Earth Day and the Rise of Environmental Consciousness
Ohio River Catching on Fire Raises Awareness
I WILL ORGANIZE A CLEAN-UP IN MY COMMUNITY AND PICK UP LITTER WHENEVER I SEE IT....~Earth Day Tenet
Earth Day, celebrated on April 22, is the annual U.S. celebration of the environment and a time for Americans to assess the work still needed to protect the natural gifts of our planet. Earth Day has no central organizing force behind it, though several nongovernmental organizations work to keep track of the thousands of local events in schools and parks that mark the day. It affirms that environmental awareness is part of the country¹s consciousness and that the idea of protecting the environment once the province of a few conservationists has moved from the extreme to the mainstream of American thought.
This was not always the case. In the 19th century, Americans, blessed with a vast land rich in natural resources, lived with the notion that fresh fields were always just over the horizon. When one exhausted the soil or forests or
coal of a given place, it was possible to move on to another. As industry boomed in the early 20th century people accepted without question skies blackened from smokestack emissions and rivers fouled with industrial waste.
As early as the mid-1930s and again in the 1950s Ohio¹s Cuyahoga River, running through America¹s industrial heartland, was set ablaze by burning chemical waste from factories built upon its banks. There was no public outcry. Few people even noticed.
During the 1960s public attitudes began to change. In 1962 a marine biologist named Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. The title referred to a future without birds and described in plain language devastating long-term
effects of highly toxic pesticides and other chemical agents then commonly used in American agriculture, industry and daily life. The book was a surprise bestseller.
In 1968 Apollo astronauts, returning from their pioneering orbital flight around the moon, photographed the planet Earth as a whole for the first time. This image of the Earth small, fragile, beautiful, and unique quickly was imprinted on the psyches of millions. In 1969 industrial runoff in the Cuyahoga River again caught fire. This time the public reaction was immediate and intense. In that same year the U.S. Congress passed the
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), establishing a ³national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment.²
ORIGIN OF EARTH DAY
Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin and a longtime conservationist, was one who understood that the methods developed for use in the anti-war protest could succeed in other areas as well. ³It suddenly occurred to me, why not have a nationwide teach-in on the environment? That was the origin of Earth Day.²
Nelson returned to Washington and began promoting Earth Day to state governors, mayors of big cities, editors of college newspapers and, importantly, to Scholastic Magazine, which is circulated in U.S. elementary and secondary schools. In September 1969, Nelson formally announced that there would be a ³national environmental teach-in² sometime in spring 1970.
³The wire services carried the story nationwide,² recalled Nelson. ³The response was dramatic .... By December, the movement had expanded so rapidly that it became necessary to open an office in Washington to serve as a
national clearinghouse for Earth Day inquiries and activities ....
³Earth Day achieved what I had hoped for. The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political arena. An estimated 20 million people participated in demonstrations across the country. Ten thousand grade schools and high schools, two thousand colleges, and one thousand communities were involved.... That was the remarkable thing that became Earth Day.²
Groundbreaking federal legislation followed the success of the first Earth Day. Then, in the wake of this legislative success, Earth Day seemed to disappear. Though annual celebrations continued, they failed to match the size and enthusiasm of the first year.
Yet the spirit of Earth Day continued. Environmental organizations grew in size and power. Groups such as Greenpeace and The Nature Conservancy flourished. Venerable institutions such as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society vigorously brought suits against logging companies to slow the destruction of old-growth forests.
At home, Americans, often prompted by their children, began to separate their household trash for recycling. By the late 1980s recycling programs were established in many communities. Corporations, ever conscious of the
desires of the consumer and the bottom line of profits began to promote themselves as being environmentally friendly.
RESURGENCE IN 1990
Earth Day came back in a big way in 1990. Led by Dennis Hayes, a primary organizer of the first Earth Day, Earth Day 1990 was international in scope. More than 200 million people around the world 10 times the number in 1970
participated in events that recognized that the environment had finally become a universal public concern.
The 25th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1995 was a time to assess environmental progress. In Western countries the news seemed good air and water were cleaner, forests were expanding and many other environmental indicators were up as well.
What began in 1970 as a protest movement has evolved into a global celebration of the environment and commitment to its protection. The history of Earth Day mirrors the growth of environmental awareness over the last few decades, and the legacy of Earth Day is the certain knowledge that the environment is a universal concern.
Classic ³Keep America Beautiful² public Service Announcement, ³The Crying Indian².
See the classic public service announcement from the 1970¹s that came out of the Earth Day environmental movement against littering. See the Full Commercial, Keep America Beautiful on YouTube at