50 years of Earth Days: Legacy and Lessons of “going green”

written by: Kelley V Phillips, Outreach Coordinator

“Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for human beings and all other creatures.” This quote from Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970 is as visionary today as it was then. April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an environmental movement that has mobilized 1 billion people across the world. Earth Day Network estimates it is the largest secular civic event worldwide. The key to unprecedented success is collaboration towards a single goal: transformative change for people and the planet.

With the 1962 publishing of “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, environmental concern was thrust into the forefront of the country’s political agenda. Energy from civic activism created worry and outrage over environmental protection and access to clean air and water. Though Senator Nelson’s idea of Earth Day started modestly, the first event sparked a growing movement over the next 50 years.

In bi-partisan partnership with Congressman Pete McKloski of California, Nelson mobilized a small group of politicians to rethink environmental legislative policies after a shocking tour of an oil spill in 1969. Soon after, Nelson rallied to the idea of a national environmental “teach-in.” He hired Denis Hayes, a 25-year old Harvard graduate, to coordinate the campaign. Activating college students’ energy for advocacy and discussion, April 22 was selected because it fell between Spring Break and final exams.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million people–10 percent of the U.S. population at the time–engaged in demonstrations, protests, and lectures. Turnout was beyond what the organizers ever imagined. Individuals across diverse demographics of age, race, urban/rural locations, political, and socioeconomic backgrounds participated. Organizations that dedicated their efforts to specific causes like pollution, pesticides, and wildlife extinction had exponential impact by collaborating with each other. Earth Day institutionalized environmental values and is widely recognized as the birth of the environmental movement. It is credited with the rapid establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and passage of the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972).

Over the last 50 years, concern for a deteriorating environment has manifested in national and international policies and practices. The Safe Water Drinking Act, passed in 1974, created regulatory standards for 90 contaminants. In 1980, more than 100 million acres of wilderness were preserved after Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987 by many world nations, outlawed a series of chemicals that had been destroying the Earth’s protective ozone. Helping galvanize a revolution in environmentally-friendly design, the U.S. Green Building Council was founded in 1993. Five years later in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by the United Nations, committing industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2007, cars became more fuel efficient with the Energy Independence and Security Act. And in 2016, the United Nations chose April 22, Earth Day, to sign the Paris climate agreement.

Though celebrated globally since 1990, the values of Earth Day remain applicable to the environment and ecosystems on a local level. Red-tail Land Conservancy’s stewardship objectives incorporate two major themes to mitigate the effects of warmer, wetter seasons. The first is removing invasive plants as their geographical range and ability to out-compete native plants is rising. Equally important is planting trees which improve woodland diversity and reduce stream erosion. The underlying concept of these two ideas is protecting and restoring corridors between vulnerable habitats, a vital feature as wildlife move in response to changing ecosystems.

Also essential is the creation of new habitats. By planting native species, individuals can transform their yards into prairies and woodlands that provide critical food and shelter for migratory wildlife and pollinators. Seeing the delightful color and variety of birds and butterflies visiting a biodiverse area is a bonus.

Collaboration is at the heart of Earth Day’s values and practices but creating momentum does not need to be face to face. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Earth Day Network has launched “Earthrise: Earth Day Goes Digital.” Instead of large demonstrations, their digital platform allows individuals to create their own “Act of Green,” download educational materials, and sign up for future events. Also spearheaded by the Network is the world’s largest citizen science initiative, Earth Challenge 2020. With their app, anyone can measure air quality and plastic pollution near them and add their observations to an international study.

Whether you observe Earth Day once a year or hold it close to your heart every day, there are meaningful actions you can take. Picking up litter and removing invasive plants improve habitats for wildlife. Adding more native plants and trees around your home creates new habitats and provides critical food and shelter for migratory birds and pollinators. Taking time to ensure you are only putting recyclable materials into the recycling bin reduces waste contamination. Bringing reusable bags to the store instead of using the plastic bags reduces non-biodegradable material that ends up in landfills. Wearing layers indoors to keep the thermostat from running all day reduces energy use.

Most importantly, go outside. Remind yourself what is at stake. You have the power to protect, preserve, and restore habitats where wildlife and people thrive. Use it wisely.