Earth Day: The Birth of Climate Activism

By Quench Features Editor, Rhianna Hurren-Myers

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less travelled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the Earth.”

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Pollution: The Smell of Prosperity

It is hard to imagine, but environmental-based legislation was totally non-existent in the mid 20th century. Nowhere in the world was this more apparent than in the United States.

To set the scene, picture the1960s. The American population had become dependent on insufficient automobiles that would devour large amounts of leaded gas. Residents of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, would advise against wearing white, because your shirt would be as grey as the city air by midday. The Gray Wolf had become a signature trophy kill and was bordering on extinction in the Southern States. 

Things came to a head on January 28th 1969, after an oil rig exploded off Santa Barbara and spread across 35 miles of coastline. At the time, there was no federal legislation in place to prevent offshore drilling. The spill spread for eleven days, killing 3500 sea birds and marine animals like dolphins, seals, and sea lions.

22nd April 1970

Senator Nelson, a Democrat politician from Wisconsin, had long expressed concern over the unhealthy relationship that had developed between the environment and the business economy. The devastating consequences of this environmental situation across the United States proved to him that it was time to act. 

Senator Nelson became inspired by the anti-war movement, as well as the emerging public consciousness of air and water pollution that had developed since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. He called on a young environmental activist called Denis Hayes to organise environmental based teach-ins at colleges across the states. They chose the 22nd April 1970, which fell in between Spring Break and Final Exams, to maximise student participation. 

Critically, Senator Nelson realised that April 22nd had to be open to everyone to be successful at increasing ecological awareness. He built a staff of 85 people to promote the Earth Day events for anyone to engage in.

“The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy, and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.”

Senator Nelson

Earth Day was an environmental movement unlike any ever seen before in history. It is said that up to 20 million people across the United States – which was 10% of the population at the time – turned out to protest the consequences of 150 years of industrial development. Universities and colleges organised demonstrations, alongside coast-to-coast rallies in cities, towns, and communities across the countries. 

Turning the tide… 

Earth Day had been a monumental success. Finally, individuals that had spent years protesting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife were given an occasion to unify around their shared common values.

However, it wasn’t just a success from a demonstration point of view. Across the 1970s, the environmental law and legislation tides began to turn, beginning with the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The 1970s Clean Air Act enabled the newly created E.P.A. to set new standards related to six key pollutants that were known to harm human health. Following came the 1972 Clean Water Act., which had evolved into the beginnings of legislation to end oil exploration off the California Coast by 1978. 

In another huge success, the 1973 Endangered Species Act was the first to list the Gray Wolf as endangered, alongside other animals like the Bald Eagle and the American alligator. Scientists estimate that this act has directly prevented the extinction of over 200 animals across the United States. 

The 1970s also established several key environmental groups that we still know and love today – Friends of the Earth (1971), Greenpeace (1971) and Friends of the People (1973, which went on to become the Green party).

1990: Earth Day Goes Global

By 1990, Earth Day had mobilised into a day of environmental activism across the world, with over 200 million people engaging across 141 countries. 

Following the devastating Exxon Valdez oil tanker crash into Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound the year prior, the 1990 Earth Day celebrations provided an opportunity to raise global awareness on the impact of oil spills on the environment. 

The celebrations and demonstrations also paved the way for the first United Nations 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, where the first international goals aimed at preventing global climate change and protecting biological diversity were established.

Due to his monumental efforts in organising Earth Day, President Bill Clinton gave Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role as founder. 

50 years on… 

The 50th Anniversary of Earth Day moved online in 2020 with a series of digital events. There has been incredible environmental progress since April 22nd 1970s. However Kathleen Rogers, Earthday.org’s president, still feels that Earth Day is more relevant than ever.  

“Progress has slowed, climate change impacts grow, and our adversaries have become better financed. We find ourselves today in a world facing global threats that demand a unified global response. For Earth Day 2020, we will build a new generation of environmentalist activists, engaging millions of people worldwide.”

Whatever Happened to Global Warming?

Donald Trump witnessed the Golden Jubilee of Earth Day from the comfortable position of White House office. Over his four years as President of the United States, Trump managed to reverse over 100 Environmental based laws. These included major climate policies, and rules governing clean air, water, wildlife and toxic chemicals.

The Trump administration also vowed to reopen vast areas of US coastal waters to new offshore oil and gas drilling. Shortly thereafter, the administration began the process of rolling back safety regulations on existing rigs. Most significantly, Trump exited the Paris Agreement. The United States is now the only country in the world to not participate in the pact. 

Comfortingly, soon-to-be President Biden has vowed to reverse the US leaving when he takes office on January 17th. Regardless, America is currently the second highest country in the world in terms of Carbon emissions. It is clear that meeting the IPCC’s 2018 recommendations will be impossible without the support of the United States. 

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