For those of you old enough to chuckle at this photo from the early 1970s (or not to do a double take, instead thinking, “Yeah, I’ve got one of those, too”), the following reminisces about the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, may be like mentally flipping through an old yearbook. For those who are older, or younger, these reflections will hopefully provide some context for where the American conscience now stands with respect to our environment and, perhaps, where we need to go. Others of you may well have been off in Vietnam, thanklessly serving our country in an unpopular war, during a time of great social unrest and confusion in the minds of many about how to make a difference in a world increasingly viewed as crumbling— morally, culturally and environmentally.
To set the scene, in 1969–1970 America was deeply engaged (in the word of the day, “quagmired”) in the Vietnam War, with college campuses across the country home to anti-war protests in the form of peace marches, sit-ins and teach-ins. During this time of change, the Woodstock (Music) Festival was held in upstate New York, four student war protestors were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University, Jimi Hendrix died of an apparent drug overdose, the Beatles released their last album and Apollo 13 was already the third manned lunar-landing mission.
At about the same time, the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio caught fire in June 1969 as a result of massive water pollution, an event that was believed to have ultimately spurred many to become more environmentally aware and active. Rising environmental concerns were also sparked by popular literature (e.g., Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962), as well as a relatively minor (and seldom remembered) event that took place in 1969 along the coast of California, near Santa Barbara: an oil spill. That spill was directly observed by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), who became outraged and returned to Washington, D.C., where he later was able to pass a bill that established Earth Day. He selected Denis Hayes, a Harvard graduate student, to spearhead the event.
Hayes chose to model Earth Day after the Vietnam War protests (modeled after the Civil Rights movement!), which were already having a major political impact in the U.S. There has always been lots of speculation regarding the date selected for the first Earth Day, April 22, which coincided with the birth dates of the infamous environmentalist John Muir, J. Sterling Morton (founder of Arbor Day), and Vladimir Lenin (the latter was vehemently espoused by the Daughters of the American Revolution as evidence that the event was a “Communist trick”!). The first Earth Day was, by all accounts, a huge success, with an estimated 20 million participants nationwide. This grassroots protest over the abuse that was allowed to be heaped onto the environment resulted in demonstrations on college campuses across the U.S., as well as huge rallies in Washington, D.C., where Pete Seeger was a keynote speaker, and in New York City, where Paul Newman and Ali McGraw attended.
But what was the real success of that first Earth Day, and how might it help form new strategies for the future? I would argue that it raised the awareness of an entire generation of Americans, transforming our thinking about what our role and responsibility was and still is regarding the health of our planet. As a second-semester freshman at Michigan State University on the first Earth Day, I clearly recall the atmosphere on campus during the teach-in as one of optimism, with special “ecology” lectures, marches and a general attempt to raise awareness on campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods of East Lansing. I recall distributing leaflets at the local A&P supermarket (how’s that for an old term?!) about which detergents had lower phosphate levels, products that only relatively recently have become easily available.
Much more importantly, much of the federal legislation that now defines our entire environmental legal structure was spawned during that same time. While Earth Day was undoubtedly not the direct “cause” of this legislation, it clearly played a role in raising the collective awareness about environmental issues, as well as sending a message to Washington that something needed to be done. Thus, the Clean Air Act of 1970, Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (which repealed the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969) all arose near the first Earth Day, as the nation responded to what was perceived to be an environmental crisis at the time (rivers aren’t supposed to catch on fire, right?). As stated in “Ecotactics: The Sierra Club Handbook for Environment Activists” (Pocket Books, April 1970), “If we choose to be plagued by big nightmares, we are entitled to offset them with equally big daydreams.”
Today’s nightmare, global warming, is no less an environmental crisis than our nation and our planet faced in 1970. Then it was water and air pollution; and while today those problems still exist in many parts of the world, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is global warming. Given what we now know to be the effects of global warming and the predictions that the best science has to offer regarding future outcomes, it’s not hard to argue rather convincingly that this crisis is one of even greater magnitude than the ones faced in 1970. The question remains: What can the first Earth Day teach us about how to deal with our current state of the environment? First, what I believe we need is a teach-in-like event focused on global warming, and we need it now. Many people are still “on the fence” about whether or not global warming even exists, which is analogous to fiddling while the Cuyahoga River is burning. Much of the current ballyhoo regarding global warming is politically based, not scientifically based. “Unfortunately, there is a growing tendency to find niches or categories for various environmental groups, just as we tend to over-classify environmental problems” is as true today as when it was written in 1970 by Cliff Humphrey (ibid, 1970), founder of Ecology Action (see http://www.ecoact.org). Despite all of the hype from both sides of the political aisle, global warming is not a political issue but one that will require political solutions to help resolve. So, much like the first Earth Day, perhaps what’s needed is a national awakening that is prompted by a national education day, one similar to that begun by former Vice President Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning effort, but one that needs to go further.
The Ecotactics Activist’s Checklist (ibid, 1970) included tips such as don’t buy beverages in no-deposit, no-return containers (remember, there was no recycling in 1970!), put bricks in your toilet tank to save water (low-volume toilets did not exist in the U.S.) and generally consume less. Today’s checklist also might include: switch to compact fluorescent bulbs (which could reduce carbon emissions by 250 million tons over the next 50 years) and commit to a more fuel-efficient vehicle the next time you buy a new car (a doubling of current gas mileage of automobiles could save nearly 800 million tons of carbon).1 As a colleague in the Water Center “who was there” pointed out, “Also let your elected officials know that the environment is always an important issue for you, and be sure to vote for those who take environmental issues seriously!”
Since that first Earth Day nearly four decades ago, several other notable Earth Day events have taken place, mainly in other parts of the world. In 1990, Earth Day involved 200 million people in 141 countries, which led to the United Nation’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Earth Day 2000 involved an estimated one billion people worldwide. Earth Day is now observed in 175 countries, has apparently become the “largest secular holiday in the world” (http://www.earthday.net) and is coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network, located in Washington, D.C.
As Tom Armstrong, current USGS senior advisor of global change programs, recently put it, “Climate change is real. It’s no longer a question of who’s responsible or whether it’s real. It’s a question of what are we going to do about it?” For those among us old and fortunate enough to have been there, perhaps remembering that first Earth Day will motivate us to make similar commitments to help deal with global warming, each in our own small way. For those who are younger, and even those not yet part of the global gene pool, it is my sincere hope that you take up the cause, so that 30 years from now, with a sense of pride and satisfaction, you will not read, “Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation’s campuses…”2
2. Reported five months before the first Earth Day in the New York Times.