The spirit of the nation rose up on April 22, 1970, and it saved the world—at least for a while. Ten percent of Americans, the equivalent of 33 million people today, turned out on the first Earth Day to demand environmental justice. Originally the idea of a bi-partisan pair of U.S. Senators, a national consensus coalesced around that singular event to become irresistible.
In short order a Democrat controlled Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)—all signed into law by a Republican President. That same Republican, Richard Nixon, created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order eight months following the first Earth Day. “Tricky Dick” of Watergate notoriety became arguably the most pro-environment President of the 20th century because he recognized that times had indeed been changing.
Those decisive bipartisan actions which cleared the skies, cleaned the waters, and slowed the genocide of countless species were considered insufficient by the doomsayers of the time. In 1970 Paul Erlich, a Stanford biologist, told Mademoiselle that population growth would outstrip the global food supply, stating “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” 3.4 million people actually starved during the 70’s—terrible, but vastly below the levels of the previous decade. That same year ecologist Kenneth Watt predicted for Life Magazine that “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.” Such dire predictions made with missionary zeal proved as impotent then as they are now at motivating wholesale change in the hearts and minds of the American people.
As a high school sophomore at the time, I can say we did pay attention to Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring. Carson, a marine biologist, was moved to write by a friend’s letter describing the death of birds around Boston from arial spraying of DDT. She wrote in an academic voice, emotionally charged, but well supported with evidence connecting her narrative to readers’ individual lives. It was research and reportage, not computer modeling and extrapolated extreme claims. After Silent Spring, everyone believed they had personal responsibility as caretakers of the planet.
Perhaps it was the zeitgeist of the 60’s that prepared so many to stand up for the environment. The decade leading up to that first Earth Day saw countless demonstrations, demands for change expressed in every cultural medium, and civil disobedience that fully revealed the power of our 1st Amendment to advance civil society. It was messy and chaotic, and upsetting to the establishment-minded among us. The resulting tectonic shifts that advanced civil rights, women’s rights, and the end to a needless war were the aggregate effect of citizen leaders and individual voices—not the initiatives of government, politicians, the media, or academics. 70’s activism shifted to the benefit of the planet, again led by an impassioned people.
Now the first Earth day is fifty-one years behind us. The Cuyahoga River near Cleveland no longer catches fire; Bald Eagles have resumed taking trout from the Mad River near my home; and the once-permanent haze of Ohio summer has dispersed to reveal beautiful, towering, midwestern blue skies.
True progress can happen when free people take personal responsibility for change.