The Original Earth Day Led to a Lasting Movement and Fundamental Change

Earth Day 1970, New York City      Photo: Associated Press

By Zoey Shipley and Monica Medina

This week we celebrate 50 years since the first Earth Day. It was the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and led to a “cascade” of groundbreaking laws and a much greater societal awareness of the environment and conservation that persists today.  But even more, according to historian Adam Rome who wrote a book about the original Earth Day, it created a lasting eco-infrastructure—large environmental organizations, environmental beats at newspapers, environmental-studies programs, ecology sections in bookstores, and community ecology centers that form the basis for the environmental and climate justice movement today.

Why This Matters:  Despite the President’s efforts to divide the nation by creating a false dichotomy between economic growth and conservation, ensuring a clean environment and addressing climate change have bipartisan support.  In fact, the public wants the government to do more — not less.  This week’s anniversary presents an opportunity to remind the public, through hundreds of virtual grassroots events across the country, how important clean air, clean water, biodiversity, and combatting climate change are to our sense of who we are as a nation and our quality of life.

Earth Day’s History Leads to Lessons for Today

Two major environmental disasters created a public outcry that led to Earth Day. A major oil spill on Santa Barbara’s beach and the river that caught fire in Ohio due to how polluted it was. These major disasters could not be ignored. Local citizens across the country began to notice the terrible things happening to the environment around them.

One of the things that made Earth Day so successful was the power its leaders gave to local organizers. Senator Nelson wanted it to be an environmental teach-in day led from the grassroots by local groups and they were the ones that made Earth Day the success it is today. Over 11,5000 schools, colleges, and universities participated in the day with speeches, a funeral procession for the earth, and more. Nelson continued that momentum by hiring a national staff to help promote Earth Day lessons through teaching and a newsletter. Each local community also had the power to create events that best reflected the issues their areas were facing, like planting trees to protect a local park or hosting protests for more environmental protections. The momentum of this movement was also used to pass critical legislation like the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and even the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Legacy Continues

This past movement is greatly reflected in new movements that have emerged today. These movements are still being led largely by young people too. “I am old enough to know that Americans have lived through a time as divisive and politically rancorous as today and that was the height of the Vietnam War and around the time of the first Earth Day,” Tia Nelson, Senator Gaylord Nelson’s daughter, said. “And yet, through grassroots engagement, through the voices of youth, the country came together and adopted more environmental laws in the decade that followed the first Earth Day than [at] any other time in American history.”

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