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3p Weekend: The History of Earth Day -- In Less Than 5 Minutes


With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email thread and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

For many of us, Earth Day has become an annual event that seems forgotten at best and contrived at worst.

This can be especially true for those in the environmental and corporate responsibility communities, as the press-release floodgates burst open in mid-March -- spilling out drivel about how multinational corporations plan to "celebrate Earth Day" by donating a few thousand dollars for tree-plantings near their lavish HQs.

But even as the cynic within us gripes about yet another Earth Day, it's important to remember how the tradition began. Ready for a five-minute history lesson? Grab a fresh cup of coffee, and brush up on the history of Earth Day. Who knows? You may even gain a fresh perspective.

Where it all started

An estimated 1 in 10 Americans took part in the first Earth Day, observed across the country on April 22, 1970.

The event was a long time coming: In the shadow of the Vietnam War, citizens and legislators were becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of environmental regulation and the toll it was taking on the environment. After the release of Rachel Carson's best-seller "Silent Spring" in 1962, Americans began to question rampant pesticide use. In the news, they saw a raging fire on Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, which was so polluted with oil and toxic chemicals that it burst into flames by spontaneous combustion. In their own neighborhoods, parents watched their children's favorite swimming spots become overwhelmed with industrial pollution.

Across the country, people began to ask if something was wrong, but it would take a big idea and a lot of groundwork before regulators took notice.

The bright idea

After seeing thousands of students take to the streets in opposition of the Vietnam War, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson had a bright idea that would soon revolutionize the environmental movement.

The Democratic senator had tried for years to bring environmental issues to the forefront, even organizing a presidential conservation tour across 11 states for John F. Kennedy. While the tour was a major accomplishment, it did little to attract national attention to environmental issues.

In September of 1969, the Sen. Nelson decided to take the activist route. At a public event in Seattle, he announced that a nationwide environmental demonstration would take place in the spring of 1970, and invited all concerned citizens to participate. From there, it was all about grassroots organization -- with little time and almost no budget.

Said Gaylord Nelson, "Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."

A few years ago, I had a chance to sit down with two Earth Day activists to talk about what happened in those months leading up to the event and how it feels to be a part of environmental history.

"It was a pretty wild time," Marchant Wentworth said of the '70s environmental movement. A recent college graduate, Wentworth worked alongside other young activists at the Earth Day Headquarters on P Street in Washington, D.C.

"When I was at the Earth Day Headquarters, we were getting six to eight sacks of unsolicited mail a day from people all over the country, wanting to do something and wanting to be a part of something. It was pretty exciting stuff," said Wentworth, a former legislative director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Climate and Energy program, who now runs his own consultancy.

Meanwhile, Martin Jennings, a 17-year-old high school senior from St. Petersburg, Florida, was volunteering to clean up local waterways and hanging posters proclaiming, "If you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem."

"You have to understand what was going on -- the pure, unadulterated passion that those of us my age felt," said Jennings, who now serves as marketing director for Tampa Bay Magazine. "We were incredibly passionate about everything we did. We thought that we could make a difference, and we acted accordingly."

The big day

After the tireless efforts of young people across the country -- most of whom worked for free -- an estimated 20 million people took part in the first Earth Day in 1970.

Concerned citizens gathered for environmental teach-ins at more than 2,000 colleges. An additional 10,000 elementary and high schools and 1,000 communities raised their voices in support of the environment. The size of events ranged from small school assemblies to a 100,000-person "human traffic jam" on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

"It was an electric time, there's no question about it," Wentworth remembered fondly. "Change seemed so accessible, and it was."

The environment takes center stage

The environmental pomp and circumstance of the first Earth Day didn't just attract attention; it also brought results.

In that fall's midterm election, voters booted out several officials with poor environmental records, and some call the 1970s the "Environmental Decade," with more than 28 reforms passed -- ranging from clean air and water to reducing public exposure to hazardous waste. Some of the most noteworthy included:

  • 1970: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is established.

  • 1970: Congress amends the Clean Air Act to set national air quality, auto emission and anti-pollution standards.

  • 1972: Congress passes the Clean Water Act, limiting sewage and pollutants from entering the nation's rivers, lakes and streams.

  • 1974: Congress passes the Safe Drinking Water Act, allowing the EPA to regulate the quality of public drinking water.

  • 1976: Congress passes the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, regulating hazardous waste from production to disposal.

  • 1976: President Gerald Ford signs the Toxic Substances Control Act, restricting the use of chemicals in food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides.

Earth Day today

"We didn't think at the time ... that this was going to become an annual thing," Jennings remembered. Luckily, he and his fellow activists turned out to be mistaken.

More than 1 billion people in 192 countries took part in the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day in 2012, according to the Earth Day Network. The event is celebrated from Sen. Nelson's home state of Wisconsin to countries like Malaysia, Morocco and Iraq.

Here in the states, forests, fields and waterways once rendered toxic with pollutants are now safe for families to enjoy. As for Earth Day activists, many are beginning to see how things continue to change for the better. "A lot of folks in the corporate world see that there's a way forward here in terms of sustainability -- that it's not only good for the Earth, but it can also save them on their bottom line," Wentworth told me.

So, how will you celebrate Earth Day this year? Feeling a little more inspired to get involved? Tell us about it on Twitter using the hashtag #EarthDay and tagging @TriplePundit.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Missoula Public Library 2) Flickr/U.S. National Archives 3) and 4) Flickr/Wisconsin Historical Images 5) Flickr/Carnaval.com Studios 6) Flickr/U.S. Embassy Kyiv Ukraine

Mary Mazzoni headshotMary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni is the senior editor of TriplePundit. She is also the co-host of 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands LIVE! and the producer of 3p’s sponsored editorial series. She is based in Philadelphia and loves to travel, spend time outdoors and experiment with vegetarian recipes in the kitchen. Along with TriplePundit, her recent work can be found in Conscious Company and VICE’s Motherboard.

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