Earth Day is born 30 years ago
Although I was only 15 years old in 1969 I was so elated that finally I could be part of a forum to express my concern about what was happening to our land, rivers, lakes, and air. I had read the book Silent Spring by a marine biologist named Rachel Carson. The title referred to a future without birds and described in plain language devastating long-term effects of highly toxic pesticides and other chemical agents then commonly used in American agriculture, industry and daily life. I remember 1968 Apollo astronauts, returning from their pioneering orbital flight around the moon, photographed the planet Earth as a whole for the first time. This image of the Earth — small, fragile, beautiful, and unique — quickly was imprinted in my mind.
The great boom in development following World War II had turned America's rivers into sewers and covered its cities with shrouds of air pollution. Nuclear weapons tests had spread radioactive fallout to all parts of the Earth, and several environmental disasters in addition to the 1969 California oil spill caught the nation's attention. In June 1969, floating oil and other pollutants on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire.
Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson passed away July 2005 at the age of 89. He believed strongly that education is the key to changing people's attitudes about the environment and he devoted much of his energy to that challenge. Earth Day affirms that environmental awareness is part of the country’s consciousness and that the idea of protecting the environment — once the province of a few conservationists — has moved from the extreme to the mainstream of American thought. On that day April 22,1970, 20 million Americans in 2,000 communities and 10,000 schools planted trees, cleaned up parks, buried cars in mock graves, marched, listened to speeches and protested how humans were messing up their world.
Where do we go from here?
As Gaylord Nelson said “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity… that’s all there is. That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world”
Today the buzz word “sustainability” has taken hold internationally and is central to many facets of development. As we approach the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, it’s important to examine how this event can also be leveraged to spread the message of sustainability throughout the global community.
Since the inception of Earth Day in 1970, our nation and the global community has committed to protecting our environment. What started as a grassroots movement to promote environmental awareness and advocate for environmental protections has resulted in the creation of regulatory agencies; heightened awareness of environmental issues; established networks of interested stakeholders; and a global ethic of environmentalism.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970, eight months after the first Earth Day event was held in the United States. Prior to Earth Day 1970, there were no legal or regulatory mechanisms to protect our environmental resources. Within the first decade of Earth Day, our leaders committed to passing (and amending) the following legislations.
1970 - Clean Air Act
1970, 1969 - National Environmental Policy Act
1970 - Occupational and Safety Health Act
1973 - Endangered Species Act
1974 - Safe Drinking Water Act
1976 - Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
1976 - Toxic Substances Control Act
1977,1972, 1948 - Clean Water Act (Federal Water Pollution Control Act)
1980 - Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund)
These laws provided the checks and balances for resource use by all Americans. Unfortunately since the late 1990’s; no new laws have been passed that expressly protect the environment. In light of global discussions on climate change, energy demands, and changing economic and demographic factors, it’s important to re-examine our use of natural resources.
As individuals, we have the opportunity to examine the footprints we’ve made on Earth’s landscape and the tolls we’ve exacted on the natural capital of the world. The sum total of our individual efforts will result in a positive additive effect – if each person makes an effort, together we can make a difference.
(founder of The Futon Shop 1976)