Happy Earth Day, everyone! I struggled with the question of what to write on Earth Day. I haven’t been doing or studying these things for very long, so I’m not really sure what is expected of me on this special occasion. What do a write about to help celebrate the Earth when I try to do that almost every day? I only could only think of one thing that might be appropriate and that was to give homage to the history of Earth Day and its founding fathers and mothers.
It may be hard to imagine that before 1970, a factory could spew black clouds of toxic into the air or dump tons of toxic waste into a nearby stream, and that was perfectly legal. They could not be taken to court to stop it.
The EPA had not been born then, there was no Clean Air Act, no Clean Water Act, and no legal or regulatory mechanisms to protect our environment.
The idea of Earth Day can largely be contributed to Gaylord Nelson. As a senator, Nelson contributed to important liberal reforms but struggled for years to interest his colleagues in environmental protections. So he turned instead to the people, proposing April 22, 1970 as a day for Americans to speak out about the environmental crises they faced.
“I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda. It was a big gamble, but worth a try,” said Senator Gaylord Nelson
“Finally, in November 1962, an idea occurred to me that was, I thought, a virtual cinch to put the environment into the political “limelight” once and for all. The idea was to persuade President Kennedy to give visibility to this issue by going on a national conservation tour. I flew to Washington to discuss the proposal with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who liked the idea. So did the President. The President began his five-day, eleven-state conservation tour in September 1963. For many reasons the tour did not succeed in putting the issue onto the national political agenda. However, it was the germ of the idea that ultimately flowered into Earth Day,” said Senator Nelson.
For the past few years, college students had been staging teach-ins to educate their campuses about the war in Vietnam. What if, Nelson wondered, students used the same forum to raise environmental awareness, and what if they coordinate their events to fall on the same day, grabbing headlines and sending a strong environmental message to the Capitol? His proposal was met immediately with overwhelming support. The national media widely broadcast the plans for this so-called “Earth Day” and Nelson’s office was flooded by enthusiastic letters.
For the first time, the Earth Day stage gathered together the diverse constituents of the modern environmental movement: youthful idealists, liberal Democrats, middle-class women, scientists, professionals, and representatives of conservation groups, labor unions, and churches. They all gathered, young, old, to confront the ecological troubles in their cities, states, nation, and planet—and to demand action from themselves and their elected officials.
“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself,” said Nelson.
Addressing the Earth Day 1970 audience in Denver, Nelson proclaimed, “Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human being and all living creatures.”
Disinterest on Capitol Hill had long stifled ecological concerns. But after April 1970 a growing environmental awareness nurtured ten years of groundbreaking legislation, which became the bulwark of modern environmental law.
The first Earth Day was effective at raising awareness about environmental issues and transforming public attitudes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970. When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2,500 percent increase over 1969.” Earth Day kicked off the “Environmental decade with a bang,” as Senator Nelson later put it. During the 1970s, a number of important pieces of environmental legislation were passed, among them the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Another key development was the establishment in December 1970 of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was tasked with protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment—air, water and land.
The Clean Air Act included Nelson’s amendment setting a deadline by which cars must include emissions-reducing technologies. The Clean Water Act of 1972 incorporated Nelson’s proposals to offer businesses low-interest loans to install pollution controls and $25 billion in grants to municipalities to build sewage treatment plants. In the same year, Nelson oversaw the passage of a ban on dumping in the oceans and Great Lakes.
His long fight against pesticides propelled forward when the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forbade all nonessential uses of DDT and agreed to Nelson’s requests to ban aldrin and dieldrin and curb the use of the herbicide Agent Orange. Nelson led Congress to provide funding for alternative pest control methods and helped establish the precautionary principle with the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.
Nelson continued to pursue an ambitious conservation agenda as well. Having already secured the “wild and scenic” designation for Wisconsin’s Saint Croix, Namekagon, and Wolf Rivers as well as the federal preservation of the Appalachian Trail, in 1970 Nelson was able to realize his dream of bringing the Apostle Islands into the national parks system. Nelson, long opposed to the ecological damage wrought by the Army Corps of Engineers, played a role in the first defeat of a Corps project—damming the Kickapoo River—on environmental grounds. And, to the wildlife conservation assured by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, Nelson added legal protections for predators and marine mammals.
Five years after the first Earth Day and just months after Nixon’s resignation, President Gerald Ford made a proclamation declaring March 21 as Earth Day.
For environmentalist John McConnell, it was vindication for what he considers to be his hijacked holiday. McConnell actually coined the term Earth Day and launched his own event in San Francisco on the 1970 equinox, a full month before Nelson’s took place.
The two events share the same basic message but McConnell’s is recognized as the official global Earth Day by the United Nations. The U.N. refers to the April 22 event as “International Mother Earth Day.”
The Environmental Decade came to an abrupt end with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Nelson, like several of his liberal colleagues, lost his seat. In his final weeks in office, he pushed through the preservation of 100 million acres in Alaska and, in his last legislative act, added 1,000 acres to the Saint Croix Scenic Riverway. He drastically cut the EPA’s budget and even had Jimmy’s solar panels taken off the roof of the White House. Some believe Attorney General Edwin Meese told him that solar panels didn’t project the image of a super power. On the upside, Reagan is credited with helping save the ozone layer. According to my environmental science teacher, Reagan was known as the environmental rapist. Wouldn’t be a nice way to go down in history?
At the 28th celebration of Earth Day, Clinton laid out an ambitious environmental agenda. His plan was to protect the Redwoods, keep mining out of Yosemite and finally put the entirety of the Appalachian Trail under public control. As far as the funding was concerned, Clinton’s response was very ’90s: “The money is there, the economy is in good shape, the budget is going to be balanced.”
President Carter became the first president to speak at an Earth Day rally. He also appointed Denis Hayes, coordinator of the first Earth Day, as head of the Federal Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI).
Eleven years Carter’s Earth Day proclaimed April 22, Earth Day, and 5 years after that President Ford took a swing at it. Congress passed Joint Resolution 119, establishing Earth Day as April 22. This time it was George H. W. Bush’s chance to proclaim in the name of Mother Earth.
Why all the date change? Around March 21, is when the spring equinox falls, so some believe it was changed to avoid connecting the event to the equinox, often considered a pagan holiday.
Since 1970, Earth Day celebrations have grown. In 1990, Earth Day went global, with 200 million people in over 140 nations participating, according to the Earth Day Network (EDN), a nonprofit organization that coordinates Earth Day activities. In 2000, Earth Day focused on clean energy and involved hundreds of millions of people in 184 countries and 5,000 environmental groups, according to EDN. Activities ranged from a traveling, talking drum chain in Gabon, Africa, to a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Today, the Earth Day Network collaborates with more than 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries. According to EDN, more than 1 billion people are involved in Earth Day activities, making it “the largest secular civic event in the world.”
Nelson remained a national figure in environmental politics as Counselor of the Wilderness Society until his death in 2005. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for civilians, in 1995. In the speech he gave that year to mark the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, he kept his gaze on the horizon:
“The opportunity for a gradual but complete break with our destructive environmental history and a new beginning is at hand…. We can measure up to the challenge if we have the will to do so—that is the only question. I am optimistic that this generation will have the foresight and the will to begin the task of forging a sustainable society.”
On Earth Day 2009, President Obama declared that America had to make a choice. It could either continue to be the leading importer of oil, or become the leading exporter of clean energy.
So there we have it, the history of Earth Day. The good, bad and ugly things it wentthrough. I hope everyone has a fabulous day.