April 22 is Earth Day. It was first celebrated in 1970, 45 years ago in an era of change worldwide. In the decades since its inception, people plant trees, organize movements for a better out look on the health of the Earth, engage in outdoor activities, and protest air pollution and global warming. Though, what is the origin of Earth Day and why is it celebrated?
Earth Day began as a grassroots movement and spawned a great public support for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Moreover, it led to the inception of many legislative bills that were passed that included the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and many other environmentally friendly and protective actions from the federal government. Originally, the idea for Earth Day was suggested by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI). In 1969, after witnessing the widespread damage done by an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, he organized a countrywide “teach-in.” The premise of this was to educate young people and the public at large about the environment and the atrocities done to it by industrial institutions. Some news outlets even called the oil rig disaster the, “ecological shot around the world.”
The organization of the education of the declining health of the Earth was in a time when air pollution and smog was an increasing problem in major metropolitan areas in the United States, which became a national crisis. In 1970, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times stated, “Just breathing the air in some areas of Los Angeles is said to be equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.”
In light of this, Nelson recruited the mind of Denis Hayes, an activist and recent graduate of Stanford University. He was appointed as a national coordinator to bring the waning health of the environment to the public eye. He persuaded then-Congressman Pete McCloskey (R-CA) to be co-chairman of the organization. With a staff of only 85 individuals, they were able to rally over 20 million Americans on April 20, 1970. Universities across the nation held protests, demonstrations, and gatherings in public areas to discuss the environment and find ways to defend to planet against global warming and man-made natural disasters. On the 10th anniversary of Earth Day, Nelson had an article published in the EPA Journal that stated on the first Earth Day it was absolutely clear that the public was, “deeply concerned over the deterioration, ” of the state of the environment, “and the mindless dissipation,” of natural resources.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon, barely an environmentalist by any stretch of the imagination, passed the Environmental Protection Act, which created the aforementioned acts regarding the defense of the environment. This would invigorate the federal government to act of the concerns that became a part of the political value system.
Though, why do we celebrate Earth Day 45 years later? It seems as if the movements of the 1970’s that led to the first Earth Day could possibly be falling into place once again. Just as the crisis involving air pollution and smog in America’s largest cities was at the national forefront of debate, climate change is in the minds of many citizens today. Disasters such as the BP oil spill are galvanizing a new environmental movement against legislation spearheaded by Congress with the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. In September of 2014, over 400,000 people took to the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March, a demonstration to unite an effort against climate change that rallied social groups, faith communities, and many more public groups.
Although Earth Day is now as big as it was in 1970, environmentalists believe the true power behind it is declining. According to a Gallup polls, 42 percent of Americans believe the dangers associated with global warming and climate change are overly exaggerated. Though, the impact of Earth Day is not waning in its fervor. There are still efforts to save what the planet has with regulations such as keeping oil companies out of ANWR and the denial of the Keystone XL pipeline. Nonetheless, as the years go on, people will remember that the reason why Earth Day is celebrated is to honor and protect what Mother Earth has to offer.
By Alex Lemieux
Photo by Beth Scupman – Flickr License