Sunday, April 22nd, marks the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, and while millions around the globe celebrate, remembering what Earth Day represents is as important now as it was in 1970.
In 1970, most Americans were more concerned about the Vietnam War than they were about the “environment.” The environmental movement, as it would come to be known, was in its infancy. Americans drove gas-guzzling automobiles which ran on leaded fuel, and there were few or no legal consequences for industries or individuals who polluted the waters and atmosphere.
The nation was firmly in the midst of the “hippie movement,” with their anti-war slogan of “Make Love, Not War.” Although protests were commonplace, they were directed at the unpopular war in Vietnam and at a draft that served to foster even more resentment against the war and strengthen the anti-war movement. Most Americans were still consciously unaware of environmental issues. Silently, however, the stage had been set for what would become the “environmental movement.”
In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, hit the New York Times bestseller list. The book, which is credited with helping launch the environmental movement, documented the effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly birds. Carson, already known for being a writer of natural history, became known as a social critic and strong environmental advocate. She accused the chemical industry of disinformation and public officials of collusion while raising public awareness about environmental issues. Silent Spring inspired widespread concern about pesticides and pollution, and helped to facilitate the ban of DDT in 1972.
After witnessing the devastating effects of a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, California in 1969, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson realized that he could bring attention to the need for environmental policy by combining the student anti-war movement with the emerging environmental consciousness. Using national media, Nelson publicized his idea for a “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment” day, and persuaded conservation-oriented Republican Congressman Paul McCloskey to serve as his co-chair. Nelson also recruited Denis Hayes to serve as the national coordinator, and Hayes went on to found the Earth Day Network.
As a result of their bipartisan efforts, the first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. Twenty million Americans came out to demonstrate for the protection of the environment. Colleges and universities across the country organized protests, and groups which had been working separately became united in their cause.
Earth Day helped re-unite the country as well. After a decade of partisan rancor and social division during the 1960s, Earth Day not only brought environmental issues to the forefront of public awareness, but it also crossed political and social boundaries. Republicans and Democrats took up the cause as did rich people and poor, city dwellers and farmers, housewives and scientists, educated and uneducated, and both the elderly and young. The movement was intergenerational, bipartisan, and not based on economic, educational, or social status. It led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on December 2, 1970, and to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). It also led to the passage of other significant environmental protection including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.
Earth Day 1970 was a national awakening. At a speech given before a crowd in Denver, Colorado, on the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Gaylord Nelson pointed out that “Our goal is not just an environment of clear air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all living creatures.”
The last 42 years have seen many positive environmental changes, but we must not become complacent. As Americans worry more about the economy, jobs, war, and government overgrowth and encroachment, environmental issues fall farther down the list of concerns. We must remember that this planet, which provides for more than seven billion of us, also provides the basis for our economies and jobs. “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity…that’s all there is. That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world.” (Gaylord Nelson)
Every single choice you make from this moment forward will build the world of tomorrow. You have the power, and you can make a difference. Be responsible for all of your actions…make every day Earth Day! “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” – Native American Proverb
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