In 1969, Americans were preoccupied with the divisive Vietnam War. But another battle was occurring on the home front, with rivers and lakes polluted, cities like Los Angeles blanketed in smog, and litter a common sight everywhere.
Meanwhile Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson had witnessed the effects of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Nelson, a Democrat, decided a “national teach-in” about the environment was in order, and he asked Pete McCloskey, a northern California Republican, to serve as co-chair. Groups representing causes including oil spill prevention, air pollution, toxic dumps, wilderness destruction and endangered species began to realize they were all part of a greater movement.
The organization held the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 and it drew the passion of 20 million Americans. Demonstrations and events took place all across America. The largest crowd was in New York City as Republican Mayor John Lindsey of New York permitted Fifth Avenue to be closed and allowed Central Park to host one million participants. CBS News with Walter Cronkite hosted a one hour Earth Day news special. A few years later, the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency became a reality under a Republican President, Richard Nixon.
After Earth Day 1970, the event continued to be held every 10 years, but Senator Nelson felt that in order for it to really make an impact, it should be more of an annual event. In 1990, Nelson formed Earth Day USA. From that point on, Earth Day became a holiday celebrated every year, a change that helped it gain much more momentum than in the past.
In his remarks on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day’s founding (you can read the entire speech here), Nelson stated:
The bottom line question is obvious and critical. Can we as a nation evolve into a sustainable society during the next four or five decades? That is to say, a sustainable society which we would view with approval. The answer is yes–if we have strong political leadership and the support of a society imbued with a guiding environmental ethic. The evolution of such an ethic within our culture is happening now at an accelerating pace.
It seems that Nelson was a prognosticator. There is a movement that views the environmental support movement as paramount. There are leaders that wish to pull our communities, kicking and screaming if need be, to a joint sustainable society.
However, the idea of supporting the Earth as more than a resource holder is, in some circles, a quaint, if not laughable notion. Do we currently have that necessary strong political leadership? Are we currently a society that has a “guiding environmental ethic”? Some would say we are currently working towards it (an optimistic, perhaps naive viewpoint). Other, more cynical voices would argue that there are members working counter to the sustainability movement; they’re doing everything in their power to block it.
Opponents of the “Environmental Movement”, even from the beginning, have been trying to frame the argument in terms of economy vs environment. The economy will suffer without a sacrifice from the environment. Nelson even mentioned it in his 25th anniversary remarks and helps counter that framework:
“Look at it this way and the connection becomes obvious. It is this·· The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. All economic activity is dependent upon that environment with its underlying resource base. When the environment is finally forced to file under Chapter 11 because its resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, irretrievably compromised, then, the economy goes down into bankruptcy with it because the economy is just a subset within the ecological system.”
If you look at our current society, our enthusiastic members, you will see that there are many who choose to not subscribe to that framework, and instead choose to spread the message of sustainability, the message of ecology over economy.
As that message has spread, Earth Day itself has spread to 175 countries. We’re hoping that this year even more people will celebrate, volunteer and participate in Earth Day and every day, at a time when recognizing the critical condition of the Earth is more important than ever.