Earth Day: looking back, looking around, looking forward

Earth DayA curious juxtaposition of events took place in the early 1960s. In 1961, Sam Yorty successfully campaigned for mayor of Los Angeles promising to eliminate the requirement that citizens separate their garbage. Soon, wet garbage, trash, and paper mingled together in the same dump making the modern landfill necessary.

The following year, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, drawing public attention to the state of the environment for the first time. Earth Day has been observed on April 22 every year since 1970.

History of Earth Day

I grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, about two blocks from the Heinz Catsup factory. The stench in the summer could be unbearable. Of course, it mingled with the smell of an open sewage ditch maybe half a mile to the north. Apparently, lots of people liked the Heinz aroma much more than I did. No one liked the ditch, but then no one much thought of air pollution or other environmental and public heath issues until Silent Spring came out.

That book was not without controversy, but one person who took its message to heart was Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. He had actually been troubled for several years before that that environmental issues were not part of the political discussion.

In November 1962, he approached President Kennedy with the idea of a national conservation tour. The President spoke on environmental issues in eleven states in September 1963, but nothing much came of it at the time. Senator Nelson continued to speak out on his own. People cared. Other politicians didn’t.

In 1969, a massive oil spill occurred near Santa Barbara, California, and Sen. Nelson witnessed its effects. At the same time, grassroots opposition to the war in Vietnam was growing. Nelson saw an opportunity to channel the same kind of energy to force politicians to consider environmental issues. The idea for Earth Day was born. Nelson, a Democrat, invited Republican Congressman Paul McCloskey to be co-chairman in the effort to organize the event.

Later, Nelson wrote,

It was obvious that we were headed for a spectacular success on Earth Day. It was also obvious that grassroots activities had ballooned beyond the capacity of my U.S. Senate office staff to keep up with the telephone calls, paper work, inquiries, etc. In mid-January, three months before Earth Day, John Gardner, Founder of Common Cause, provided temporary space for a Washington, D.C. headquarters. I staffed the office with college students and selected Denis Hayes as coordinator of activities. 

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.

The immediate impact of that first Earth Day were astounding. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Acts, and established the Environmental Protection Agency.
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Observance of Earth Day

Earth Day expo

Earth Day Expo, Habana Outpost, Brooklyn, April 19, 2008

Since 1990, Earth Day has been observed internationally. That year, 5,000 environmental groups sponsored events in 184 countries. What began with a best selling book and one frustrated senator 50 years ago has become a massive, global grassroots campaign.

If Earth Day were nothing more than a day of rallies to put pressure on politicians, it would probably not be very important. Sen. Nelson succeeded in making environmental issues part of the normal political dialog, but not all politicians see the issues the same way. Corporate interests often clash with the vision of environmentalists.

I’m not one who always assumes that corporations act from greed and don’t care about the environment. I have highlighted the efforts of green corporations, including such giants as Walmart, Sony, and Thomasbuilt Buses.

The big political issue now is climate change, but as I wrote in last week’s post, there is legitimate scientific question as to whether some of the shriller rhetoric and drastic policy proposals are justified. Unfortunately, too many environmentalists have responded by trying to stifle opposing viewpoints. Someone who commented on the post pointed to other issues where self-righteous rhetoric and unacknowledged changes of course have weakened the credibility of the environmental movement.

The strength of Earth Day has always been grassroots involvement in doing something about local issues. Every year, people gather together to collect trash, uproot non-native invasive weeds, plant trees, and other physical acts to improve the environment of their local communities.

There’s nothing like participating with other people in a project to sensitize people to their own habits.

One year when I was helping to pull up ivy, honeysuckle, and other unwanted vines from an area that was to be transformed into a habitat for native plants, another participant held up a long ivy vine and declared that she’d never buy the stuff even in pots.

As far as I’m concerned, ivy is not a weed if it’s growing where you want it. But I chose other ground covers for my property long before that day. I learned how to identify honeysuckle. And that’s the stuff that, if unchecked, will choke out what I planted. Now that I know what it is and what it does, I can pull it.

I imagine that the experience of cleaning trash out of a stream would similarly cause people to promise themselves that they’ll never again throw trash out of a car or just dump it wherever they happen to be when they’re done with something.

Sen. Nelson described the first Earth Day as a national teach-in. Other common Earth Day events include classes and seminars to teach interested people about how to live a greener lifestyle. Think of the impact it will have when people learn about and start practicing such things as

  • finding non-toxic alternative cleaning supplies and gardening products
  • patronizing local stores that specialize in local goods produced with local resources
  • eating locally grown food
  • reducing consumption of packaging, plastic bags, and other waste materials
  • making their homes more energy and water efficient
  • driving less and more efficiently
  • reducing paper use
  • locating and purchasing recycled products

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How the First Earth Day Came About / by Senator Gaylord Nelson
Earth Day: The History of A Movement / Earth Day Network

Photo credit: Earth Day Expo. Some rights reserved by Ethan Oringel

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