Earth Day: A time for perspective
We’ve proven our resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now let’s apply it to climate change.
Perspective. That’s all it takes. Like seeing images of Earth for the first time from space: the only known habitable planet in a universe filled with billions of galaxies. Or seeing a 35 mile long oil spill – with all its grim consequences – from the seat of a plane. Both these things happened in 1969, and both played their part in creating Earth Day which we celebrate today.
In the same decade that witnessed the moon landing and the Santa Barbara oil spill, parts of the world were beginning to wake up to the opinion that Earth was a place to protect and not exploit. The US Congress had begun passing laws to boost air quality and protect endangered species. And a growing counterculture had begun to embrace sustainability. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring was published, exposing the horrendous effect of indiscriminately used manmade pesticides on nature and led, among other things, to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses. It was also the decade that shed light on the problem of chemical waste disposal.
All of the above, on top of momentum ushered in by the bolder environmental protests of the 60s, prompted Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson – supposedly the man in the plane – to initiate a “national teach-in on the environment” on 22 April 1970. He was determined to convince the federal government that the planet was at risk. Having seen the success of anti-Vietnam war “teach-ins”, Nelson developed the idea that later was named Earth Day. What he wanted was a large-scale, grassroots environmental demonstration “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.”
Nelson announced the idea at a conference in Seattle in 1969 and invited the entire nation to get involved. He later recalled:“The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air – and they did so with spectacular exuberance.” On 22 April 1970, 20 million Americans – 10% of the US population – took to the streets in peaceful protest to raise awareness of the fragile state of the planet.
Earth Day, in the words of Nelson, kicked off the “environmental decade with a bang.” 1970 saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and over the next few years vital pieces of environmental legislation were passed: The Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
By 1990, Earth Day had gone global. Denis Hayes, the original national coordinator of Earth Day in 1970, organised events in 141 countries with some 200 million people now taking part. By the early 21st century, Earth Day’s many activities included raising awareness about a number of growing environmental concerns. In 2016, it was even the day that the International Paris Climate Agreement emblematically opened for signatures.
Today – from the peculiar confines of our homes – we hope you’ll join in celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and take a moment of reflection. Marvel in our little blue planet’s elegant complexity. Ponder how the miracle of life has shaped it and how we are all a part of this majesty. Remind yourselves how – though seemingly vast – the capacity of the natural world, and all its treasures, is finite. With our skyrocketing population and seemingly insatiable need to consume, let’s take a moment today to think about how we as individuals, and custodians of the Earth, can live our lives without hurting the planet.
For the past 50 years, although we have made some environmental progress, the Earth has experienced huge setbacks and borne horrifying scars, some of which will never fade. The tragedy and upheaval caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic must serve as a wakeup call about our desperately ailing Earth. In the midst of this crisis, we have shown ourselves to be inspirational in our capacity to rise to challenges, both individually and collectively. Let’s apply this grit to tackling the climate emergency. And remember, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”
For more information about today’s celebrations, what’s going on near you and how you can help, go to earthday.org/earth-day-2020/