Happy Earth Day!
Every day is Earth Day at Green Energy Times
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
From a Pogo cartoon that appeared on the first Earth Day.
The first Earth Day happened on April 22, 1970. It was originally viewed as a teach-in about environmental issues that would happen across college campuses in the United States. But it was quickly more than that.
To understand the history of the event, it is important to take its context into account. This was not an issue of Right versus Left or Republican versus Democrat. It was an issue that appealed to people of all values and persuasions.
In those days, there was little control on pollution. Effluents of all sorts were simply dumped into rivers and streams. It was not uncommon to see soap suds from laundromat wastewater floating on a river, but what was out of sight was worse. Industrial waste was often dumped into waters that only decades earlier had been the source of fish people ate. And the result was that practically nothing was alive in much of our water. Air pollution was just as bad.
The idea of a day devoted to issues of clean air and water was being floated by several people. Leaders in congress and in states looked into ways to protect the environment and human health and life. Among them was a long-time conservationist and United States Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson who first floated the idea of Earth Day in 1969. To organize the day’s events on college campuses, he hired a law student, Denis Hayes.
When Richard Nixon gave the State of the Union Address in January of 1970, he devoted about a third of the speech to environmental issues. One thing he said was this:
Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.
The first Earth Day came less than four months later, on April 22, 1970. It was originally conceived as a teach-in event for schools. With Hayes’ organization skills it was observed at about two thousand colleges and universities, and possibly ten thousand other schools, in this country.
Earth Day was not exclusively tied to schools, however. In fact, Richard and Pat Nixon celebrated the first Earth Day by planting a tree on the White House lawn. While the Nixons’ yard work was reported by media, however, it was very much overshadowed in the news by large demonstrations pressing for action to protect the environment. In New York, Mayor Lindsay closed down Fifth Avenue. There were other large events in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
The work on both sides of the aisle in congress to protect the environment did not stop after the first Earth Day. President Nixon proposed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and then created it by executive order in December of 1970. That order was later ratified by congress.
Richard Nixon continued to support environmental measures while he was in office. He signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act in December 1970, creating OSHA. While he vetoed the Clean Water Act in 1972, he did so because he objected to the amount of money allocated; his veto was overridden by both chambers of congress in October, 1972. He signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act signed in 1973.
Senator Gaylord Nelson continued his environmental activities after the first Earth Day. He summed up his position on the environment, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.” After leaving the senate, he became counselor for The Wilderness Society. In 1995, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 2005.
After the first Earth Day, Denis Hayes continued to spend time organizing it. He founded the Earth Day Network to coordinate activities, and under his guidance, the event expanded to be observed in well over a hundred countries. Since 1992, Hayes has been president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, Washington. He oversaw construction of The Bullitt Center, which opened in 2013 as the first “Living Building” certified by the International Living Future Institute. As we approach the fiftieth Earth Day, Hayes continues to be active in environmental and energy policy.
Earth Day is now celebrated in 193 countries each April 22. You can learn more at https://www.earthday.org/.