The trouble with celebratory days of observance is they beg the question of how to react to world issues the other 364 days of the year. There are cynics in every crowd who assume days of observance are largely symbolic and promote armchair social activism, but is that the case? Are the time and effort behind these days really worth it?
Earth Day falls on April 22, the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. It was a big year: war raged in Vietnam, students took to the streets to oppose it, and counterculture was at its height.
At the time, humankind’s cultural effect on the environment was largely ignored by average people roaring off to work in their V8 cars to work 9-5 at industry jobs for companies that spewed toxic mess into the air, water, and soil. It isn’t that no one cared; then-social culture dictated the importance of affluence, and the long-term effects of pollution an environmental degradation were not well understood by the general, mainstream public.
The first person to kick up a noticeable fuss was author Rachel Carson who took over the New York Times bestseller list in 1962 with her book, Silent Spring. She made connections between human health and the environment, called out the ill effects of pollution, and made a strong, demanding, and scientific case for public concern for living organisms because, to her, it was worth it.
By 1969, Earth Day founder and then-US senator from Wisconsin Gaylord Nelson had seen enough and he, too, decided the Earth was worth it. After witnessing the destruction resulting from a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara that year, and inspired by youth’s enthusiasm and drive in the anti-war movement, he decided to leverage the desire for change and action. He launched the idea for a national teach-in on the environment, recruited conservation-minded Republican congressman Pete McClosky and Harvard educator Denis Hayes, and rounded up a staff of 85 to promote events across America on April 22, 1970.
That first Earth Day observance garnered participation from 20 million Americans who all thought the environment was worth it. They filled rallies, parks, streets, and auditoriums with attention and action for a cleaner environment. The most marked aspect of this fledgling environmental movement was that it unified people who normally gathered or demonstrated under different and sometimes opposing banners. Environmentalists fighting for clean oceans, rich forests, freedom from toxic waste and superfluous freeways, the preservation of wilderness, and escape from pesticides realized they had something in common. Republicans, Democrats, the rich and the poor, executives and farmers all had a stake in the environment and saw opportunity and value in its preservation.
According to the official Earth Day website, “by the end of that year, the first Earth Day had 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.’”
This was the foundation of the environmental movement in the US, and it wasn’t until 20 years later the concept went global. In 1990, environmental advocates led by Denis Hayes took Earth Day global, enlisting support from 200 million participants in 141 countries. The long-term results were drawing attention to and promoting recycling efforts, and paving the way to the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Earthday.org says it was at this time President Bill Clinton awarded Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995) for his efforts as Earth Day founder, and for believing the Earth was worth it. This is the highest honour given to civilians in the US.
Fast-forward to Earth Day 2000 when the big picture enthusiasm of the 1970 event combined with the international grassroots effort behind Earth Day 1990 to inspire 5,000 environmental groups in 184 countries to come together under the environmental banner with particular emphasis in global warming and the planet’s dire need for clean energy. Unique in history at the time was the truly global nature of communicating the message as some demonstrations, actions, and campaigns rallied and organized largely by email, while a drum chain carried the message from village to village in Gabon, Africa.
“Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC for a First Amendment Rally,” says the Earth Day website. “Earth Day 2000 sent world leaders the loud and clear message that citizens around the world wanted quick and decisive action on global warming and clean energy.”
Whether organized in the 1970s or the 2000s, the Earth Day movement has had its challenges. In the beginning it ran the risk of losing its importance in the mosh pit of social activism brought about by the counterculture movement, and in 2000 oil lobbyists, climate change nay-sayers, and a generally cynical public stood as road blocks against the smooth environmental transformation the planet needs.
Despite its challenges, Earth Day has become the world’s largest secular observance and has led to many, many tangible, long-impacting campaigns toward a cleaner, healthier Earth. Today one billion people celebrate Earth Day the world over and as a result many of them spend the other 364 days of the year putting the message into practice. The environmental movement represents hard work, energy, and willingness to unite in the Earth’s defense, and to ensure a brighter future for everyone. This year on April 22, take up the cause, or vow to work just a little harder that day and the rest of the year. Because when it comes to our one and only home, it is absolutely worth it.
Jessica Kirby is editor of Solid Waste & Recycling and cares a great deal about what happens to the Earth, 365 days of the year.
This article about Earth Day is republished from the April / May issue of TheGreenGazette, a lovely little publication out of the Cariboo-Chilcotin area of British Columbia.