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Earth Day, Then and Now

Washington D.C. Citizens gather to celebrate Mother Earth and show support for environmental movement during Earth Day in 2015.

 On April 22nd 1970, more than 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day. Now more than 50 years later, more than 1 billion people in more than 190 countries use the day to educate and raise awareness of environmental causes. While we have made a lot of progress on environmental issues since the first Earth Day, we still have a long way to go.

A History of Earth Day:

Earth Day came to be after several environmental disasters in the late 1950s and ’60s spurred the beginning of the environmental movement. In 1962, Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring, which discussed the dangers of pesticides and their detrimental impact on wildlife. In January 1969 there was a horrific oil spill off of California’s coast that coated Santa Barbara’s beaches with the horrible substance, and many watched firsthand as the affected wildlife along the once beautiful coastline were coated in oil and died.

Volunteers cleaning the oil off of a Surf Scoter affected by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.

Not six months after this oil spill, another oil-based environmental catastrophe struck. In June of the same year, the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames (which was actually a rather common occurrence) after sparks from a passing train set fire to the oil-soaked debris floating along the river. TIME magazine published dramatic photos of the burning river that was so saturated with sewage and industrial waste that the magazine described the movement of the river as it “oozes rather than flows”. These photos of the flames along the Cuyahoga, following a decade of one environmental disaster after another, were the tipping point for creating change. The conversation surrounding these events would eventually lead to the passage of the Clean Water Act, and the creation of state and federal environmental protection agencies.

Fire Fighters extinguishing flames on the Cuyahoga River, where oil and other industrial waste caught fire in 1952.

In the fall of 1969, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, and a man now considered to be one of the leaders of the modern environmental movement, pitched the idea for Earth Day at a conference in Seattle. The event was to take the form of a “teach-in” at colleges and universities across America.

Denis Hayes, a young activist and Stanford University Student President, was selected as Earth Day’s national coordinator. He worked alongside dozens of student volunteers and staff members from Nelson’s Senate office to organize the project. However, even the team of dedicated environmentalists was surprised at the overwhelming participation across the country, with Nelson once stating “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”

Fifth Avenue, New York City, shortly after traffic was shut down to allow the mid-day Earth Day demonstration during the first-ever Earth Day, April 22nd, 1970.

Earth Day Now:

Now, Earth Day is an international event and widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world – a day of action to focus on human behavior’s impact on our environment and spur global, national, and local policy changes.

We have made great environmental progress over the last 50 years. In the United States, we have cleaner air and water, oil spills are less common (although when they do happen, they are usually larger and more catastrophic), we no longer have flaming rivers, and certain pesticides such as DDT are banned due to their impact on our planet.

Washington D.C. Citizens gather to celebrate Mother Earth and show support for environmental movement during Earth Day in 2015.

However, even with all of this progress we still have a great deal more progress to make to ensure the safety of our planet and all of its inhabitants. We are currently facing greater, more challenging threats that require international collaboration. Climate change is a pressing threat to all life on earth, our oceans are warming and acidifying, and we are currently in the midst of a mass extinction caused by human actions. It is not all doom and gloom, though! We know the science behind why these things are happening, and we know the course of action to take to help combat these crises – we just need to mplement these changes, on both a personal and societal level. So, what actions can you take this Earth Day to do your part?

What You Can Do This Earth Day:

  1. One of the simplest things you can do this Earth Day is to take a few minutes and reflect on your relationship with our planet. Take a walk outside and collect litter along the way, visit an animal sanctuary, plant your flower or vegetable garden, go for a hike or bike, or even just go sit in your local park and enjoy the spring weather. While you are spending this time outside you can think about what our planet means to you and what environmental causes you care most about.
Get outside and show our planet some love this Earth Day!
  • Attend an Earth Day event! Many local environmental groups and organizations host Earth Day events. Participate in a park cleanup or help plant a community rain garden! There are plenty of opportunities. Check the official Earth Day website to find an event near you.
  • Call your local government officials and let them know you support progressive environmental policies. You can find how to your local government officials here.
  • Eat a plant-based diet and encourage your family and friends to do the same! One of the most effective ways we as individuals can reduce our carbon footprint and water use is by cutting animal products out of our diet. If one person exchanges eating meat for a vegan diet, they reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.5 tons per year. The diet of meat-eaters creates 7x the greenhouse gas emissions of the diets of vegans, and on average a meat-eating diet requires 4,000 gallons of water per day, in comparison to the average vegan diet that only uses 300 gallons. My book, The Kind Diet has plenty of tasty plant-based recipes if you are unsure of where to start!
  • Take the time this Earth Day to celebrate the beautiful planet we call home and reflect on how you can give back. While we need to see large-scale systemic changes, Earth Day has proven that grassroots movements can create real change.

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