Celebrating 50 years of Earth Day

Published 4:55 pm Tuesday, April 21, 2020

By Scott Landa
KeepTroup Beautiful Executive Director

Earth Day 2020 – Celebrating 50 years of concern and action for our planet. There are a few us around who remember that first Earth Day in 1970.

I think context is important, so here goes. The late 60s were amazing times for us in this country. As a college student, I was immersed in college life, but I was also concerned about what the future looked like. Would I get a job after college? Would I be drafted into the military while my brother was fighting in Vietnam? We were fighting a war that many questioned could ever be won. Our young culture was questioning ideas put forth by anyone over 30. The year 1969 was the Woodstock music festival — a perfect snapshot of my generation! And 1970 would bring tragic protests on college campuses, including mine in Virginia. In May 1970, at Kent State University, four students died at the hands of Ohio National Guard troops trying to quell an anti-war demonstration. This was just weeks before my college graduation, and that act affected campuses throughout the country.

Something else was going on at the time. In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industries belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Until this point, mainstream America remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health.

Senator Gaylord Nelson and Congressman Pete McCloskey, at the time seeing what was happening to our country, got behind the idea to take advantage of the anti-war student energy and organize campus teach-ins across the country. The target day was April 22, 1970, chosen because it was a weekday between spring break and final exams. Back then, that first Earth Day inspired approximately 20 million people — 10% of the US population. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment, and there were massive coast-to-coast rallies in cities, towns, and communities.

What I am reminded of and find interesting in this current time of political acrimony is Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business and labor leaders. By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of other first-of-their-kind environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act,  the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. Two years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act.  A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and soon after the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. These laws have protected millions of men, women and children from disease and death and have protected hundreds of species from extinction.

Thanks to this movement and environmental achievements in the United States, Earth Day went global in 1990 thanks to the efforts of the original organizers and support from 141 countries around the globe.  While Earth Day has seen its struggles as many have included concern over climate change in the Earth Day mission, the support continues to grow. Thinking back to the first Earth Day and the reasons for being, each of us can get behind an effort to focus on our Earth.

While we’re living through a global pandemic the likes of which haven’t been experienced for a century, we tend to think more about ourselves and our place in the community and beyond. How have our lives changed since the beginning of 2020? What will be different when the pandemic ends? I believe things will be very different in how we interact with each other and with our community. Let’s use this Earth Day as the teaching moment the original day was. What can I do as a citizen of this community, of this state, and of this country to make where I live, work and play the best possible place for me and my children and grandchildren?