Happy Earth Day!
The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. That means that we’ve had 51 years to figure out what this important day is all about, and what it means to us.
For many people, Earth Day is symbolic. For others, it’s a day of action.
In order to get to the bottom of Earth Day, to learn a little bit about the history of the “day of giving back to the planet,” I decided to reach out to Adam Rome, PhD, Professor of Environment and Sustainability at UB College of Arts and Sciences. You see, there’s really no one better to discuss Earth Day, considering Rome literally wrote the book on the subject. Rome’s book, “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation,” is a deep dive that discusses the formations of the event, the attitudes of the day, and the expectations that followed.
“I’ve written the only book on the original Earth Day,” Rome told me. “The day was broadcast on CBS, which was a big deal considering that there were only 4 network stations and no cable at the time. It was a primetime show on that day. The genius of the first Earth Day was creating a national conversation. There were hardly any experts on the subject in 1970 – there were people who worked on certain issues, but until Earth Day they didn’t see themselves as part of a movement. It presented a soul-searching way to research the roots of the problems and find the solutions… the conversations were transformative. People organized Earth Day events, and many people spoke for the first time. It challenged them to think what can we do differently? A lot of people reoriented their lives – at the time, there were no career paths dedicated to the environment. Now there are zillions.”
I asked Rome to think back to the first Earth Day, and to recall how he came to become such an authority on the subject.
“I was ten years old during the first Earth Day,” he told me. “I grew up in a suburb of Connecticut, but I have always found ways to incorporate nature into my everyday life. At the time, my hero was Ralph Nader (political and environmental activist, author of The Menace of Atomic Energy and Who’s Poisoning America) – I was going to participate in a walk for the Connecticut Earth Action Group… I didn’t make the walk, but I did raise the funds. In my 20’s, I fell in love with an ‘earth mother’ type person, which is when I seriously started looking into our relationship with the environment.”
Rome told me that it was empowering to feel “no longer alone” in the fight for the planet, when US Senator, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin (known as “The nation’s #1 conservationist”) came up with the idea for the first Earth Day. “Millions of people across the United States took part in over 12,000 events in the spring of 1970, to mark the occasion,” explained Rome. “An important thing to remember is that the message was clear that the problems were not going to be solved overnight, and that it would take a generation. A generation later, in 1995, Gaylord Nelson said that it would be a 50 year project. We’re well on our way to that point now.”
Obviously, things are taking a lot longer than anyone could have anticipated.
“I wish we had done more, especially about climate change, than simply talking for the last 30 years,” Rome told me. “At this point, the scale of what we need to do is to transform the way that we do everything. There is finally an urgency. People don’t fundamentally change without an internal struggle. That struggle helps them to grapple with the issues. My own hope for Earth Day is to create a conversation, while helping people to find things to do that matter to them. Since that first Earth Day, people have decided for themselves how to make personal connections – some marched, while others worked for political candidates. They came to realize that there was a network, and that there was power in information.”
Interestingly enough, Rome said that the first Earth Day was so important because people were there in person. It wasn’t just via social media or watching the news. “It was very empowering,” he reflected. “The way that Earth Day is presented by the media these days can be disempowering.”
Back in 1970, there were protests over polluted air, dirty waters, filthy cities, sprawl, disappearing natural habitats, the automobile, nuclear waste, and so on. To this day, those same issues are still problematic all over the world, but there seems to be a disconnect. Unless those issues impact our daily lives, we tend not to be bothered by them. They are someone else’s problems apparently. Or not even a problem to some.
Earth Day of the modern era is much more “tame” compared to the revolutionary ways of the early 70’s. In his Audible Original audio course on the first Earth Day, released last year to mark the 50th anniversary of that occasion, Rome talks about today’s young people that passively learn about the importance of recycling and planting trees. But it was that original unifying and unprecedented Earth Day that begat movements that led to the formations of organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The passage of the Clean Air Act was another result of those early protests and unified engagements.
It’s funny (actually scary) to think that 2020 marked the 50 year anniversary of Earth Day. At a time when the planet was burning, oceans were dying, and the pandemic was raging, there didn’t appear to be much urgency surrounding the golden anniversary.
“Gaylord Nelson was trusting that if people thought about what mattered most to them, good things would come of it,” Rome offered. “Instead of telling people what to do, it was important for people to figure it out for themselves.”
After 50+ years, there are a lot of people who have figured it out for themselves. At the same time, there are a heck of a lot of people who will need some ‘guidance’ moving forward. I am of the belief that the “bottom up” strategy is nice, but the “top down” strategy is crucial. If the large corporations are not held responsible for their actions and their inactions, we’re going to be in a heap more trouble than we are now.
Maybe it’s time to speak up louder, shout from the rooftops? Possibly even start to protest with the same zest and fervor that managed to captivate the attention of a nation?
Who knows what the next 50 years will bring. Once thing is sure – it’s not going to be pretty, which is why today is such a big deal.
Lead image; Boy holds Earth Day flag, 1970, in Springfield, Illinois | Photographer: Pam Bruzan