Sunday April 22 will mark the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, a celebration with roots in Wisconsin. Earth Day calls attention to environmental challenges and ways that the global community can address these issues.
Before the late 1960s Americans paid little attention to the environment. Recycling was uncommon and energy-efficiency was a term with little importance. Few regulations existed to control the amounts of pollutants factories pumped out into the lakes, rivers and air.
By the end of this decade, however, awareness of the necessity of environmental preservation blossomed. In 1962, the book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson became a bestseller, highlighting the dangers of widespread pesticide use in agriculture. In 1969 a fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, known to “ooze rather than flow,” drew national attention as being a site of chemical waste pollution.
Perhaps the largest shift in environmental consciousness may be attributed to Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. During the 1960s Nelson pushed the federal government to focus on environmental protection. While many of his efforts in the political sphere were unsuccessful, his vision of a grassroots environmental demonstration would make a major social and political impact.
The anti-war protests of the 1960s demonstrated the power of a public movement. Nelson hoped to direct this same energy toward environmental protection issues, including air and water pollution.
With the help of the media, Nelson proposed a “national teach-in on the environment,” which he hoped would push environmental issues into the political spotlight. On April 22, 1970, the nation celebrated its first Earth Day.
Across the nation citizens gathered at rallies to listen to speakers and performers highlighting environmental awareness. The response was far beyond what organizers had imagined.
“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level,” Nelson said in an article in American Heritage Magazine in 1993. “That was the remarkable thing about Earth day. It organized itself.”
Earth Day successfully propelled environmental issues into the public consciousness and forced the issue to be addressed in policy. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can credit the Earth Day movement with its creation. The Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts also emerged from the heightened awareness of environmental problems.
Since its inception in 1970, Earth Day has been celebrated every year on April 22. By 1990, Earth Day became a global celebration, encompassing 200 million people in 141 countries. The 1990 Earth Day emphasized the recycling movement, and highlighted the need to address environmental issues at the global level.
In 1995 Nelson received the Presidential Metal of Freedom (the highest honor given to civilians in the United States) for his role as the father of Earth Day. President Bill Clinton presented Nelson with the award for his lifelong work.
“As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event,” Clinton said of Nelson.
In 2000, the Earth Day celebration combined both the global aspects of 1990, with the grassroots activism of its inception. The internet provided a way to organize activities, gain support and spread the world to all corners of the globe.
Although efforts to conserve the environment and reduce pollution have come a long way, environmental issues are still of paramount importance. The 2010 Earth Day celebration highlighted the need to control global climate change. However, this issue is shrouded in controversy, slowing progress towards addressing climate change causes.
The 2012 Earth Day will mark the addition of even more initiatives. For example, a Billion Acts of Green has been established as a global challenge to promote the planting of 1 million trees, among other related acts.
Earth Day is a prominent story reflecting the ability of the public to promote change. Throughout the 1960s, Nelson and others were unable to produce significant environmental protections. It was only when the public became passionate about environmental issues that major changes took place. Today, Earth Day continues to educate and excite the public about environmental protection and greener lifestyles.