Green holiday closes in on 40 years
As Earth Day approaches its 40th anniversary, environmentalists continue to stress how the human race’s everyday actions affect the world.
In an effort to give environmental concerns some political exposure, former Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day in 1970.
“Actually, the idea for Earth Day evolved over a period of seven years starting in 1962. For several years, it had been troubling me that the state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country,” Nelson wrote in his essay “How The First Earth Day Came About.” “Finally, in November 1962, an idea occurred to me that was, I thought, a virtual cinch to put the environment into the political ‘limelight’ once and for all.”
Nelson visited Washington, D.C. ,and convinced President John F. Kennedy to travel across the nation on a five-day 11-state conservation awareness tour. The tour was largely unsuccessful, but proved to be the spark that ignited what would one day become Earth Day.
“All across the country, evidence of environmental degradation was appearing everywhere, and everyone noticed, except the political establishment,” Nelson wrote. “The environmental issue simply was not to be found on the nation’s political agenda. The people were concerned, but the politicians were not.”
Inspired by the anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins,” which were being conducted in colleges and universities across the country, Nelson got the idea in September 1969 to organize a massive grassroots protest over the injustices and ignorance surrounding treatment of the environment.
In the seven months leading up to the first Earth Day celebration, interest across the nation rose. People everywhere wanted to be involved; it had expanded far beyond the hands of Nelson and his small team of volunteer college students.
“The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters,” Nelson wrote. “Telegrams, letters and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air — and they did so with spectacular exuberance.”
Nelson was convinced that the excitement of the people was enough to fuel the entire machine.
“Nelson insisted the first Earth Day’s activities be created not by organizers in Washington, but by individuals and groups in their own communities,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency Web site. “As a result of this empowering vision, one in 10 Americans participated in the first Earth Day, drawing extensive attention from the media and jump-starting an era of bold environmental legislation.”
The EPA was formed in December 1970 as a response to the overwhelming support Earth Day had received and the invigoration it had given to environmental issues within the national political arena. This was important because it represented some of the first governmental action, and it paved the way for much more.
In the following months and years, Congress enacted many new laws and amended previously existing ones concerning air and water quality, among a plethora of other environmental issues.
“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level,” Nelson wrote. “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.”
Now, 40 years later, people around the world continue to recognize Nelson’s brainchild with the same care and concern for the Earth’s well being as ever, just as he intended.