Although we’ve ridden the pale blue dot throughout the vast emptiness of space for some time, it is true that our technological boom is but a fraction of a fraction of that time. Given our ancestors (i.e. previous species of evolution) were as tuned into the environment as much as possible, it may be surprising that it took so long for our species, the keystone of all life on earth, to understand how necessary that balance is for continued prosperity. 75 years ago this rejection was the status quo. The Industrial Revolution forced the human race to look at its impact beyond only the depletion of common pool resources (as a side note, the depletion of common pool resources such as timber explains why many European nations have such strong protections for forests and other sources of wood). The methods of pollution prior to the Industrial Revolution were far less widespread than they were in the 1800s and it is likely that even if human beings knew about the environmental damage, there may not have been any reason to stop.
Even within the first half of the twentieth century, Americans routinely filled their cars with leaded gasoline and factories emitted literal sludge into watersheds and carcinogenic smoke into the air. Smog was seen as the backside of the coin of human development. Did pollution even affect the environment? Does it even affect humans? Most importantly, does it affect me? These were common attitudes prior to many of the current environmental “duh’s” we have today.
So what changed? What redirected our anthropogenic course from complete environmental lackadaisicality to one of activism? For many, the beginning of that shift coincided with the publication of Silent Spring.
Silent Spring was published in 1962 by Rachel Carson and was one of the first major works which drew attention to environmental concerns. One of the main points of Caron’s work involved the reckless and irresponsible usage of pesticides as well as disinformation campaigns among chemical and pesticide companies and manufacturers. Carson’s inspiration for Silent Spring was as a result of a 1957 Department of Agriculture program to eradicate fire ants. While eradication of a nonnative species may be useful for a country, the actual methods the Department of Agriculture used were less than ideal and involved the spraying of DDT (a notoriously infamous pesticide), other pesticides, as well as literal fuel and oil over both public and private lands. Carson was truly moved to write when a friend sent her a letter which described the death of birds due to DDT’s usage for mosquito killing. Silent Spring helped to raise awareness about the inextricable link to how human-caused pollution impacted human public health.
Carson’s Silent Spring was an immediate hit, landing on the New York Times bestseller list and sold over half a million copies in over 20 countries. While the 1960s was filled with social unrest largely due to the United States foriegn policy, it is undeniable that environmentalism was becoming more important in policy actions. By the late 1960s, the environmental movement began to find its ground a little more strongly. In January 1969, there was an alarming oil spill in California which caught national attention, most notably the junior senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson. He understood the harm of environmental water and air pollution and the ways in which the movement could be fused with the popularity of the student-led anti-war movement. This is where the first Earth Day found its bearing. In fact, April 22 was chosen due to where it falls in the calendar year: a weekday squarely between Spring Break and the end of the school semester.
Planning for the first Earth Day was a coalition in the making, including a number of different faith groups, non-profit organizations, and others. Given the new branding of Earth Day and media attention, the original crew inspired 20 million Americans to celebrate and raise awareness for environmental concerns. Many different types of individual organizations were able to ban together, given the common themes of Earth Day, including groups which have been fighting against many different sources of pollution, such as pesticide usage, raw sewage, and toxicity from landfills as well as deforestation, habitat loss, and extinction. The first Earth Day in 1970 found itself among only a handful of contemporary issues in that it received bipartisan support from American political parties. Thankfully, this support translated to much of the new environmental legislation which was passed in the 1970s, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, as well as many more regulations passed by the EPA.
While the Reagan administration did not support many environmental protections as other presidents (Reagan was quoted in 1981 claiming trees produce more air pollution than automobiles), Earth Day still enjoyed large support across the country. Throughout the 1980s, there were plans for Earth Day to make a global presence and in 1990, there were over 200,000,000 people across 141 different countries which helped point toward environmental lack of protections on an international stage. This global feat led to Bill Clinton awarding Senator Gaylord Nelson the Medal of Freedom for his instrumental role in the creation of the first Earth Day.
Earth Day approaching the 2000s was largely focused on the planet’s warming due to human activities and a shift away from fossil fuels and other polluting forms of energy production toward clean renewables. While those issues are still a very serious problem over twenty years later, it is clear that Earth Day is now able to utilize the amazing new forms of communication technology which now connect the globe in an amazing way. However, those same technologies have also made the mission of Earth Day even more strenuous due to the rising levels of misinformation and disinformation campaigns and the influence of outside sources of political funding from special interest organizations such as fossil fuel industries. Particularly after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, it is undeniable that now more than ever corporations and organizations (usually from industries directly related to regulatory efforts by the government) can have direct influence on election efforts.
Despite all of these influences from sources of extreme wealth, Earth Day is seen as the largest secular celebration in the world with over a seventh of the world’s population recognizing environmental injustice and over 190 countries participating. Celebrating Earth Day is an important day, just like any other global observation, and I encourage everyone to find a unique and important way to recognize Earth Day not just in April, but throughout the year.
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