Charles Petzold

Earth Day and Ayn Rand

April 22, 2007
New York, N.Y.

Through the scratched and cloudy lens of memory, I try to gaze back to those far distant days of the early 1970s. How long ago that was! And yet Earth Day, which made its debut in 1970, is still with us, as Google's logo today wittily reminds us.

I remember more than just Earth Day from those years. There was once a half-hour television program with a format quite odd even for that era. Was it called Comment or Opinion? Did it air right before 60 Minutes on Sunday? How can one possibly remember stuff like that?

This program that I remember consisted solely of three people talking to the camera for about 7½ minutes each on a subject of their choice. I know this seems astonishing today when people on commercial TV rarely speak long than 7.5 seconds at a stretch before they're interrupted by the ADD-afflicted host, but this was a different era. This was the early 70s, and sometimes people were allowed to speak 7½ minutes on TV.

I remember one episode in particular. I had recently read Henri Troyat's biography of Leo Tolstoy (the paperback, which I still own, is dated September 1969) and one of the people appearing on this show was a descendent of Tolstoy (his daughter Alexandra?) who objected to Troyat's portrayal of the aging Count Leo chasing down peasant girls on his estate.

I am very, very sure I ordered a transcript of that program, so that I could tuck it in my copy of the Troyat biography, and I am sure I actually had this transcript for many years. If only I could find it today. So many questions would be answered.

So many questions would be answered because I believe this was the very same episode on which Ayn Rand appeared to share her thoughts about Earth Day. Was it the first Earth Day? The second or the third? My memory fails me there.

Seeing Ayn Rand speak on the subject of Earth Day was, however, unforgettable. She indicated how pollution was the sign of a healthy industrical economy, and how Earth Day was a threat to capitalism because it wanted to remove those belching smokestacks from the landscape of American free enterprise. Most memorable was her concluding sentence, which she sounded out proudly in a glorious Russian accent that still haunts my nightmares:

Could that have been it? Surely Ms. Rand would have then moderated her views by noting how foolish it was to ruthlessly exploit the very planet that supports this economy, and how this economy might someday suffer as a result.

But I don't remember that particular part.