Why Aren’t We Excited About Earth Day Anymore?
Three organizers from the first event in 1970 remind us that we still have a lot of work to do.
NYTimes, April 21, 2020
In the 1960s, environmental destruction was upfront and personal. It was in your face. Los Angeles was shrouded in smog. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. Three million gallons of oil spilled off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. New York City dumped raw sewage into the Hudson River. Bald eagles were teetering near extinction in the lower 48 states because of the ravages of DDT. Leaded gasoline poisoned children.
“A lot of people were getting angry about dirty water, dirty air and litter,” said Barbara Reid Alexander, Midwest coordinator for the first Earth Day, in 1970. “People were excited to talk about it.”
Part of the spark that ignited Earth Day came from Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, who proposed campus teach-inson the environment, modeled after gatherings on college campuses where students and professors met to talk about the Vietnam War. Organizers chose April 22 because it would be before college students were cramming for final exams but after the snow melted.
On April 22, 1970, Mayor John Lindsay of New York shut down 45 blocks of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Across the country, 20 million people took to the streets. The National Education Association estimated that 10 million public school children participated in teach-in programs where they learned about the costs of environmental inaction.
“It was one of those transformational events,” said Denis Hayes, the national coordinator. “In 1969, people really didn’t talk about ‘the environment.’ By the middle of 1970, many Americans characterized themselves as environmentalists.”
The turnout catapulted environmental issues onto the political agenda. Democrats and Republicans took interest. Legislation followed: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Resource Recovery and Conservation Act, National Forest Protection Act, the designation of Superfund sites and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“For the next decade, environmental legislation was almost unstoppable,” Mr. Hayes said.
Today the story is different. Fifty years ago, the effects of burning fossil fuels on the atmosphere was only beginning to be understood. Now it is the looming threat to the planet as the earth steadily warms. And only now are people seeing, on a large scale, the consequences: record-breaking heat, floods, intensifying storms, landscape fires in California and Australia, the disappearance of Arctic ice, shrinking glaciers, dying coral reefs. But it has been a slow build to creating a movement with the power and public support that emerged from the first Earth Day.
At Independence Mall in Philadelphia, thousands gathered on Earth Day in 1970.Credit…Associated Press
What would it take for environmental fervor to reach the level of passions lit by Earth Day 1970?
“Back in those days, the Democratic Party had a liberal wing and a very conservative wing, and so did the Republican Party,” Mr. Hayes said. “You were able to put together legislation and get enough support from the progressive wings of both parties to have it be bipartisan. Today that is not true.”
In addition the issues — bottom trawling, ocean acidification, floating plastic gyres and, of course, greenhouse gas emissions — are international in scope.
“It doesn’t make any difference who burns a ton of coal,” Mr. Hayes said. “The atmospheric impact is the same.” And while the U.N. can pass resolutions, it has no enforcement mechanisms.
Arturo Sandoval, known for his work in the Chicano civil rights movement at the University of New Mexico, was the Western regional coordinator for the first Earth Day. He thinks the lack of diversity in the mainstream environmental leadership hampers its ability to create a broader coalition.
“If for the last 50 years you’ve only had white, middle-class, mostly male leadership, it’s very difficult to move beyond that,” Mr. Sandoval said.
“The environmental movement was a victim, in a way, of its own early success,” he added. “They thought they had a model that would last, and they didn’t bother to reach out beyond what is a middle-class, white constituency, and that is not enough people to fight off the kind of attacks that are happening now.”
Ms. Alexander is concerned at how economic inequality has limited the climate movement.
“The current situation has resulted in a concentration of wealth at the very highest level and a deterioration in the middle class,” she said. Many people, she added, “feel they have been left behind and that climate change is just a rich person’s fancy.”
“The environmental movement is so pressed on their notion of carbon taxes and higher prices to pay for their subsidies — it’s like they are part of the elite,” Ms. Alexander said
“We are not going to get a consensus from rural, working-class Americans by screaming about the death of the planet,” she added. Instead, she suggested, the conversation needs to shift to consider “what real people need to afford electricity.”
“We did all the easy stuff,” Ms. Alexander said. “We’re now down to some more difficult steps.”