Exploring the growth of Earth Day

Linda Richter

By A Contributor

The title seems at first exaggerated but the author quickly makes good on that premise and not just to my satisfaction. The New Yorker review by Nicholas Lehman ran three glowing pages (April 15,2013) and Michael Kazin is quoted on the book jacket: “Adam Rome has written the first serious history of the largest demonstration in American History-and it is likely to be the definitive one.”

A former Manhattanite, Rome sees the genius of Earth Day in retrospect, not in design. Senator Gaylord Nelson first proposed in 1969 a nation-wide teach-in  but he didn’t call it Earth Day and his concept was vague. He was drawing on the Vietnam and civil rights movements as inspiration but he had no blueprint for who should be involved, how it should be organized, promoted, financed or evaluated. There was no master list of causes to be promoted.

Indeed, as Rome details, serendipity and a grass roots “do your own thing” mentality can with hindsight be credited with much of its credible vitality and wide-ranging impacts. Rome expertly dissects the first April 22, 1970 Earth Day and the many forms it took.

Three months before the big day, the New York Times launched a full page ad: “Earth Day: A disease has infected our country. It has brought smog to Yellowstone, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man.”( p. 84) The ad then went on to call readers to action and to capture the imagination of millions.

In only seven months, from Nelson’s call for a teach-in to that first Earth Day, over 20,000 events with 35,000 speakers took place! Within the next three years President Nixon went from being opposed to the idea to signing the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts in to law and setting up the Environmental Protection Agency.

Before 1970 there had been notable books on the environment from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb. There had been well-publicized disasters like the Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River catching fire. There were some small, generally single-issue conservation groups like the Audubon Society. The Sierra Club was just that-a club that required sponsorship to join and was largely focused on mountain hiking.

After Earth Day the focus went from small scale conservation efforts to an intense focus on the entire environment. It had been expected that the major participants of Earth Day would be universities and labor unions, but the event inspired hundreds of elementary and secondary schools and cities from Salina, Kansas, to New York City. In a pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era it was television and print media that played a vital role in spreading ideas and organization. University courses that suddenly focused on the environment struggled to keep up with demand and many volunteers from Earth Day launched environmental careers. Interest groups exploded.

Earth Day introduced a generation to the sheer variety of challenges and opportunities of the environment. A momentum had begun and its dynamic has led to the institutionalization of those concerns ever since. Rome also notes that what has followed has also spurred periodic political backlash from interests threatened by these concerns.

Successive Earth Day celebrations have been planned in a more top-down fashion and have lacked the vitality and freshness of the original, but as Rome clearly illustrates they reflect a global commitment first made a mass movement with Earth Day 1970.

Today Adam Rome teaches environmental history and environmental nonfiction at the University of Delaware. He is also the author of The Bulldozer in the Countryside which has won numerous awards.

Linda Richter is an emeritus professor of political science at Kansas State University.

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