Earth Day | video credit: smartboy10, iStock

Earth Day

April 22, 2024, will be the 54th anniversary of the first Earth Day.

The 1960s decade in the USA was a time of widespread citizen protests and demonstrations. Citizens used protest marches and sit-ins to campaign for civil rights. Women demanded equality in the labor market and an end to sexual harassment. Many college students campaigned to end the fighting in Southeast Asia, while other citizens, inspired in part by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which cataloged the negative environmental impact of common pesticides and industrial chemicals, campaigned for a pollution-free environment. [One hundred thousand copies of Carson’s book were sold in the first three months after publication.]

Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, reportedly influenced by the anti-war movement, saw an opportunity to harness student activism on behalf of the environment and called for a teach-in on college campuses to address environmental causes. Denis Hayes, a young activist, was recruited to organize the national campus teach-in. Wednesday, April 22, 1970, was selected for the teach-in because it was during the college Spring Break when more students would be free to attend the events. [Nobody realized that April 22, 1970, was also the centennial of Lenin’s birth. Conspiracy buffs have subsequently claimed that Earth Day was part of a plot to spread communist ideologies.]

While the project was launched as a national teach-in, college activists were reluctant to add environmental issues to their anti-war focus. Also, by 1970, organizing “teach-ins” had become passe. Instead, as the result of a suggestion by a Madison Avenue advertising executive, the name was changed to Earth Day, and the focus was broadened to include not just college campuses but also schools across the country. The project also received help from cartoonist Walt Kelly, the creator of the Pogo comic strip, who produced a poster featuring Pogo and Pogo’s iconic phrase addressing environmental pollution – “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

That first Earth Day in 1970 was a tremendous success. An estimated 20 million people (10% of the U.S. population at the time) attended events across America. Congress closed because many elected representatives were scheduled to speak at many events, and Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment between Republicans and Democrats. It led to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of a raft of environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), and the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976).

The subsequent ten-year anniversaries of Earth Day promoted and broadened the impact of the environmental message. 1990 Earth Day mobilized an estimated 200 million people in 141 countries, boosted global recycling efforts, and paved the way for the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 1992. During the 21st Century, annual Earth Days have featured various projects. On the 40th anniversary, an estimated one billion people participated in pro-environment events worldwide.

In 2016, the United Nations selected Earth Day for leaders worldwide to sign the historic Paris Accord on climate change. Leaders from 175 nations did just that, breaking the record for signatories to an international agreement in a single day.

The theme for Earth Day on April 22, 2024, is Planet vs Plastics, and EARTHDAY.ORG is calling for a 60% reduction in global plastic production by 2040. In November 2023, EARTHDAY.ORG released a report on the exposure of babies to plastic pollution. Babies have ten times as many microplastic particles in their feces as adults.

Earth Day is an idea that has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of those who coaxed it into existence in 1970. Senator Gaylord Nelson, who died in 2005 at 89 years of age, spoke at Earth Day’s 25th anniversary. He criticized traditional economists for not recognizing the global sustainability challenge and quoted the Worldwatch Institute as saying that three biological systems support the world economy – forests, grasslands, and croplands. Nelson further stated, “These biological systems contain the sustaining wealth of the world. All around the planet, these systems are in varying degrees of stress and degradation…. [I]n the process, we erode living standards and compromise the quality of our habitat. It is a dangerous and slippery slope.”

The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a potential roadmap to address the current erosion of natural capital and the resulting impoverishment for future generations of humans. However, targets for the SDGs are not being met. March 2024 was the tenth month in a row to be the hottest month on record since 1940. If the world continues to heat up, then the Indus River Valley (Pakistan and India), Eastern China, and Sub-Saharan Africa will all be affected by extreme heat, and large parts of it will become inhospitable to human existence. At present, around 4 billion people live in these regions.

Earth Day 1970 played an essential role in launching worldwide environmental action. Keeping the ecological economy thriving and the planet within healthy and sustainable limits has grown more challenging since 1970. However, as global citizens, we must unite to confront the global sustainability challenges, find solutions for the most urgent crises, and, for the future, ensure we achieve a harmonious balance for people, animals, and our EARTH.

Video credit: smartboy10, iStock

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