Although 1970 is labeled a “common year” by the Gregorian calendar, it’s difficult to imagine people around at the time classifying it as such.
With the inception of Earth Day on April 22, 1970, more was changing in the world than just the sentiment toward environmental awareness and, in extension, environmental protection and advocacy. Students protested the war in Vietnam and people still reeled at the death of Martin Luther King just two years prior. Without a doubt, the ever-pervasive thread of alternative American culture continued to be sewn.
And although the social and political atmosphere seemed as if it saturated people’s minds to a point where no other issues could take root, something amazing happened: Earth Day.
First developed by Senator Gaylord Nelson in response to the Santa Barbara, California oil spill of 1969, Earth Day attempted to seize the energy of the time. As described by the Earth Day Network, a non-profit organization that grew out of the first Earth Day (both literally and figuratively), “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.”
Risky, no doubt. Was it plausible to direct public attention toward the environment at such a hectic time?
A week from today, Earth Day will celebrate its 41st anniversary, and the message started by Nelson is just as salient as it once was, if not more so. In the past four decades, we’ve seen an explosion with the organic food market, a powerful march toward climate protection and government (as well as corporate) responsibility with the environment, and a surge of consumer awareness.
Politically, we’ve also seen a response from elected officials. Just months after Earth Day of 1970, the Clean Air Act was passed. Likewise, federal authority was expanded with the Water Quality Improvement Act in the same year. Even endangered species were recognized. In 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Fisheries Service became lead agencies for implementing the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
And the trend continued.
President Jimmy Carter created the cabinet-level Department of Energy in 1979, as well as spearheaded the Energy Security Act in 1980. In 1988, the UN and World Meteorological Organization created the International Panel on Climate Change to gather and assess data on global warming. By 1998, just a decade later, the Clean Air Act of 1990 amended policies regarding emission trading and ozone depletion (among other issues), the Energy Policy Act of 1992 increased investment and focus on renewables and efficiency, and the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, though – despite President Clinton’s signature – the Senate refused to adopt.
More modernly, we’ve seen more state and local initiatives for environmental awareness than federal ones. California, Oregon, and much of the North Eastern states have adopted climate policies aimed at reducing and controlling pollution. In fact, small localities – sometimes with populations under 10,000 – have also worked hard at demanding a more sustainable present for a cleaner and greener future.
Spotting this marked change in focus, one that went from largely national in scale to something much more local, the aforementioned Earth Day Network has worked on highlighting the push for environmental awareness in smaller communities. With their “Global Day of Conversation,” the EDN celebrates local leaders based on their sustainable initiatives and engagement with constituents. Each year, the EDN registers hundreds of these events, making them easier to find and helping them with press and media details.
And to think, this all grew out of an idea planted just over 40 years ago.
Not to play the role of a counter-factualist, but it’s interesting to imagine the world without the environmental initiative we’ve seen over the past few decades. True, even in 1940 Sir Albert Howard wrote about the dangers of artificial nitrogen use with farming. But the real traction in environmentalism came much later, and all thanks – if not just to some large extent – to Earth Day and the passionate organizers behind it.
So, to wrap up this history lesson, I have a small proposal.
Let’s not only take this Earth Day as seriously as the rest (as we should, with the EPA under fire and politicians moving forward with nuclear programs despite the recent and tragic events on the world scene), but let us also celebrate the minds and the people behind it. From Sir Albert Howard, to Senator Gaylord Nelson, to the organizers in local communities and national capitols, these are the people that have led to sustainable practices and a greener world.
Happy Earth Day!