Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

How Earth Day United a Nation in Crisis and Sparked a Global Movement

Climate
People observing Earth Day on April 20, 1970 in New York, New York. Santi Visalli / Getty Images

By Amanda Paulson

When Denis Hayes decided to join an environmental teach-in, he had no idea he was about to help launch a movement that would endure for half a century.

The year was 1969 and "there were things that were ripping America apart," Mr. Hayes recalls. He was a student at Harvard University and headed to Washington to offer help to Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who was planning the first Earth Day, scheduled for April 22, 1970.



Before long, Mr. Hayes had dropped out of Harvard and moved to Washington to be the organizer of the event. He found a surge of people eager "to find some things that hold us together," he says.

And it worked. Some 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day events, held in nearly every town and city in the United States. At the marquee event in New York, Fifth Avenue closed from Union Square to Central Park.

"I had never imagined addressing a crowd that would be so large I could not see the far edge of it," recalls Mr. Hayes. "It was like looking out at the ocean. The crowd extended over the horizon."

That moment was just the beginning. What started as a single day grew into a sustained movement that drew both Democrats and Republicans and launched a slew of legislation, from the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency to the adoption of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Superfund program.

The 50th Earth Day celebration this spring is global and – due to the emergence of COVID-19 – virtual. The focus of the event has shifted, from pollution to climate change. But the spirit remains the same.

Mr. Hayes recently looked back on that first Earth Day, its legacy, and lessons for today's activists. Here are some excerpts, edited for clarity and length, from that interview.

What Did the First Earth Day Change?

If you had gone around the United States in 1969 asking people what they thought about the environment, people mostly wouldn't have known what you were talking about. By the middle of 1970, something like 75% of all Americans called themselves environmentalists. There was a set of values – that had sort of been there and implicit, but not wrapped up together in any kind of definable boundary – that came to reshape the culture.

I grew up in a community that was dominated by a paper mill. It cranked out uncontrolled sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide that became acid rain. And that was thought of as the smell of prosperity. We changed that.

There are now people who have chosen to live in a particular kind of location for environmental reasons. Who chose their automobile or bus commute for environmental reasons. There are people like me who chose to have one child for environmental reasons. Politicians got elected and defeated for environmental reasons. All of that happened in a relatively clear chain in the aftermath of Earth Day.

What Parallels Do You See With Today’s Environmental Activism? 

In 1970, if you looked at a smokestack, you saw really ugly clouds of smoke coming out. With climate, of course, with CO2 – you can't see it, you can't smell it, you can't taste it. But what you can see are the effects of it. All of that makes it tangible and visible to people in a way that allows you to have a fair amount of momentum. And then, of course, you have the kids.

Social movements are almost always driven by youth. Historically, young has meant 20 or 22 or 25. Today, it's often 15 or 16. They have this intuitive sense that the world is getting bad at an accelerating pace and they want to do what they can to stop it. Part of what we're doing with Earth Day is answering the question Greta [Thunberg] always asks: Where are the adults?

We're going to be throwing some adults into the mix, who have filed some lawsuits, who know how to prepare legislation, who have worked with the technologies and know what you can do and what would be defying scientific principles. It has to be a broad societal effort, but to get the whole thing launched, as it has been, by the very young has really been a godsend.

What Role Can Environmental Activists of the 1970s Play Today?

I don't want to overstate this, but there was an idealism that was pretty widespread in the '60s and '70s. And those of us who were there then have now moved into positions of some power, some influence. Some have retired and now have some leisure. I'm seeing a fair amount of evidence that that idealism is starting to resurface.

That idealism came from the young and is beginning to spread to the old, to the seniors who have this fair amount of remaining authority over the economy. It's been less effective with the politicians. But where in 1970 it was environmentalists working hand in glove with politicians to try to put some constraints on the irresponsible behavior of the corporations, there's a trace now of environmentalists working with the most enlightened corporate leaders to put some constraints around the politicians.

How Do You Find Optimism?

My biggest worry about the kids is that most of what they're facing are these gloom-and-doom stories, which are all very real. But they have to also recognize that there are well-founded reasons for hope.

You will never be able to generate a movement if you don't have hope. You can't have a civil rights movement unless you think you can prevail. You won't have an anti-war movement unless you think you can end the war.

And you won't have a climate movement unless you can build a safe, healthy, resilient, beautiful society that isn't dependent on fossil fuels.

A number of things have changed faster than anybody thought was possible: the rapidly declining costs of solar technologies, of offshore wind technologies, of battery technologies, of electric vehicles.

Hope is often an act of will. I have a daughter, and my daughter has a daughter, so now I have a granddaughter. I can't dodder off into my twilight years hopeless. There has to be an ability to have society make the necessary choices.

This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Although considered safe overall, aloe vera does carry the risk of making some skin rashes worse. serezniy / Getty Images

By Kristeen Cherney

Skin inflammation, which includes swelling and redness, occurs as an immune system reaction. While redness and swelling can develop for a variety of reasons, rashes and burns are perhaps the most common symptoms. More severe skin inflammation can require medications, but sometimes mild rashes may be aided with home remedies like aloe vera.

Read More Show Less
There are plenty of things you can do every day to help reduce greenhouse gases and your carbon footprint to make a less harmful impact on the environment. ipopba / Getty Images

By Katie Lambert and Sarah Gleim

The United Nations suggests that climate change is not just the defining issue of our time, but we are also at a defining moment in history. Weather patterns are changing and will threaten food production, and sea levels are rising and could cause catastrophic flooding across the globe. Countries must make drastic actions to avoid a future with irreversible damage to major ecosystems and planetary climate.

Read More Show Less
Petri Oeschger / Moment / Getty Images

By Kris Gunnars, BSc

Sleep is one of the pillars of optimal health.

Read More Show Less

Junjira Konsang / Pixabay

By Matt Casale

For many Americans across the country, staying home to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) means adapting to long-term telework for the first time. We're doing a lot more video conferencing and working out all the kinks that come along with it.

Read More Show Less
Looking south from New York City's Central Park. Ajay Suresh / Wikipedia / CC BY 4.0

By Richard leBrasseur

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered humans' relationship with natural landscapes in ways that may be long-lasting. One of its most direct effects on people's daily lives is reduced access to public parks.

Read More Show Less
PeopleImages / E+ / Getty Images

By Ryan Raman, MS, RD

Minerals are key nutrients that your body requires to function. They affect various aspects of bodily function, such as growth, bone health, muscle contractions, fluid balance, and many other processes.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A young monk seal underwater in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. NOAA / PIFSC / HMSRP

By Tara Lohan

The Sargasso Sea, an area of the Atlantic Ocean between the Caribbean and Bermuda, has bedeviled sailors for centuries. Its namesake — sargassum, a type of free-floating seaweed — and notoriously calm winds have "trapped" countless mariners, including the crew of Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria.

Read More Show Less