It’s been 50 years since the first Earth Day in 1970. Our world has changed drastically, and though many steps have been made toward the goals of the original Earth Day, we have a long way to go. Despite the increased awareness of environmental issues and increased consensus among scientists that climate change is caused by human activity, we still sorely lack the immediate action necessary to prevent further warming and severe consequences.
Fortunately, we can draw some inspiration from the activists driving the first Earth Day in 1970, especially those right here in our own state. In 1969 after visiting the oil-soaked waters in Santa Barbara, California, Senator Gaylord Nelson had an idea. Similar to the teach-ins during the Vietnam War, Senator Nelson wanted to harness the power of individuals in their local communities to push for environmental action and justice. To do this, Senator Nelson began organizing the first Earth Day, a day he imagined for Americans to speak out about the environmental crises they faced.
As Nelson began his preparation for Earth Day, he made a call for environmental teach-ins just like those done to protest the Vietnam War. Teach-ins are similar to educational forums but focus on current events and don’t include a time limit. Senator Nelson wanted to use the teach-ins as a platform to discuss ideas about fighting for the environment. At the same time, students from the University of Michigan group Environmental Action for Survival (ENACT) began planning a four-day event filled with protests and teach-ins, just like Nelson called for.
The teach-in event at the University of Michigan occurred in March of 1970, setting the stage perfectly for Earth Day the following month. Senator Nelson helped kick off the event, and the four days were filled with panelists, workshops, presentations, protests, and music. Protestors took a sledgehammer to a Ford sedan, placed 10,000 nonreturnable cans on Coca-Cola’s front lawn, and marched along the Huron River with local elementary students and the Sierra Club Director David Brower.
As the first Earth Day approached, more than 1,500 college campuses joined in. Then, on April 22, 1970, twenty million people participated in events across the nation in support of environmental action and social justice. The day depended on the leverage of grassroots community action and connected students, environmental groups, community members, and policymakers on a large-scale. More importantly, it facilitated the establishment of many important environmental policies that still shape our nation today.
Soon after the first Earth Day, the federal government formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and passed two important regulations that constitute the majority of the EPA’s actions: the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. In addition, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
An important side note in these federal regulations is that at the time they were passed, these bills were popular bipartisan bills. Although today’s political polarization is much worse than it was in the 1970s, this point provides an important lesson: environmental justice and sustainability is not a partisan issue. The quality of the environment and our ability to work WITH it rather than against it affects us all. The health and safety of ALL people depends on a healthy, flourishing environment and that transcends all beliefs and political divides.
Back to the Earth Day story. In the years that followed, Earth Day continued, eventually creating an Earth Day Network that connects organizations from all over the world to push for sustainable and environmentally-friendly policies. Many other organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy and Sierra Club have also worked tirelessly in pursuit of environmental protection and regulations with some success.
Unfortunately, in the political realm, environmental policy in the United States has not changed much since 50 years ago. Thanks to our current administration, those fundamental environmental regulations have been severely affected. The Trump administration has rolled back almost 100 environmental regulations since coming into office, which has seriously threatened the lives of thousands and the health of our world, largely due to the support he has from the fossil fuel industry.
When it comes to pollution and health, these rollbacks are life-threatening. Even during our current national emergency, the Trump administration continues to push and finalize rollbacks. Just days after the U.S. reached the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, the Trump administration finalized their rollback of car emissions standards. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, this rollback could claim 18,500 lives and lead to 250,000 more asthma attacks and 350,000 more respiratory ailments, totaling one million lost workdays and $190 billion in health care costs due to these health effects. And he does this in the middle of an outbreak of a respiratory disease.
Not to mention, these rollbacks could mean spending a heck of a lot more money on gasoline and a loss of 60,000 jobs by the year 2040, which is exactly what our economy needs right now.
Despite the Trump administration’s attack on the environment in the name of money, we can turn it around. The stories from the first Earth Day show us how much power we have when we come together under a common goal. It shows us that even small events matter. How we matter, now more than ever.
So where do we go from here? The next 50 years, heck, the next 10 years, will define the future of us and our world forever.
So in the spirit of Earth Day, I ask you to take action, to preserve the beauty of this world for generations to come and to improve the lives of millions of people across the world, including you and your loved ones.
Volunteer in local environmental groups. Vote for people who stand for sustainability. Use your voice and shout your support from the rooftops. Speak up for those whose voices are not heard yet are most affected by the pollution industry creates. And ask yourself, what kind of future do you want?
It’s about time we make every day Earth Day.