Earth Day. Doesn’t the Earth deserve our attention 365 days a year? I certainly think so! How is it that when so much is flying off the rails with the environment, that even the one day a year dedicated to it, can go pretty unnoticed? I wanted to know why we celebrate Earth Day in the first place, what it’s supposed to signify and how it all began. And honestly, I was (pleasantly) shocked at what I learned. The first Earth Day kicked off as a completely radical, groundswell of 20 Million Americans demonstrating. TWENTY MILLION.
The First Earth Day
This was not a passive ode to Mother Nature. In 1970 Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson was frustrated to see the potential of the Vietnam demonstrations not being leveraged to draw attention to the damage being done to the Planet. He wanted to find a way to get the youth environmentally educated and organized, so he partnered with Harvard grad student Denis Hayes (who went on to start the Earth Day Network among other foundations). Together they organized a national day of environmental demonstration to be held on April 22nd—chosen strategically to be after Spring Break but before the start of Final Exams to ensure as many students as possible would participate. They managed to get two thousand colleges and universities, approximately ten thousand elementary and high schools, and hundreds of communities to participate. They had clearly struck a nerve.
A Coming Together
One of the most incredible things about the first Earth Day was that it was bipartisan and included people from all levels of income. Something that seems close to impossible to imagine today but is exactly what it will take for us to make Earth Day or (even caring about the environment) radical again. In reporting on the massive New York demonstration on April 22nd, 1970 the New York Times wrote “If the environment had any enemies they did not make themselves known. Political leaders, governmental departments and corporations hastened to line up in the ranks…”. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?
Making Real Change
The first Earth Day wasn’t just a passing day on the calendar. It marked the beginning of some critical change in the United States. Because of Earth Day, President Richard Nixon approved a little something called the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that same year. It also lead to Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts being passed. Not bad for a single day protest. It was an incredible demonstration of what some serious people-power can do. In an 2005 essay, Nelson wrote: "The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air—and they did so with spectacular exuberance."
Earth Day 2019
So fast-forward 49 years and where are we now? While Earth Day is now the world’s most widely observed secular holiday, it’s also just that, a holiday. It’s mostly acknowledged by elementary school crafts and large corporations capitalizing on a opportunity to make empty promises about offsetting their carbon footprint. And that's if it’s acknowledged at all. People are even Googling it less! Here’s the Google Trend chart for Earth Day since 2004.
What happened to people of all walks of life banding together to get the Government to make some real change? We know we can make a change on a personal level but how do we get back that 1970s energy of demanding environmental change in a way that resonated with so many? How do we make Earth Day radical again? Tell us your ideas!