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Remembering the Rich History of Earth Day

April 17, 2018

The year was 1970, and it was a turning point for our nation’s environment. On January 2nd of that year, President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The law requires the federal government to use “all practicable means to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony.” Under NEPA, the role of environmental policy includes promoting “efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man.”

Earth Day was founded on April 22 of the same year, as a day of education about environmental issues. In the United States, Earth Day was envisioned by Senator Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, as a “national teach-in on the environment.” Senator Nelson had witnessed the consequences of a massive 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; he believed it was time to raise public awareness of pollution, and bring environmental causes into the national spotlight.

Leading up to 1970, our nation was reeling from the cumulative impacts of decades of environmental neglect and pollution of our nation’s air, water, land, and wildlife, and indeed even its citizens. Here are just a few examples:

  • In June 1969, after decades of industrial pollution being legally piped into it, an oil slick on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire—and not for the first time.
  • Solid waste was dumped into open trenches and unlined landfills, and often burned.
  • Between 1947 and 1977, General Electric (GE) dumped an estimated 3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River.
  • The American Bald Eagle, peregrine falcon, osprey, brown pelican, and other birds were being decimated by the widespread use of DDT.
  • Acid rain, caused by sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from power plants, was impacting freshwater systems and reducing fish populations around the country.
  • Children and adults were being harmed by high levels of lead in our air (due to lead in gasoline).

With the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, our nation was introduced to the perilous effects of pesticides on our land. Americans were slowly becoming aware of the need to protect our environment and its resources.

Until 1970, however, protecting natural resources had not been a part of the national political agenda and environmental activism was minimal. Earth Day 1970 gave rise to the modern environmental movement. Organizers for the nation’s first Earth Day were able to capture the energy of the anti-war protest movement and bring environmental concerns to the forefront of our nation. Indeed, Senator Nelson used the anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins” taking place on college campuses around the United States as an inspiration for rallying the nation’s attention to the critical state of our environment at the time.

With just national coordinator Dennis Hayes, student volunteers, and some staff members from Nelson’s Senate office, the first Earth Day brought 20 million demonstrators together in cities and communities around the country.

Earth Day successfully focused the attention of the American people and their government on the urgent necessity of protecting our planet’s resources and ecosystems. On December 2, 1970, the Nixon administration created the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The creation of EPA as an independent agency was the result of the rising tide of concern over our nation’s environment, spurred by the activism started on Earth Day. With strong bipartisan support, legislators convinced the Nixon administration that a single agency was needed; one that would consolidate under a single umbrella a myriad of federal activities—including research, monitoring, standard-setting, and enforcement—to ensure the protection of our nation’s environment.

During the 1970s, a number of important pieces of environmental legislation were passed; among them the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

In 1990, Earth Day became a worldwide celebration, with 200 million people in over 140 nations participating. In 2000, Earth Day rallied hundreds of millions of people in 184 countries around the theme of clean energy. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Today, the Earth Day Network has more than 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries, with more than 1 billion people involved in Earth Day activities.

Let us not forget history and the significance of the first Earth Day. And for a great look at Earth Day 1970, check out Walter Cronkite’s broadcast.

By Athena Lee Bradley

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