This year’s Earth Day is, frankly, not a very special one, because it’s both a comparatively inauspicious anniversary (who celebrates the 48th?!) and because we in the United States happen right now to be saddled with the most aggressively anti-Earth administration of the last 60 years.
But don’t those two factors, especially the second one, provide all the more reason to contemplate this occasion, in their way? Most people don’t think much about it these days, but Earth Day was not just some crazy idea a bunch of meddling liberals cooked up to interfere with everyone else’s freedom to throw Whopper wrappers wherever they pleased. Earth Day was revolutionary. It changed human consciousness. Of how many things can that be said?
The first one happened, as you hopefully deduced two paragraphs above, in 1970. At the time, of course, we’d had the civil rights revolution, the awakening of the feminist revolution, even the very earliest stirrings of the gay rights revolution. But there was as yet nothing called the environmental movement.
There were, to be sure, smaller discrete movements or events or attempts to elevate people’s awareness. There was Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, her 1962 book about the dangers of DDT and other pesticides that became a surprise best-seller. There was First Lady Ladybird Johnson’s campaign against highway billboards. If you don’t think that was pollution, Google Image “highway billboards before Ladybird Johnson” to get a little taste. There was a Wilderness Act passed in 1964, which Ladybird also played a key role in pushing through Congress.
But they were balkanized. “What Earth Day did,” says Denis Hayes, who was the national coordinator of the first Earth Day celebration, “was that it took all these strands and wove them together into the fabric of what came to be called the modern environmental movement.”
The man who brought them all together was another remarkable figure, who is little remembered today: Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Nelson was part of that generation of men who’d lived through Depression and world war and saw public service as a duty to do something other than transfer wealth to the already rich. He was a dedicated consumer rights advocate, civil libertarian, and conservationist. As Wisconsin governor in the 1950s, he created a Department of Resource Development to oversee conservation and a Youth Conservation Corps to provide what were not yet known as green jobs for a thousand young people.
In 1969, he got an idea for a day of thousands of demonstrations across the country to raise environmental awareness. Hayes, then a Harvard student, got wind of this and showed up at Nelson’s Washington office one day asking to be named Harvard campus coordinator of Earth Day. Nelson made him Boston coordinator. Four days later, Nelson’s office called him back and asked him to be the national coordinator. “Certainly the most rapid career advancement of my life,” Hayes deadpanned.
Whatever he did, he did it well, because the next April 22 brought marches and speeches and demonstration on thousands of campuses and in hundreds of cities and towns across the country. And, as we hope we’re seeing with the Women’s March of our time, the event was just the beginning.
I was nine when Earth Day happened. The change in the culture was immediate. There being no Fox News around then to inform its half of America that it was all a socialist plot, Americans developed instant environmental awareness. Littering became an act of opprobrium. The 1971 “Crying Indian” ad, probably the most famous PSA ad in the nation’s history, stamped itself on the national brain. At school, we were assigned to make posters associated with Earth Day, with certificates going to the winners, and your picture in the paper, even.
And, of course, the movement achieved vast legislative accomplishments. Hayes emailed me a list of bills that passed within five years of that first Earth Day, and it’s astonishing:
• In 1970, Richard Nixon established the EPA with an executive order*, and then Congress passed the:
• Clean Air Act (1970)
• Environmental Quality Improvement Act (1970)
• Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act (1971)
• Clean Water Act (1972)
• Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972)
• Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (1972)
• Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972)
• Endangered Species Act (1973)
• Safe Drinking Water Act (1974)
• Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards (1975)
• Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (1975)
• Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976)
• Toxic Substances Control Act (1976)
• National Forest Management Act (1976)
Today? I suppose in some parts of the country children are still taught to venerate Earth Day (although in my native West Virginia, the way things have been going, they’re probably about to create a Coal Day and award certificates to the kids who draw the best pictures of smokestacks). But as we know, we’re racing backwards fast, under the “leadership” of a head of the EPA who sees his mission as leaving as many citizens as possible exposed to environmental degradation while at the same time picking their pockets in ways that are breathtaking even by Trumpian standards. Just Google “EPA environmental regulations” and you’ll quickly see all the damage Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt are trying to do.
Hayes tries to stay optimistic through it all. The pendulum swings, he reminds me. Yes, it does. And if the Democrats regain Congress in 2018 and the White House in 2020, they can swing it back in the other direction fast, on matters like the Paris climate accords and CAFE standards and a whole lot more. And that same 2020 that will bring us the next presidential election will also give us the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. “It will be a meme, a rallying cry, a hashtag, and an ongoing project that has real traction,” Hayes says. “It will emphasize climate change and will catapult it to a new prominence.”
And let us hope that after the pendulum has swung back and then some, the man who organized the first Earth Day will be leading a celebration of something truly consequential by the time of the 60th.