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Happy Earth Day, Hippies!

[ Posted Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 – 17:14 UTC ]

Today is Earth Day, and I'd like to take the occasion to give some credit to an oft-maligned group of people: hippies. I say this in all seriousness, without a trace of condescension or irony whatsoever, since they regularly get that sort of thing elsewhere (by the truckload). I say it because the radicals known as hippies have actually been amazingly victorious in changing American culture in all sorts of ways -- even though they seldom get any credit for pioneering ideas that were once considered (at best) "far out," but are now so mainstream that they fit comfortably in every suburb across the land. And Earth Day is a perfect time to do so, since it is the "hippiest" (to coin a phrase) of all the modern holidays and celebrations.

Now, I realize how a lot of people look down their noses at hippies and sneer -- both now and in the past. For many, in fact, the term is never used without the preface "dirty," which just goes to show how low their public image has almost always been. From the 1960s John Birchers to today's South Park, hippies haven't enjoyed much of a cheering section. Also, I should point out at the start that the term itself has changed over time, so that the hippies of today (or 1996, or 1983...) aren't quite the same as the hippies of the 1960s and early 1970s. I'm mainly going to refer to the original hippie culture of the Summer of Love and San Francisco that (later) moved out to communes to "live off the land," just to be clear. Call them "paleo-hippies," if you will.

What might be called the "triumph of the hippies" (a title I even considered for today's article) is pretty astounding when viewed from a historical perspective. It's a story of radical notions, crazy outside-the-box thinking, and far-out concepts becoming more and more acceptable -- until some of them are so ingrained into everyday life that it's now hard to even comprehend how radical and controversial their origins truly were. I'm going to start with two examples that don't even really fit my main narrative, just because they show how mainstream American public attitudes can change, over time.

California's current governor, Jerry Brown, wasn't exactly a hippie, although he was at the very least what might be called a "fellow traveler" (as they used to say, in those days). During his first two terms in office, he had many ideas which looked to the future, one of which earned him the title "Governor Moonbeam." This wacky, looney-tunes idea? Launching a satellite to provide emergency responders with reliable communications for use during large-scale emergencies. Jumping forward; right after 9/11 happened, truckloads of federal money went towards this concept -- and nobody got labeled "President Moonbeam" or "Senator Moonbeam" for supporting the idea.

As I said, this example doesn't precisely fit, but it shows how what was once considered laughable has now become reality -- and downright non-controversial. My second example which doesn't quite fit either is long hair -- a trademark of the (male) hippies. There was even a great Broadway musical about the subject, in fact. Growing your hair long was a political statement at the time, one that got many males ostracized, laughed at, or even severely harassed for their assumed femininity (the classic taunt from those days: "Is that a woman or a man? I can't tell!"). These days, to see long hair on successful men all you have to do is pick up the sports pages -- he-men macho athletes in just about every sport now wear their hair long, with absolutely no snide comments made. After all, who is going to taunt a pro linebacker for his choice of hair style?

But these examples didn't really change American life all that much for most people. However, hippies did champion a number of concepts which led to widespread changes in the zeitgeist. The following should be viewed as an incomplete list, at best.

 

Recycling

Recycling used to be done only by dirty hippies. No, really! America was a throwaway culture to the core, and our roadsides reflected it. Trash was everywhere and tossing a bottle or can out a window wasn't even a crime in most places. The modern definition of the word "recycle" didn't really even exist before the 1960s. In the 1970s, "save the planet" hippies would recycle, but nobody else bothered. Today, in many areas, you set out your recycling with the garbage each week in a separate bin (yawn). The idea morphed from a radical hippie activity to the mainstream suburbs, almost while nobody was watching.

 

Ecology

This was one of the earliest ideas which went mainstream, and while it has had its setbacks, continues to be a potent political issue today. What we now call "environmentalism" was, back in the 1960s and 1970s, known as the "ecology" movement. They even had their own cool flag:

The idea that pollution was a bad thing and that America should be concerned with such things as clean air and water was once considered a radical hippie notion that would never become reality, especially since Big Business hated the idea and complained that if they had to stop polluting it would wreck the American economy (sound familiar?). But when a river in Ohio actually caught fire because it was so polluted, it made a pretty strong counterargument. President Richard Nixon -- nobody's idea of a hippie, mind you -- signed the Clean Water Act and created a new federal department: the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, environmentalism is about as mainstream as it gets (although Big Business still keeps fighting hard against the E.P.A.).

 

Alternative power

Hippies -- especially those who made an effort to do what we now call "living off the grid" -- were big supporters of power sources which didn't burn fossil fuels. Solar and wind power were in their infancy, and initially were seen as crazy far-out ideas. When Ronald Reagan became president, he even made a big show of ripping out the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House roof, because solar was such a joke to him. Today, electric cars are almost a status symbol in certain suburbs, and nobody's laughing at solar or wind power any more. To say nothing of ethanol subsidies. Back in the 1970s, the warning was of a "greenhouse effect." Today the terminology has changed ("global warming" or "climate change" being preferred instead), but the idea is the same. "Green power" is now expanding with every year, and has become big business -- a concept that was pretty radical back when it was proposed.

 

The sexual revolution

When the hippies and the counterculture started fighting the sexual revolution, the situation in America was something that younger people today would find hard to even comprehend. Birth control being illegal (to say nothing of abortion). Gay bars being raided on a regular basis by police. Interracial marriage still banned in many states. Premarital sex was seen as not only radical but downright deviant behavior, in fact (and that's not even getting into how the medical establishment viewed homosexuality, at the time). Unmarried couples were turned away from hotel rooms and apartments on a regular basis. To say nothing of how unwed mothers were treated. How times have changed! Sure, there are still battles to be fought, but look at how far we have come. From the women's rights movement to being able to buy condoms openly to the recent advances in gay rights, we've come a long way, baby (to quote a misogynistic ad slogan of yore). We might have gotten here without the "free love" hippies, but it certainly would have taken a lot longer, that's for sure.

 

Marijuana reform

This one really needs no explanation. Hippies smoked a whole lot of pot, everyone knows that. They were the "freaks" who advocated for legalization. Again, we're not there yet, but the shift in public opinion from back then (when a tiny fraction of the public favored legalizing marijuana) to now (when the same question regularly gets majority of support nationwide) is astounding. And two states have indeed gone ahead and just legalized it. More will follow.

 

Organic food

Once again, this used to be a purely hippie issue. Food grown without chemicals was seen as a radical and anti-scientific idea. Chemicals were good for people, Dow told us. Vegetarianism was seen by the public as being one step away from sheer lunacy. Now, it's barely even notable. Organic foods are sold to a growing market of consumers in the aisles of the corporate supermarkets, right next to the non-organic food, because it makes good business sense to do so. If you popped into a time machine and zipped back to the 1970s and told an organic farmer of the day (who would, almost without doubt, have been a dirty hippie) that organic produce would be sold in the future on the shelves of Safeway, he would have thought you were the one who was crazy. This idea, like many hippie ideas, has moved out of the commune and into suburbia.

 

Conclusion

It's hard to define who was and who was not an actual "hippie" in the 1960s and 1970s. It's a pretty nebulous term, which is partially why I can get away with making such sweeping claims about the mainstreaming of all these hippie ideas. I realize that. Behind each hippie notion were often solid university studies by sober men and women who would likely have laughed at you if you called them a hippie at the time. And not all hippie ideas were ever mainstreamed -- there is a much bigger list of flaky notions that never got off the ground in any appreciable way, or that are still considered crazy-radical "moonbeam" thinking.

Part of this whole phenomenon, too, is nothing more than the Baby Boomers growing older and supplanting all of their elders (as their parents, the Greatest Generation, dies off). Even when non-hippies who grew up back in the 1960s (and they were the overwhelming majority, please remember) did adopt hippie ideas, they fit them into the mainstream of American life by sanding off the rougher edges of the original concepts. This is why housewives today go to yoga class and think nothing of it, because there is no patchouli incense in the room and not a dirty hippie to be seen. That's what mainstreaming is all about, on one level -- making a new concept acceptable to the masses. Which purist hippies would, no doubt, decry (as "selling out, man").

But still, on this Earth Day (the hippiest holiday of all), I'd personally like to thank the hippies for all they've done for American life and American culture. The radicals and true-believers who were laughed at, scorned, ostracized, or (even worse) just plain ignored back in the day were the pioneers of a lot of what is now considered mundane aspects of everyday life. Which would not have happened without those brave pioneers. The hippies have never (in my opinion) gotten much credit or thanks for sticking their necks out and picturing the future in a different way from the mainstream thought of their own time period. Sure, it led to a lot of dead ends. But in some cases it bore some wonderful fruit. And the counterculture hippies deserve a lot of credit for the successes they managed along the way. So I'd like to wish all the hippies, past and present, a very happy Earth Day!

-- Chris Weigant

 

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One Comment on “Happy Earth Day, Hippies!”

  1. [1] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Nice essay on our hippy forefathers and foremothers CW, you are still going strong at 302!

    The air and surface waters of the United States are a lot cleaner in 2014 than they were in 1970. Flying into LA forty years ago, you could see (and smell) the smog layer at least 50 miles out. LA air is pretty breathable most days. Same basic story for NYC, which has some brilliant blue skies on a fairly regular basis.

    Tetra ethyl lead is (almost) out of gasoline in the USA, the rest of the industrialized nations followed , and the concentration lead in our tissues is way down. Which is a very big deal. Watch last week's Cosmos Episode for the whole story.

    There are a lot fewer suds in my boyhood streams, the phosphates are out of household detergents. But, a lot of those streams are channelized now, and species diversity is way down. The landscape I grew up in is much more fragmented, from commercial and residential development, under construction, in use, and frequently abandoned.

    I could go on, there is, some real progress, but I can't help thinking what might have been. Long term, I'm worried. As a species, I think we are nearing carrying capacity and perilously close to a global population crash sometime late in this century, or the next. Not extinction mind you, more like another Dark Age, brought on by resource depletion aggravated by climate change. Which most Americans don't take seriously. There is a lot of whistling past the graveyard.

    We had the resources to put things right relatively easy back in the 70s. We could have been a predominately renewable resource based society by now. We squandered that prospect on war, big cars, big houses.

    Back in 1970s or so, the counter culture used the phrase "smart but not wise" to characterize mainstream thinking near the end game phase of the industrial revolution. It was a "fair cop" IMHO.

    Hippies had a lot of sound big ideas (plus a lot of stupid big ideas best forgotten). Among the pearls, peace is better than war. Maximizing profits doesn't necessarily optimize happiness, personally or collectively. Being happy and or sensual isn't inherently sinful.

    Still, implementation was never the counter culture's strong suit. As a movement, it was "Wise, but not smart." I think that's a fair cop too.

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