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Earth Day with Ken Alex and Ethan Elkind

By Rochelle Gluzman and Megan Bergeron

What is Earth Day and how did it come to be?

Earth Day, which falls on April 22 and is the annual celebration of the birth of the modern environmental movement, began in 1970. It is a day of unity for environmentalists, groups and organizations mobilized around specific environmental issues, and everyone in between. Once focused on more local environmental concerns, now on its 51st anniversary, the meaning of Earth Day is giving way to more organized international concerns of inspiring global action on climate change.  

Earth Day came to be as the environmental impacts of 150 years of industrial development started to become clear. The connection between industrial activity and environmental degradation was largely overlooked before the 1960s.  Air pollution, pesticide impacts, polluted waters, leaded gas in inefficient vehicles, soil depletion and biodiversity loss were largely ignored, seen rather as a modest byproduct of industrial progress.  

The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which documented the extreme harm of pesticides, was a singular moment in the environmental movement. Silent Spring, which initially sold 500,000 copies in 24 countries, established in the public mind the clear relationship between pollution and public health, making it impossible to be widely ignored any longer.

After Silent Spring, the modern environmental movement gained momentum at a rapid clip. The 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California only accelerated it’s drive. For Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, and leading conservationist, the still abundant energy of the student anti-war movement converged with the devastation of the oil spill, and the alarm inspired by Carson’s book. Motivated by the student anti-war protests and concern over pollution, Senator Nelson began planning for the first Earth Day, which was to be composed of teach-ins on college campuses. With the help of Congressman Pete McCloskey and activist Denis Hayes, the campus teach-ins were in full swing and set for the date of April 22nd (which conveniently fell right in between spring break and finals). 

As the environmental cause gained momentum, it quickly found support beyond college campuses. Recognizing this, Hayes seized the opportunity to expand the event nationwide, officially naming it Earth Day. The first Earth Day inspired 20 million Americans to take to the streets, while college campuses across the nation protested against environmental destruction.

The first Earth Day captured American’s growing awareness of environmental degradation and ushered in dramatic change. At the end of the year 1970, the United States Environmental Agency was formed and Congress passed the Clean Air Act. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, and then in 1973, the Endangered Species Act, as well as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. These laws still form the primary environmental protections fifty years later.  

By 1990, Earth Day had become a global phenomenon, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries. Over the years, the purpose behind Earth Day has evolved. In the 2000s, it centered around global warming and clean energy. In the 2010s, the goals shifted to that of combating climate change denial and big oil. 

Today, Earth Day is the “largest secular observance in the world” according to earthday.org, and is about much more than environmental destruction. The intersectionality of the environmental movement reflects the changing frames of injustice – for humans, and the planet. With the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements coinciding with Earth Day this year, a significant focus will be  to emphasize environmental justice; the disparate environmental impacts that BIPOC (Black, Indiginous, and People of Color) communities bear; as well as the impacts borne by essential workers. 

Earth Day 2021 includes the added layer of a global pandemic, which can be viewed, in part, as the result of human encroachment on the environment (resulting in increased risk of animal to human transfer of disease).  The pandemic combined with climate change underscores the urgency of the message of April 22.  

And from all of us at Climate Break, happy Earth Day! 

Resources:

Earth Day: https://www.earthday.org/history/

Ken Alex’s Article on Earth Day: https://legal-planet.org/2019/10/28/the-dirty-dozen-rides-again/

Environmental Protection Agency: https://www.epa.gov/earthday

What is Environmental Justice: https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice

The Endangered Species Act: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/laws-policies/