It’s been 44 years since Wisconsin’s—as this Wisconsinite is proud to say—Senator Gaylord Nelson inspired the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Modeled on the antiwar protests of the late 1960s, the original Earth Day began on university campuses as a national “teach-in” on environmental issues. Particularly, Nelson hoped to shine the national spotlight on air and water pollution. There has been an annual Earth Day ever since Senator Nelson’s 1970 creation.
But what’s happened to our nation during the past 44 years? Have our air and water pollution levels improved? Will there even be an Earth Day 2064, 50 years from now? If so, what will it—and our planet—look like?
Environmental awakening, 1970
In 1962, Rachel Carson published her bestseller, Silent Spring. That seminal book raised the public’s awareness of the dangerous effects pesticides were having on America’s landscapes. Later in the decade, in 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire, and the event shed light on the problem of chemical waste disposal. Up until the 1960s, protecting the planet’s natural resources was not part of our national political agenda. At that time, the number of activists devoted to pollution issues was minimal. After World War II, big, gas-guzzling cars were considered a sign of prosperity. Factories poured pollutants into the air, lakes and rivers with very few legal consequences. The concept of recycling was familiar only to a small portion of the American population.
But on April 22, 1970, that all changed. Rallies were held in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and most other American cities. In New York, Mayor John Lindsay closed off a portion of Fifth Avenue to traffic for several hours and spoke at a gathering in Union Square. In Washington, D.C., Congress went into recess so its members could speak to their constituents at Earth Day events. That special day served as a prelude to a number of important pieces of environmental legislation that were passed in the 1970s: the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Water Quality Improvement Act. In December 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, tasked with protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment—air, land and water.
Forty-four years ago, it seems, Washington, D.C. was full of environmental advocates, despite party lines. In less than 50 years, however, we now find Congress dominated by climate change deniers, refusing to act while our natural surroundings continue to decay.
Nodding off, when it comes to nature, 2014
Today, our environmental laws are being eroded and our planet is slipping into a dire scenario from which we may not be able to recover. Coal dust from new mines could wipe out starry nights in our national parks. Our tundras are turning to forests, displacing many species of wildlife that have lived in that environment for millennia, causing them to deal for the first time in their long histories with agricultural fields, four-lane highways and parking lots. Drilling and fracking are now exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and hazardous waste laws. Today, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest landfill in the world. Composed of plastic shards, this gigantic debris field floats in the Pacific Ocean, about a thousand miles off the coast of California. It covers an area of hundreds—maybe even thousands—of miles and could be as large as Texas, according to some estimates. Despite all of this, Americans’ concerns about the environment and air and water pollution have recently sunk to new lows.
According to HISTORY.com, Senator Gaylord Nelson stated that “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
Given Americans’ declining concerns about natural resource issues and the slackening of our environmental laws, are grassroots-level environmental movements likely to happen anymore? Would we even take to the streets today, or would we protest via our personal electronic devices? What do you think Earth Day 2064 will look like?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,