The year was 1969. Embroiled in a war half a world away, and the country suffering from a loss of their youth being drafted and the world around them crumbling from industrial misuse of resources, pockets of resistance began to grow. The seeds of change took a stronghold in the fertile soil of college campuses and universities. Marches and protests were on the news almost every other night. The youth of this nation were sick of their brothers and uncles and fathers coming home in body bags and they saw a better future for themselves and this country. They did not wish to fight in a war they had no stake in, but they would fight for their own future and for the future of this nation.
While humans waged war against each other in Vietnam, Mother Earth was losing an unintentional war against her on American soil and around the world. No one had noticed. We had been too busy with our human battles to notice. Not until events like the river that was so polluted in Ohio that it caught fire. Or when the pollution was so thick, people were advised to stay indoors in metropolitan areas for days on end. Or when, in Santa Barbara there was the first–now ranked as the third–largest oil spill in the world. Since the Industrial Revolution, human beings had been mistreating the planet, disrespecting the only home we’ll ever have, and the consequences were becoming clear: you couldn’t eat the fish from the stream, swim in the ocean, or even breathe the air in some places. Our home was inhabitable, and it was our own fault.
At the turn of the decade, there was much to be outraged about—at home and abroad. But a general rage wasn’t going to solve the innumerable problems. As Senator Gaylord Nelson flew home from visiting the devastation of that Santa Barbara oil spill, he picked up a copy of Ramparts Magazine with a cover story about college students at Columbia University holding teach-in’s to get people involved in the anti-war movement. It was different from the large rallies and demonstrations in the public eye and more actively productive than a sit-in. It was like a town hall meeting, an open discussion and debate to share knowledge and ideas, and find new ways to end the war. It was a living conversation, a way to find new paths and educate one another. It didn’t have the pizazz of a rally or the spectacle of a sit-in, but it was the birthplace of change.
As the conservation senator, Nelson wondered if such a teach-in that focused on ecology would be a way to bring about the policy changes this country needed to stop destroying the environment. It would bring educators and students together in a common goal: to heal our home.
It wasn’t a bill in Congress that had to be voted on. It wasn’t a law to be enacted. It was an idea, a seedling, that Senator Nelson brought up to a few conservation groups. The media seized on it and the Associated Press picked up the story. Even Time Magazine shared the idea of setting aside one day for students, scientists, public leaders, and educators to discuss the threats to our planet and what we can do to protect it. By the end of 1969, Nelson proclaimed April 22nd as the “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment.”
Wanting to let the people, not Washington, lead, Nelson rejected making it an official federal mandate. His office had received so many calls and inquiries about how and what to teach, he set up an independent non profit, Environmental Teach-In, to field calls and questions. They were to guide and educate but not set up requirements for the day. Each community should discuss what they saw as their own needs. He planted the seed and let the grass roots take hold. Little did he know the forests and fields that would spread.
That very first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, didn’t have much showiness to it, although it’s estimated 20 million people participated. The media wasn’t looking in the right place. While the expectation was big rallies and outdoor events (of which there were some in major cities), the real events took place behind classroom doors. Children and the youth of America learned the damage we had been causing this planet since the Industrial Revolution. Educators taught about how to change laws, how to protect the environment, and what a single individual could do to bring about change. The timing was right; the country was ready.
Nixon had signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on New Year’s Day, 1970. The EPA was formed that year. The 1970’s became the Environmental Decade, giving us the Clean Air Act of 1970, Clean Water Act, Noise Control Act, Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and countless others—and that’s just on the federal level.
We had spent centuries trashing our home and now it was time to clean up. There was a lot of work to be done, and the foundation of that was education. Education is the solution that creates more solutions. Starting with that very first teach-in, information about the environment spread across not just college campuses, but middle and grade schools across the nation.
Growing up in the public school system of Massachusetts in the 1980’s, a decade after the mass ecology movement had begun, I was privy to science my parents’ generation was not. Non profit conservation organizations sprung up in the seventies, sharing knowledge of the planet beyond our backyards. In classrooms and libraries, I learned about Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund. I learned about the poaching of animals and the unsafe drinking water in many places around the globe. I learned of draught, the depletion of the ozone layer, and ice caps melting. I was taught how the government works, how legislation can change how business is run, how pollutants are disposed of, and how each of us can do our part to clean up the mess we’ve collectively made.
Recycling wasn’t even a thing when I a child. There was one garbage can per house and very full landfills. Today, people recycle so much, we’re running out of places that can handle the workload and shipping it overseas. When I was little, three day old leftovers went in the trash because at least those would decompose in the landfill. Today some towns (such as Burbank, California) will give you a free compost bin and teach you how to use it so the food you don’t eat can become food again—as soil in your backyard.
We are slowly walking away from fossil fuels. Wind and solar is on the rise. Legislation offering rebates to those who make kind choices in their energy consumption has worked. Now, it is almost the norm. As I drove along I-40 in Texas just a few weeks ago, I didn’t see the oil rigs I had twenty years ago; instead I saw fields of wind turbines all the way to the horizon.
And yet… there was the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests—a cause fought hard and long for almost a year by many, but the pipeline was still laid. There are legal battles daily over the delisting of Endangered Species, and the declassification of protected lands to provide more opportunity for oil businesses and loggers. There are battles still to be fought, and even more battles to be re-fought and re-won. Earth Day was, and still is, a recognition that once change is made, our job is not done: we still need to protect the accomplishments thus far while still working towards more change.
Next year marks half a century since the first Earth Day was held. Fifty years of change. Planting a tree, no longer using a straw or buying a reusable coffee mug are all wonderful ways of celebrating Earth Day. But the true spirit of the day is education. Teach what you know and lead by example so others might learn, and be open to learning from others what you do not know. Only with knowledge will we be armed for battle to save this earth and make our home healthy again.
Earth Day now extends past our shores. Recognized and celebrated in 192 countries, Earth Day shines light on the brightest innovations and newest technologies, as well as shows us where the darkness still hides and what wrongs still need to be righted.
Just because April 22nd is over for the year, does not mean our mission is complete. While we have made tremendous strides in cleaning up the mess we’ve made just in my own lifetime, there is still much to be done. And if ever you think that just one person can’t possibly make a difference, remember half a century ago Earth Day was just one person’s idea about some classes on a college campus.
Earth Day has not come and gone; Earth Day is every day: it is a call to kindness in the way we treat each other, our fellow inhabitants of every species, and the Earth itself.
Stephanie Wescott is a freelance writer whose mission is to save animals’ lives through story. Although she hails from New England and resides in Southern California, you’ll mostly likely find her somewhere in between on the open road with her canine companion Tucker, searching for trails to hike and stories to tell. You can follow their tracks and read their tales at www.alltuckeredout.