Each year, Earth Day—April 22—marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.
The height of counterculture in the United States, 1970 brought the death of Jimi Hendrix, the last Beatles album, and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” War raged in Vietnam and students nationwide overwhelmingly opposed it.
At the time, Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. “Environment” was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news.
Although mainstream America largely remained oblivious to environmental concerns, the stage had been set for change by the publication of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962. The book represented a watershed moment, selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries, and beginning to raise public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and links between pollution and public health.
Earth Day 1970 gave voice to that emerging consciousness, channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and putting environmental concerns on the front page.
The idea for a national day to focus on the environment came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes from Harvard as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land. April 22, falling between Spring Break and Final Exams, was selected as the date.
On April 22,1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies.
Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.
“We had reports on over 10,000 high schools doing something,” said Senator Nelson, “and I personally heard from more than 2,500 colleges and from some 2,000 communities. It was a great educational effort, and it should be continued.”
That show of public support is credited with helping push Republican President Richard Nixon and Congress to pass the law that created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December 1970.
Earth Day Network and the March for Science are co-organizing a rally and teach-in on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. The day’s program will include speeches and trainings with scientists and civic organizers, musical performances, and a march through the streets of Washington, D.C.; designed to be the beginning of a three year push for environmental and climate literacy.
“Science serves all of us,” said march organizers. “It protects our air and water, preserves our planet, saves lives with medical treatments, creates new industries, puts food on our tables, educates the next generation, and safeguards our future.”
“Science isn’t Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative. Indeed, threats to science are pervasive throughout governments around the world. Using the teach-in concept deployed for the very first Earth Day in 1970, the rally and teach-in on the National Mall will focus on the need to hold our leaders – both in science and in politics – accountable to the highest standards of honesty, fairness, and integrity. The vital role science plays in our democracy must be preserved.”
Activist D. N. Lee, who calls herself a Black Science blogger, said she was cheered by the fact that “environment” is now accepted as a “Black issue.” Writing on The Urban Scientist, she observed: “The environment is at the very heart of all of the high priority Black Community Issues.
Lee stated that, “For Earth Day, it’s important that we raise an awareness not only about the health of the planet, but also for resources and policies that are beneficial to our communities. We need to fight for more garbage cans and recycling bins in our neighborhoods, where all too often, trash piles up in exorbitant amounts, and once installed, we need to use them.”
“If Dr. King were alive, he would say we want equal protection from environmental harms like pollution, poison, toxins in the water, and bad food products… He would also say we want equal opportunity to the environmental benefits of organic food, solar panels, and clean energy, air, and water.”