Each year, Earth Day — April 22 — marks the anniversary of what many consider the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.
The height of hippie and flower-child culture in the United States, 1970 brought the death of Jimi Hendrix, the last Beatles album, and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Protest was the order of the day, but saving the planet was not the cause. War raged in Vietnam, and students nationwide increasingly opposed it.
At the time, Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. “Environment” was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news. Although mainstream America remained oblivious to environmental concerns, the stage had been set for change by the publication of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962. The book represented a watershed moment for the modern environmental movement, selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries and, up until that moment, more than any other person, Ms. Carson raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and public health.
Earth Day 1970 capitalized on the emerging consciousness, channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and putting environmental concerns front and center.
The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land.
As a result, on the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.
Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. “It was a gamble,” Gaylord recalled, “but it worked.”
LIFEUniversity’s Earth Day celebration will be held on April 23rd in the CUS plaza from 10:30am to 2:00pm