Earth hands plant

Forty-eight years ago this month, some 20 million people gathered in cities and towns across the U.S., holding teach-ins, handing out daisies, burying caskets full of trash, parading nets of dead fish, and more. It was at that time an unprecedented stand for the Earth.

NYT Earth Day headline
Page one and above-the-fold media attention to first Earth Day, in 1970.

The actions of that single day helped usher in a new era of cultural awareness about the environment, heightening the national focus on a unifying domestic issue after years of divisive and often toxic debate over the Vietnam War. Policymakers took their cues.

Nearly a half century later, April 22 is now generally considered the world’s largest secular holiday, with the organizing group, the Earth Day Network, now expecting more than one-billion people in 192 countries to this year celebrate the now-annual event in locations across the continent and throughout the world.

The vision of a planet at risk – and a populace willing to take action – has proven compelling over the decades.

But as with virtually any other holiday event, Earth Day has been beleaguered by skepticism, from concerns that it stole thunder from the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s rights movements to controversy over commercialization and greenwashing; from concerns that it championed personal action over institutional action, to concerns that it represented worries primarily held by upper-class white Americans at the risk of others; and even that Earth should be celebrated every day, not just once a year.

These broad-stroke arguments, and the earnest voices behind them, point to a dilemma that could stymie any major cultural phenomenon: How can Earth Day become bigger and better, at the same time?

Earth Day at age 48, needing now to engage minority groups. Click To Tweet

That Earth Day has “stuck” so well for so long is a testament to those scores and hundreds who initiated it, and who have kept it alive. Few are the domestic or international policy challenges having their own globally recognized “day” before so many people in so many different countries worldwide.

That’s the case even though many, and especially including those most at risk from environmental problems, still feel they have been largely left out along the way, intentionally or otherwise.

A tour through the evolution of Earth Day can’t necessarily provide definitive answers, but might inspire more consideration of who, and what, can help maintain a focus on the continuing challenges posed by age-old and always emerging environmental concerns.

Early Earth Days and ‘The Environmental Decade’

At first glance, the idea of designating a day for people to stand up for the planet and its environment can sound perfectly inclusive: All humans of course live on the same planet. For now at least, it’s the only liveable one we know of.

U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin Democrat and one-time governor who died in 2005, launched the first official U.S. Earth Day. He strove from the start to assure that the day’s efforts were not just meant for economically advantaged people who could afford to get out into nature.

Gaylord Nelson
U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day founder, in the 70s.

“Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit,” went one of the scripts for the several speeches Nelson gave that first Earth Day.

Millions rallied around not only his words, but the visible environmental problems all around them. Many were sick of breathing fumes of unregulated factory and motor vehicle pollution, and of seeing the dangers of unrestrained pesticide use, like huge fish kills in the Great Lakes. The image of the burning Cuyahoga River in northeastern Ohio was fresh in many memories.

Americans were also fresh off the ’60s decade of massive civil unrest, where taking to the streets in protest had become the norm on campuses and urban streets.

And their actions on the first Earth Day paid off. Policy changes were initiated seemingly overnight. Before the end of that year, Republican President Richard M. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), merging into one agency the pollution efforts previously scattered across a range of federal agencies.

Having launched what has become known as “the environmental decade” in January 1970 with the signing into law of the landmark National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, Nixon that same year signed into law the substantially strengthened Clean Air Act. Two years later, Congress overwhelmingly overrode Nixon’s veto of the capstone Clean Water Act.

Other major pollution control and conservation statues also were enacted throughout the decade, most stirring-up little of the partisan political and public controversy that has become common in more recent times.

But still there were the gnawing concerns that the new “green” focus would come at the expense of other critical social issues.

A 1972 Sierra Club poll of its members bore out that concern. A mere 15 percent of respondents supported the idea that the club should “concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities.” Forty percent were strongly opposed.

“The nation’s concern with the environment has done what George Wallace was unable to do: Distract the nation from the human problems of the black and brown Americans, living in just as much misery as ever,” Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, said of the first Earth Day.

Furthermore, minority and Native American social justice groups disrupted some early Earth Day proceedings in protest over a national park that was being designated on sacred lands.

Still, despite some relatively under-heard voices of dissent, and some missing support from communities feeling disconnected from the issues, Earth Day continued to pick up steam through the ’70s and beyond.

1980-2000: New controversy, continuing momentum

A New York Times editorial on April 21, 1980, reflects what was perhaps inevitable backlash. After noting the “revolution in national attitudes” and “explosion of new laws” inspired by the first Earth Day, the paper editorialized that “the movement is colliding with problems that seem more urgent. Energy, inflation and recession have become the main political concerns, and efforts to reduce pollution or strip-mine damage are seen, often unfairly, as interfering with the nation’s welfare.”

Reaganomics and concerns over what Republican leaders in particular saw as the negative economic impacts of federal regulations led to a series of comparatively uncontroversial federal budget cuts, including extensive cuts to EPA funding between 1981 and 1983, strong dissents from environmentalists notwithstanding.

Still, President Reagan continued to observe Earth Day, commemorating the occasion by commenting on things like the importance of wise resource management and federal land protections.

Despite some political controversy, Earth Day and the environment in general still retained enough popularity with the public at large to propel other policy successes, like saving whales, condors, and Alaskan wilderness, and moving to regulate CFCs to help bring an end to the ozone hole. Not coincidentally, the term greenwashing entered the lexicon around the same time, with popular support of Earth Day continuing to surge.

Denis Hayes
Denis Hayes brought Earth Day from startup in 1970 to global phenomenon.

By 1990, Denis Hayes, who had coordinated the first Earth Day campaign at the behest of Senator Nelson, was ready to bring Earth Day to the global stage, over time mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries around the world.

Stateside support was still strong, too. Showing, as Nixon had before him, that environmental policy needn’t be the domain solely of Democrats, President George H.W. Bush kicked off the ’90s with a proclamation that “Earth Day – and every day – should inspire us to save the land we love, to realize that global problems do have local solutions, and to make the preservation of the planet a personal commitment.”

Shortly after, the “Bush Senior” administration proposed and the President signed the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act intended to curb acid rain, urban smog, and other air pollutants.

Earth Day continued to pick up popularity, thanks in part to sustained strong public support for environmental issues. According to a 1991 Gallup poll, more than 78 percent of Americans considered themselves “environmentalists” – compared with 42 percent in 2016.

Challenges of the new century confront Earth Day interests as 50th anniversary approaches. Click To Tweet

But general popularity didn’t automatically bring in more diverse communities. At this point, most leadership – and even membership – of the major environmental groups was white. So in 1990, 150 civil rights groups wrote a letter to “the Big 10” national environmental organizations to express concern over a dearth of diversity in those organizations. And in 1991, a group of delegates gathered at the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington D.C., drafting and adopting the Principles of Environmental Justice.

This growing focus on “EJ” issues didn’t escape the attention of incoming President William J. Clinton, who in 1992 appointed two environmental justice leaders to his team, and in 1994, signed an executive order considered to be the first federal policy on environmental justice. But otherwise, most work on those issues was still being done by small grassroots organizations rather than by the big-name national membership groups behind the environmental movement.

Earth Day continued to enjoy Oval Office support through the Clinton years, with the President bringing Nelson to the White House in 1995 to grant him the Presidential Medal of Honor, and dedicating a whole section of the Administration’s website to Earth Day 2000.

Closing out the decade, actor Leonardo DiCaprio hosted EarthFair 2000 on the National Mall. Attracting other big names including celebrities and corporate participants representing the likes of Monsanto and the American Forest and Paper Association, the Washington Post called the millennial celebration “a bona fide mainstream extravaganza.”

With the start of the new century, a larger-than-ever Earth Day has entered a new era, complete with its own challenges and opportunities.

Follow the trajectory here in Part 2.

Topics: Policy & Politics