointed a special committee to deal with “the threat of Earth Day” and it was going to be meeting in the Board Room of First Pennsylvania Bank the following day to discuss the planned Sunday Supplement “Business Response to Earth Day.”

I moved into action and enlisted Austan Librach to go with me to “crash” the Chamber meeting at First Pennsylvania Bank. Once we figured out how to dress for the occasion—neither of us had worn a suit in about a year nor had we gotten a recent haircut—we found briefcases to carry and took a cab to the bank. The individual who had given us the original tip about the Chamber meeting, who we believed was probably a member of the Chamber committee but someone who did not like the idea of the defensive Sunday Supplement—called again and actually told me what floor and room the meeting at the bank was going to be held in (this was important, as we did not know whether, if Chamber leaders knew we were planning to try to get into the meeting, they would block us from doing so. So we decided that we would need to carefully find our way into the Executive floor elevator and at least get to the door of the meeting.

Hearts pounding, we put on our best game faces and got on the correct (unmarked) elevator and told the attendant what floor we wanted. To our quiet relief, the attendant said nothing, closed the door and activated the elevator to rise to the appointed floor. Intrepid Earth Week agents that we had become, we stepped out of the elevator, walked directly to the door that we had learned the meeting was being held in, and knocked . . .

Thatcher Longstreth, President of the Chamber, came to the door himself.  I immediately thrust out my hand and asked if we could enter and address the Chamber Committee. To his credit, Longstreth was totally non-plused, saying something like “wait here” and stepped inside the room, closing the door behind him. He emerged an interminable few minutes later, pushed the door wide open and said, “welcome” and told the Chamber members, of which there were approximately thirty around a huge mahogany conference table, that Messrs Furia and Librach from the Earth Week Committee wished to address them.

I stepped to the head of the conference table and told the businessmen that their plan to defend their environmental records—such as they were—and to be critical of the Earth Day initiative was bound to fail and badly backfire ( I didn’t let on how we knew of their plans, and they didn’t ask). I told them that they were simply on the wrong side of the issue, already had lost credibility with the public, and were bound to invite even more criticism from the public and even from the editorial leadership of the major Philadelphia newspapers.(Meanwhile, the editors of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, within a week or two of this meeting, issued an editorial that was extremely salutatory about the Earth Week Committee, mentioning me and Librach by name.

I also announced to the group from the Chamber that we had a modest proposal to make—instead of using the money that had been raised to do the Sunday Supplement, that the Chamber give the money to the Earth Week Committee to support its general programs and budget. In return, on condition that the Chamber companies who contributed to the fund made available data as to the specific pollutants that their companies emitted into the air and water of the Delaware Valley, the Earth Week Committee would allow them to become members of the Committee and would publicize the financial support that the chamber had given to Earth Day and Earth Week activities.

There was no request from the Chamber that the Earth Week Committee cease publicizing the vast amounts of water and air pollutants that corporate polluters were emitting into Philadelphia’s skies and dumping into its rivers, nor was any such commitment given, and we made it clear that the Earth Week Committee did not intend to stop publicizing the sorry state of the air and water of the Philadelphia region.

You could hear a pin drop.

Longstreth then entertained several questions, to which Librach and I candidly responded for perhaps twenty minutes, after which Longstreth told us that what we had proposed to the Chamber was “intriguing” and that the Chamber would get back to the Earth Week Committee in a few days.

We left the meeting feeling fortunate that no one had called the bank guards to have us ejected and cautiously optimistic that a truce might be reached prior to a battle being waged, and that maybe, just maybe, the Chamber might actually come through with the money we needed.

Earth Week Committee Project Director, Edward Furia (left), and Chairman, Austan Librach (right) during a meeting in early 1970 with the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, in which they raised $30,000 (with commitments for additional funds) to fund Earth Week activities and expose the city’s worst polluters.

A week later, Longstreth called us and asked if he and a few other members of the Chamber could visit the Earth Week Committee’s office at Penn to pursue discussions further, and the meeting at Penn occurred quickly thereafter.  At the meeting, Longstreth announced that the Chamber would provide the Earth Week Committee a down payment of $30,000 for the Committee’s general operating budget with no strings attached, with more to come later as additional funds were raised from members. Within weeks, Earth Week Posters began to appear in the windows of Philadelphia banks and businesses, and businessmen in the center of the city, like other Philadelphians, began proudly wearing the distinctive yellow, blue, green and red Earth Week Button.

This is the first time that the full details of the origin of the participation of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce in Earth Week have ever appeared in print.

More history: Exposing Dirty Secrets in 1970 at Philadelphia’s Public Health Department