Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Very First Earth Day

Nearly 40 years ago, on April 22, 1970, Americans observed the first Earth Day, an event envisioned by Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin). (Its logo, pictured at right,  appeared on a flag with green and white stripes.) Inspired by the political activism on college campuses in response to the Vietnam War, Nelson had proposed a national teach-in on the environment  to send a message to Washington that public opinion was solidly behind a bold political agenda on environmental problems.

Nelson insisted the first Earth Day's activities be created not by organizers in Washington, but by individuals and groups in their own communities. He later reflected, “Earth Day planned itself.”  On April 22, 1970, some 20,000,000  Americans participated in Earth Day events across the nation. In New York City, Mayor Lindsay closed Fifth Avenue for a demonstration attended by thousands. I attended a “teach-in” at Belmont High, its message so strong that I remember convincing my AP American History teacher that it was much more important to do a detailed project on air pollution than to take the AP exam. I recently re-discovered that handwritten paper, complete with copious footnotes and correspondence with Boston’s Mayor Kevin White, and now find myself picking up a thread that I began some four decades ago.

Let me put the first Earth Day in context.

In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught on fire. Yes, a river had actually burned — for two hours! DDT was legal (not banned until 1972). In 1963, there were less than 500 pairs of American Bald Eagles in the entire lower 48 states. There was no EPA. Gasoline and paint contained lead. Students played with mercury in science class. Most importantly, there were no laws regulating the particulates and chemicals dumped into the environment. Factories, trash incinerators, and power plants spewed their filth, unregulated, into the air and waterways.

With the first Earth Day, the country seemed to wake up. According to information on the EPA website, “Born in the wake of elevated concern about environmental pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened its doors in downtown Washington, DC, on December 2, 1970. EPA was established to consolidate in one agency a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities to ensure environmental protection. EPA's mission is to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment—air, water, and land—upon which life depends.”

In the decade following the first Earth Day, 28 pieces of environmental legislation were passed, including: the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Water Pollution and Control Act Amendments, the Resource Recovery Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

America’s eyes were finally open and the country pulled together to begin the work of undoing the damage caused by years of “choices neglected…in our efforts to achieve the most spectacular ‘progress’ the world has ever known.” (Pamphlet printed by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare 5/1/70)

Think of it, 28 pieces of legislation, driven by a movement inspired by Democrats under a Republican president, were enacted in just one decade — all of which imposed a tremendous cost on doing business. Hard to imagine that today!

1 comment:

  1. For some reason this jogged my memory of chemistry sets & how common they were in any house with young males when we were growing up. I vividly recall at least two pages of various sets in the Sears Xmas Catalogue (and all made by that pride of CT, the Gilbert Company of Erector Set fame). Lord knows how many toxic & volatile chemicals we were all exposed to. One set devoted to radioactivity even came with a Geiger counter (don't recall if there was anything radioactive included, though) ! Having any of those kits in your house nowadays would probably get you a one-way ticket to Gitmo ;-)