"[O]n April 22, 1970, 20 million people, 2,000 colleges and universities, 10,000 grammar and high schools and 1,000 communities mobilized for the first nationwide demonstrations on environmental problems. Congress adjourned for the day so members could attend Earth Day events in their districts. The response was nothing short of remarkable, and the modern American environmental movement took off.
My major objective in planning Earth Day 1970 was to organize a nationwide public demonstration so large it would, finally, get the attention of the politicians and force the environmental issue into the political dialogue of the nation. It worked. By the sheer force of its collective action on that one day, the American public forever changed the political landscape respecting environmental issues."
Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Dem. Wisc - Founder of Earth Day.
Created by Walt Kelly for Earth Day, 1970
I remember that first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. The scope of it was astonishing and really surprising. It was a grassroots movement in the best sense of the phrase, and we all felt good about it. (Most of us, that is. The day after, The Daughters of the American Revolution branded the Earth Day commemoration "distorted" and "subversive". (It didn't help that the first Earth Day happened to fall on the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin's birth.)
What Gaylord Nelson originally proposed was a nationwide teach-in on school campuses. He chose April 22 because it would fall after Easter break but before final exams. It was spring. The earth was renewing itself. Environmentalism was gearing up and in motion, and it was a fine time to give the earth a day. Richard Nixon was president and, while he didn't participate in any of the day's events (maybe because a damned Democrat came up with the idea), he was actively talking about attacks on the environment and the steps the government would need to combat them. Pollution was a big issue already, and steps had been taken to de-smog the cities. It was working. (Nelson had actually talked to JFK in the early 60s about the need to draw attention to the environment, and a day to commemorate had been thrown out there then.)
Industry was king, and the environmentalists, alarmed at water, ground and air pollution levels, were talking to brick walls (when they weren't batting their heads against them). In 1962, the year Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring", 750 people died in London's smog. In 1965, four days of inversion held down a cloud of filthy air that killed 80 people in New York City. In 1969, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire. Earlier that year, an oil platform six miles out from Santa Barbara, California, blew out, spilling 200,000 gallons of oil, creating an 800 square mile oil slick that settled on 35 miles of California shoreline. Almost 4,000 birds were killed, along with fish, seals and dolphin.
Enough had finally become enough, and under Lyndon Johnson and a congress that could see clearly now (even though the rest of us were still lost in a choking, eye-watering, salmon-colored, man-made smog), we saw a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water act, a National Wilderness Preservation System, a Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a National Trails System Act, and, for what it was worth, a National Environmental Policy.
That all changed, of course, when Ronald "A tree is a tree" Reagan became president. For the Department of Interior, he chose James Watt, a notorious anti-environmentalist, to head it. He chose Ann Gorsuch, another determined anti-earthling, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. What a laugh that was--or might have been, if it weren't so serious. They were chosen for the same cynical reasons George W. Bush chose his department heads--so that regulatory agencies could, from the inside, be forced to stop regulating.
Gale Norton, GWB's choice for Secretary of Interior was called "even worse" than James Watt, by the Defenders of Wildlife. I shuddered over that one. I remembered James Watt, and I thought nobody could cause as much havoc on our little section of the earth as that little man did. I thought we had learned something along the way. I thought all those Arbor Days and Earth Days and global warming warnings had taught us all something. Some of us obviously weren't listening.
But now we're in the era of Obama and former Colorado senator Ken Salazar is the Interior secretary. The jury is still out on him; his voting record was either for or against the environment, depending on what I'm assuming was the alignment of the stars or the fullness of the moon. I don't know. But he's showing signs of bucking the oil industry, and he isn't necessarily doing what his naysayers thought he would, so I'm willing to cut him some slack for a while.
Lisa Jackson is the current head of the EPA. She's a chemical engineer, which seems like a start, and she said this in Newsweek: "The difference between this administration and the last is that we don't believe we have an option to do nothing." I like that. But she seems to think there's no cause for alarm over offshore drilling. That makes me more than a little nervous, considering the above-mentioned Santa Barbara incident, and the 11-million-gallon Exxon-Valdez incident, and today's oil-rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana. (I hope she remembers that the EPA is 40 years old this year, too. In fact it's a few months older than Earth Day--all the more reason for it to be the designated caretaker.)
This Earth Day, 40 years after the first, got a lot of play in the news and on the internet, but I was hoping to see crowds out there giving it their best. I didn't expect teabags, of course, but what I wouldn't give for a sea of tie-dyes and peace signs and flower garlands. . . The aroma of pachouli. . .
All those things I thought were pretty silly in the day are looking downright good to me as I take note of the day we promised to give Earth a chance.
"Sometimes I wonder if Lewis and Clark shouldn't have been made to file an environmental impact study before they started west, and Columbus before he ever sailed. They might never have got their permits. But then we wouldn't have been here to learn from our mistakes, either. I really only want to say that we may love a place and still be dangerous to it. We ought to file that environmental impact study before we undertake anything that exploits or alters or endangers the splendid, spacious, varied, magnificent and terribly fragile earth that supports us. If we can't find an appropriate government agency with which to file it, we can file it where an Indian would have filed it--with our environmental conscience, our slowly maturing sense that the earth is indeed our mother, worthy of our love and deserving of our care."
Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs*