April 22, 1970—the first Earth Day—was the moment in time that many mark as the dawn of the modern environmental movement.
Over the years, the date and the idea it represents has grown in popularity and significance, evolving into a global passion for the preservation of the planet. However, today, Earth Day observances still are organized officially by the organization that created the idea 43 years ago—the Washington, DC-based Earth Day Network (EDN), which promotes year-round environmental citizenship and action.
On its website, the EDN describes the idealistic and radical times in which the environmental movement was shaped: “The height of hippie and flower-child culture in the United States, 1970 brought the death of Jimi Hendrix, the last Beatles album, and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ Protest was the order of the day, but saving the planet was not the cause. War raged in Vietnam, and students nationwide increasingly opposed it.”
At the time, EDN reminds us, Americans were still gorging on the leaded gas they needed to drive their massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with nary a fear of legal consequences or bad press. Indeed, air pollution was commonly accepted as the “smell of prosperity,” and the word, “environment,” was more likely to be used in spelling bees than on the evening news.
Still, the stage had been set and the players awaited their cues. Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” had been released in 1962—rising quickly to bestseller status in the United States and selling over half a million copies in 24 nations worldwide.
Sit-ins, teach-ins, and consciousness-raising all were familiar tools of the anti-war movement. The massive Baby Boomer generation could readily adapt them to another cause.
The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a Democratic U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Representative Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican from California, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes—a Vietnam activist, environmentalists, and solar enthusiast—to be national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the America.
As a result, April 22, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies (see video). Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.
According to the EDN, Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. "It was a gamble," Gaylord recalled, "but it worked."
Three years ago, much like 1970, Earth Day 2010 came at a time of great challenge for the environmental community. “Climate change deniers, well-funded oil lobbyists, reticent politicians, a disinterested public, and a divided environmental community all contributed to a strong narrative that overshadowed the cause of progress and change. In spite of the challenge, for its 40th anniversary, Earth Day Network reestablished Earth Day as a powerful focal point around which people could demonstrate their commitment,” states EDN.
That year, Earth Day Network brought 225,000 people to the National Mall for a Climate Rally, amassed 40 million environmental service actions toward its 2012 goal of ‘A Billion Acts of Green,’ launched an international, one-million tree planting initiative and tripled its online base to over 900,000 community members.
Now the organization states, “The fight for a clean environment continues in a climate of increasing urgency, as the ravages of climate change become more manifest every day. We invite you to be a part of Earth Day and help write many more victories and successes into our history. Discover energy you didn't even know you had. Feel it rumble through the grassroots under your feet and the technology at your fingertips. Channel it into building a clean, healthy, diverse world for generations to come.”
Edited by Ashley Caputo