Myths, Partial truths, and Some Fresh Perspectives
Can the Energy and Action that Resulted be Rediscovered
Earth Day was first organized 52 years ago following several environmental disasters that energized youthful protests but quickly became a mass movement. The event had a profound influence on my life and career, leading to my decision to focus on environmental issues in law and graduate school and positions with several of many new advocacy groups founded at the time. Thinking back on what and how it happened is a striking reminder of what can be accomplished in just a few years with public support.
The story begins when a Harvard Kennedy School student, Denis Hayes, went to interview Senator Gaylord Nelson for a class project. A leading progressive figure from Wisconsin, Nelson was among the early environmental leaders in Congress. The meeting was originally scheduled for ten minutes but lasted for a history-changing two hours. Hayes agreed to drop out of graduate school to lead what the Senator had envisioned as a relatively modest teach-in on environmental issues. Nelson’s vision was to support the increasing public awareness and concern following major environmental disasters. The teach-in was to become much, much more.
The organizing committee led by Hayes began modestly with a few classmates in what has been described as “ratty offices above a burger stand in Dupont Circle” in Washington, DC. As Hayes recalled years later, Earth Day’s message was “in some ways much more profoundly radical” than other protest movements of the day. The association between environmentalism and major social change was a dramatic philosophical turn. In contrast with the anti-litter, highway beautification campaigns of the 1960s, “This was talking about fundamental changes in the nature of the American economy.”
The level of public and political response to the first Earth Day is almost unimaginable today. Consider: on that day 20 million Americans — a tenth of the population — participated in protests, teach-ins, and events of all kinds to demand action for a cleaner environment. More than 12,000 events took place across the country, many of them in high schools and colleges, with more than thirty-five thousand speakers. New York City Mayor John Lindsay closed Fifth Avenue between 59th and 14th streets, attracting a packed crowd police estimated at a million people. Television coverage went on for hours. Congress adjourned for the day and two-thirds of members spoke at Earth Day events.
And what followed was commensurate with this coalescence of support. By the end of 1970, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were created, and Congress passed the Clean Air Act and National Environmental Policy Act (the basis for environmental impact statement requirements). Not long after, Congress passed major legislation dealing with water pollution, protection of endangered species, management of solid waste, and regulation of drinking water and pesticides. By the end of the decade, 20 major pieces of legislation with environmental objectives. According to Hayes, collectively these laws have led to investments of at least $20 trillion in public and private funds in measures that improved public health and the environment.
Perhaps the most remarkable contrast with politics today was the extraordinary degree of bi-partisan support. As the New York Times reported, “If the environment had any enemies, they did not make themselves known.”
The environmental fervor that marked the ’70s largely came to an end in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, a former movie actor known for his crackdowns on student protests while governor of California and for asserting that trees cause more pollution than cars.
Current prospects for reviving the early Earth Day spirit appear dim. The one major environmental announcement for Earth Day this year was an executive order to protect old trees from wildfires. Perhaps the most encouraging recent developments have been youth led climate movements such as the 2019 student walkouts inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. The pandemic resulted in a loss of much of the momentum from these events but dozens of “Fight For Our Future” rallies are being organized by youthful climate activists this Earth Day.
Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003)