“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.”
-Senator Gaylord Nelson
founder of the first Earth Day in 1970.
Every year on April 22, the world comes together to honor our planet and shine a spotlight on environmental concerns. Earth Day is currently the largest civic event in the world, celebrated by over a billion people in 192 countries.
Earth Day History
Back in the 1960s, politicians’ focus was on development and economic progress. Laws to protect the environment were virtually nonexistent, so factories could pollute the air and dump toxic waste into lakes and rivers without punishment. Many residents drove big, gas-guzzling cars as a symbol of their status, and hardly anyone knew about, let alone practiced, recycling. As a result, this country’s beautiful natural areas were being destroyed, and pollution was viewed as a necessary consequence of prosperity.
Rachel Carson’s best-selling book ‘Silent Spring,’ published in 1962, is often credited with kick-starting the environmental movement. ‘Silent Spring’ caused a booming post-war America to stop and think about the dangers of applying DDT and other non-selective pesticides. “These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes — nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in the soil — all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?” asks Rachel Carson.
Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was elected to the U.S. Senate the same year ‘Silent Spring’ was published, determined to convince the government that the planet was at risk. In 1963, Nelson introduced legislation to ban DDT and not one single member of Congress joined him. Nelson was able to convince President Kennedy to join him on a 5-day, 11-state “conservation tour” in hopes of making the environment a national political issue, however the press was uncooperative, preferring to cover foreign policy over environmental issues.
Even though Washington was slow to respond, citizens increasingly began to share Nelson’s concerns. In 1969, two major ecological nightmares grabbed headlines – the largest oil spill in United States waters at the time occurring in Santa Barbara and the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio becoming so contaminated that it actually caught on fire. Nelson was returning from the oil spill devastation when he read about anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins” that were taking place on college campuses around the United States. The idea inspired a new strategy: “If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda.”
The First Earth Day
Senator Nelson selected 25-year old student activist Denis Hayes as National Coordinator and California Republican Congressman Paul McCloskey to serve as co-chair. Together, with an army of student volunteers, Nelson’s Senate staff, and media support, rallies were organized in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and over 1,000 communities across the nation on April 22, 1970. A whopping 20 million people participated in the very first Earth Day, including 10,000 high schools, 2,500 colleges, and everyone from housewives and farmers to scientists and politicians.
The first Earth Day represented a turning point for many, as environmental issues became a community concern and residents grasped the effects of oblivious consumption and waste. When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public named protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2,500 percent increase over 1969. In turn, Congress responded by making amendments to the Clean Air Act, creating the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and forming the EPA within three years of Earth Day 1970.
6th graders march at first Earth Day 1970.
Balboa Park Earth Day 2011
Earth Day Goes Global
Earth Day went global in 1990, with Earth Day Network, a nonprofit organization started by Denis Hayes, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and elevating environmental concerns onto the world stage.
The Importance of Earth Day Today
While the first Earth Day was focused on joining different groups of people together within the United States, today’s message is to think globally and act locally, meaning that no matter where you live, we are all environmental stewards of the planet. According to Hayes, “Important environmental issues that are facing us–climate change, everything from threats to the hydrological cycle and nitrate cycle, mining, devastation by over-fishing of the world’s oceans, acidification of the world’s oceans, the trade in endangered species, and on and on–are all things that no one country can control or cure by itself.”
So, since the biggest problems are ones that can’t be solved by any one nation (let alone one person), what CAN you do?
Easy things to do today!
Help NASA raise awareness with a #GlobalSelfie – On April 22, 2014, Take a selfie out in nature, include the tag #GlobalSelfie, and upload on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram or Google+. NASA will then combine each of these individual photos and create the “blue marble”- a mosaic of the earth formed with all the collected images.
Plant a tree – Over a 50-year lifespan, one tree provides $31,250 worth of oxygen and $62,000 worth of air pollution control. Bonus if it’s a native Hawaiian tree.
Pump up your tires – Over 700 million gallons of gasoline are wasted in the U.S. annually because tires are not inflated properly.
Eat meatless – Reducing meat consumption conserves fresh water, saves topsoil, and even reduces air pollution.
Pledge your commitment – Help Earth Day Network reach their goal of 2 billion acts of green. Even better, post your commitment on social media and encourage your friends to get involved.
Inspired to go green beyond Earth Day?
Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth – This can save up to 8 gallons of water.
Reduce your waste – The average American generates 4.38 pounds of trash per day. Start a compost, separate your recyclables, and remember to take your reusable bags to the store.
Buy local – 42% of carbon pollution emissions in the U.S. are associated with the energy used to produce, process, transport, and dispose of the food we eat and the goods we use.
Go solar! – Since electricity rates in our state are so high, solar power systems in Hawaii have a total payback of 3-4 years.
See even more tips on Going Green.