Earth Day is an international day of celebration of possibly the most impressive creation in the universe — our planet.
Earth is unlike any other known phenomenon; so diverse, delicate, beautiful, and at the same time harsh, cruel and unyielding.
The first Earth Day, in 1970, capitalized on a strong grassroots movement that saw the need for improved protections of our planet and its natural resources.
In the early industrial era and the war years that followed there was a widespread and disturbing disregard for the impacts our growth and increasing prosperity were having on our environment. Many saw it as a time for change.
Born from the writings and teachings of the likes of conservationist Theodore Roosevelt, preservationist John Muir and ecologist Rachel Carson, and strengthened by very tangible and visible phenomena such as rampant air pollution, huge fish kills on the Great Lakes, the spontaneous combustion and bursting into flames of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, and the Santa Barbara oil spill, the modern environmental movement started to gain ground in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Concerns about the effects of nuclear testing and power plants; the effects of strip mining coal, copper and other materials; pollutants being dumped into our waterways and oceans; and the effects of toxic chemicals being used in agriculture were additional catalysts for the movement.
During this time, landmark policies were enacted thanks to the widespread constituent demand and support for policy change.
The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, was a huge success, not only a validation for efforts that had already happened, but also a starting point for widespread media exposure and policy action.
Over 20 million Americans participated in teach-ins, rallies, and peaceful marches. In New York City, Fifth Avenue was closed to vehicle traffic and it is estimated over one million participants gathered there.
As the home of NBC, CBS and ABC, Manhattan also provided great publicity for the event in national news.
In the 10 years after the first Earth Day, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Clean Air Act, the Water Pollution and Control Act Amendments, the Resource Recovery Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Endangered Species Act and many more laws protecting our land and environment, and our safety and health, were enacted.
There were some who sought to see the effort as a communist plot, an encroachment on our freedoms, and a waste of time.
Some of the predictions made on Earth Day included worldwide famine, mass extinction of animal species, air pollution so severe as to obscure 50 percent of the sun’s rays, global chilling, and running out of crude oil by the year 2000.
While many of the issues predicted do exist today, happily they are not nearly as widespread or all-consuming as was then thought.
We can thank the efforts of the policymakers of the time to respond to the demand for protections for the natural treasures of our country, and our collective health and safety.
Today, we are faced with varying versions of the same issues.
The Earth’s population is growing in leaps and bounds and is demanding more and more resources that are becoming scarcer and more difficult to extract. Our environment is still under attack and our human practices of consumption and waste are still, in many ways, in direct conflict with the health of our ecosystem.
As the 46th celebration of Earth Day draws near, what can we do to ensure a healthy future for our planet and our children?
Continued education and awareness are an important element. Adopting renewable technologies and supporting continued research and innovation in the more efficient production of energy, food and goods, as well as conservation and the proper management of waste are also needed.
Most importantly, I think, is taking steps as an individual to take responsibility for what you can do within your sphere of influence. To ensure that politicians and leaders make the right decisions, we need to be engaged and involved.
Treating every day like Earth Day is a great first step.
Consider recycling if you don’t already; try to buy only what you need. Look for ethically produced food and goods; walk or cycle instead of driving if it’s nice out, consolidate errands if you have to drive; be involved in sustainability efforts in your community, and the list goes on.
One of my favorite quotes by Mahatma Ghandi is: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Every effort counts!
As the founder of Earth Day, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson stated a decade after the first celebration: “So long as the human species inhabits the Earth, proper management of its resources will be the most fundamental issue we face. Our very survival will depend upon whether or not we are able to preserve, protect and defend our environment. We are not free to decide about whether or not our environment ‘matters.’ It does matter, apart from any political exigencies. We disregard the needs of our ecosystem at our mortal peril.”
This, he says, “was the great lesson of Earth Day. It must never be forgotten”