Earth Day at 50: An American Retrospective


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WASHINGTON - April 22 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, when the very question of whether the planet can survive emerged for the first time from the minds of so-called eccentrics and flower children of the 1960s into national consciousness.

Americans in 1970 were generally aware of the dangers of air and water pollution. Rachel Carson's landmark 1962 book "Silent Spring" spoke of the hazards posed by pesticides. Photographs of big cities, such as Los Angeles, shrouded in smog were seen in newspapers and magazines.

But through the 1960s, cheap fuel, big cars with poor gas mileage, mass food production, and factory-produced consumer goods made life easy and inexpensive for American families who put the problem of pollution low on the list of the issues confronting the country.

Then a January 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, killed thousands of birds, dolphins and sea lions. And six months later, industrial waste floating on the water literally set Ohio's Cuyahoga River on fire.

Finally, activists said they had seen enough: burning rivers and smoggy cities were no joke.

A 25-year-old graduate student from Stanford University named Denis Hayes and a U.S. Democratic senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, coordinated what became Earth Day - April 22, 1970.

Today, Hayes is chairman emeritus of the Earth Day Network.

"That first Earth Day was so important in part because we brought together a huge basket of different issues: urban air pollution, freeways cutting through neighborhoods, leaded paint, DDT, the Santa Barbara oil spill, rivers catching on fire. And since people will put the most effort into something that's directly relevant to them, we were very much grassroots," Hayes told the network earlier this year.

Senator Nelson proclaimed Earth Day in Congress and because of those grassroots organizers Hayes spoke about. And the idea sprouted like green grass on college campuses across the country.

Cartoonist Walt Kelly of "Pogo" fame created a special Earth Day poster. Television news stories publicized it. Radio personality Arthur Godfrey promoted it every morning to his millions of listeners, along with other ecology-minded performers and media personalities.

By sunrise April 22, 1970, millions of Americans were ready to honor the only true home they have.

Schoolchildren walked out of their classrooms to pick up litter and plant trees. College students shunned their usual indoor studies for outdoor ecological discussions.

New York City Mayor John Lindsay closed the city's iconic Fifth Avenue to traffic. Forty blocks were taken over by environmentalists and demonstrators. And the mayor turned all of Central Park into an Earth Day party.

Hayes spent the day speaking on the National Mall in Washington, flying to New York to address the crowd on Fifth Avenue, then out to Chicago for another speech, squeezing in television and radio interviews between appearances.

President Richard Nixon and first lady, Pat Nixon, planted a tree on the South Lawn of the White House. Nixon created the Enironmental Protection Agency in 1970. He signed the Clean Water and Clean Air acts later that year, and the Endangered Species Act three years later.

An estimated 20 million Americans took part in some kind of Earth Day-related event, and by sunset April 22, 1970, they were much more aware of the dangers of dirty air, polluted water, and the need to protect wildlife.

"In the 1960s, the most common perception of pollution was that it's the smell of progress, the smell of prosperity. And we were able to create a context in which people began to change their behavior, their values, what cars they bought, what food they ate, what clothes they wore, making decisions to only have one or two children for environmental reasons. It was sweeping in the ways that millions of Americans led their lives," Hayes told the Earth Day Network.

"Folks who had no concern whatsoever for pollution, for toxics disposal, for resource extraction, suddenly had to operate within ways that were benefiting public health and benefiting the environment," he added.

Hayes' Earth Day Network says Earth Day is now the largest secular holiday in the world. More than a billion people participate in some direct form of environmental activism every April 22.

This year's celebration, just like nearly every event this spring, will be different because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The theme of Earth Day 2020 is climate action and the Earth Day Network is urging hundreds of millions to join in a huge global social media conversation, including ways to pressure governments to keep their commitments to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to fight global warming.