The first Earth Day occurred fifty-one years ago, and is widely credited with being the catalyst of the modern environmental movement. As we are celebrating over five decades of Earth Day festivities, it is important that we question how much has changed since 1970.
Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin orchestrated the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. Nelson was inspired by the anti-war teach-ins of the 1960s which opposed American involvement in Vietnam.
It was important that Earth Day was to be about education and Nelson described the event as a ‘national teach-in on the environment’. As a result of its educational focus, Earth Day came to be a ‘voice for the emerging environmental consciousness’ of the 1960s, as it allowed people to engage with environmental issues in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Throughout the 1960s there had been a series of high-profile, devastating environmental disasters. In January, 1969, one of the largest ever oil spills in the United States occurred in Santa Barbara, California causing a huge ecological disaster.
In June later that year, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire as a result of its extreme levels of pollution. These two events were widely publicised and created a wave of public concern for the state of the environment in America.
The events of the 1960s, therefore, allowed for society as a whole to become aware of the growing environmental crisis
These events occurred as several high-profile ecological works, such as, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, were published. The events of the 1960s, therefore, allowed for society as a whole to become aware of the growing environmental crisis.
The growing concern for the environment during the late 1960s pushed society into wanting to contribute to making tangible change. Building on the environmental awareness that was galvanising during the 1960s, Earth Day provided a collective voice and a platform that transformed this concern into a movement.
On April 22, 1970, 20 million people across the United States took part in Earth Day events. Nelson insisted that the event was not organised in the typical top-down fashion, and encouraged local grassroots activists to plan events within their communities.
For this reason, the first Earth Day was hugely successful. Schools participated in clean-ups, speeches were heard on campuses nationwide and fifth avenue was even closed to traffic for a segment of the day. Protests occurred throughout the country as people took to the streets to ‘demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industry’.
After the first Earth Day, the 1970s became known as the ‘environmental decade’ as a plethora of legislation was published
Nelson has stated that the purpose of Earth Day was to raise national consciousness and ‘shake the political establishment out of its lethargy’ and into action.
After the first Earth Day, the 1970s became known as the ‘environmental decade’ as a plethora of legislation was published which created the ecological-political framework that is still prevalent today. This tangible change is a manifestation of one of the huge successes of the first Earth Day.
Over the subsequent decades, Earth Day grew into a global phenomenon. In 1990, organiser Denis Hayes transformed Earth Day into an international network, involving 140 nations around the globe.
This event marked the transformation of a grassroots event into a global
movement in the name of environmental justice. Environmental historian, Adam Rome, has described the first Earth Day as a ‘national awakening’ which led to the ‘first green generation’.
Rome insists that this legacy of Earth Day should stand as a symbol of hope for modern day climate activists, as it is proof that environmental victories can be orchestrated through grassroots activism and popular support.
Greta Thunberg gave a speech to the UN in 2019 which criticised world leaders for not acting with enough urgency regarding the climate crisis. In the same year, extinction rebellion protests occurred in London with the message that the world was ‘headed for disaster’.
The environmental consciousness which helped to facilitate the first Earth Day is more prominent than ever in society today
These messages bare a stark resemblance to those which were circulating in the late 1960s. This should come as a wake-up call to many in 2021 as it is evident that the environmental narrative has not shifted since the first Earth Day, it has only gotten worse.
The environmental consciousness which helped to facilitate the first Earth Day is more prominent than ever in society today. It is crucial that this sentiment is developed into a national conversation that will encourage social and political action, as it did in 1970.
The first Earth Day led to a decade of legislative change and a mass shift in public opinion towards the environmental movement. The same level of energy and dedication is needed now to place the environmental movement and their message back in the forefront of national and international discussions, both on the political and social level.
The first Earth Day achieved so much and has a powerful legacy, and yet we are still learning lessons about the environment and continue to abuse the planet. It is clear that Earth Day is even more relevant in today’s environmental and political climate than it was in 1970.
We should all use this year’s Earth Day to reassert a commitment to ending the climate crisis, and, just as in 1970, we should see it as a ‘call to arms’ and use it to build the foundations of real change in the coming years.
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