Eric Warner Staff Writer
“Earth Day can-and it must-lend a new urgency and a new support to solving the problems that still threaten to tear the fabric of this society […] the problems of race, of war, of poverty, of modem-day institutions […] Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.” – Senator Gaylord Nelson, 1970.
Wednesday, Apr. 22, marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. Earth Day is a global annual event first established by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin in 1970 with the purpose of demonstrating support for environmental protection not just for humans, but for the Earth as a whole. Recognition and celebration of the planet and all of her creatures had been a slowly increasing occurrence in American history before the inception of this holiday. Activists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carlson, President Theodore Roosevelt and President Woodrow Wilson, inspired citizens all over the U.S and beyond to begin living more environmentally healthy lifestyles.
This came to a head in 1969 during the Vietnam War, when a Union Oil Platform off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, blew out more than three million gallons of oil. This resulted in the deaths of thousands of birds, dolphins, seals, and other coastal life. Appalled by this tragedy, activists from California and all over the country began to mobilize environmental movements and protests that would eventually create Earth Day. The first Earth Day had 20 million Americans, roughly 10% of the U.S.’s population at the time, gathering across hometown streets, college campuses, and cities, to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for the planet’s safety. Historians credit this moment as the birthplace for the modern global environmental movement and is currently recognized as the Earth’s largest civic event. It would go on to help establish the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This would inspire countries across the globe to introduce similar acts and organizations.
Earth Day’s effects can still be felt to this day with the United Nations hosting the historic Paris Agreement on Earth Day of 2016 and the UN hosting the Climate Action Summit in 2019. These are held to inspire nations all over the planet to continue combating climate change and other negative environmental catastrophes.
Not every milestone since Earth Day’s inception has been positive to the event’s theme of climate action, however. In 2018, according to a report from the World Wildlife Foundation and over 50 scientists, roughly 60% of all mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles have become extinct since 1970. This caused many to believe that humanity is currently the cause of a sixth major extinction event in the Earth’s history. The source of this massive loss of life is reportedly due to ever expanding farmland made for humanity’s food supplies that cause the destruction of a multitude of natural habitats; as well as animals themselves being killed for food with roughly 300 species being eaten to extinction. Chemical pollutants in the aquatic ecosystems and the polluted atmosphere, are also a cause of this massive loss of life. Furthermore, in 2017, President Trump announced that his administration has decided to cease participation with the Paris Agreement and has the intention to mitigate the EPA’s funding and lessening the power of the Endangered Species Act.
Despite these worrying events, individuals and organizations across the globe continue to work towards Earth Day’s goals through environmentally friendly acts such as recycling, purchasing locally farmed food, using non-fossil fueled based machines, supporting green energy sources, curtailing the spread of invasive species, and ultimately helping in halting climate change.
We spoke with Professor Thomas Balcerski, from Eastern Connecticut State University’s History Department on how he think’s Earth Day’s theme has been upheld over the years and how its legacy remains important today. He stated, “Last semester’s class on U.S. Environmental History brought students into contact with both past and presen t[…]the class impressed upon me the long history of environmental consciousness in American history, from Native American beliefs and practices, to our twenty-first century environmentalism. On the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, it’s fitting to pause to reflect on all that we have accomplished and all that remains to be done.”
Students can join the movement by taking part in a cleanup, a climate strike, hosting an Earth Day event in their own community, and taking part in NASA’s #EarthDayAtHome projects to help protect our only home.