By Jody McCutcheon
This and every April 22, many of us will wish each other a ‘Happy Earth Day‘ without really understanding the reason why. Sure, there are lots of wonderful things to laud about the Earth: the fact that it gives life to we humans and is the home to every creature familiar to us, for starters. But why celebrate Earth Day, exactly? And how did it even start?
A Short History of Earth Day
In 1969, against a backdrop of the Santa Barbara oil spill and the flaming Cuyahoga River, Senator Gaylord (yes, really) Nelson was inspired by campus anti-war demonstrations to wonder why similar bursts of energy, passion and idealism couldn’t go toward environmental action. He proposed a day devoted to a national environmental “teach-in” on campuses countrywide, an opportunity to celebrate “an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all” living things.
Rather than relying on centralised coordination, Nelson shrewdly insisted on grassroots organisation, with individual communities planning the events they wanted. Thus, in Nelson’s words, Earth Day “organised itself”–with some help from his non-profit outfit, Environmental Teach-In, to promote the day and catalogue its multitudes of events.
Why April 22?
Some believe April 22 was chosen to celebrate Earth Day because it’s in the springtime, when all life on Earth is rejuvenated, but the truth is far more prosaic: the date was simply chosen to fit campus schedules between spring break and final exams. Word spread through mainstream media about the impending “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment,” and everything came together perfectly.
Events included speeches, discussions, staged theatrics and coalition building, all homegrown. Attendance ranged from school assemblies to the 100,000-person “human jam” on Fifth Avenue in New York City. An estimated 20,000,000 Americans participated in Earth Day, but not just activists and students: housewives and scientists, farmers and labour unions, religious groups, civic clubs, and even business leaders all took part. Approximately half of the 20,000,000 were schoolchildren. Many would later attend university, where they would have a hand in creating environmental programs of study.
Not Everyone’s A Fan
Of course, Earth Day generated its critics. Industry leaders saw it as an attack on pollution-heavy corporatism, and wryly pointed out it was being celebrated on the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birthday. To contrast, lefties believed the environmental movement was a smokescreen to distract from problems of racism, poverty and militarism.
Regardless, Earth Day seemed to resonate with the average Joe, and its impact to persuade governments to change laws and attitudes is undeniable: within eight months of the inaugural Earth Day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established. American political candidates linked to high-pollution industries lost in the 1970 midterms.
Indeed, the seventies in America became the “Environmental Decade,” birthing myriad eco-friendly legislations and amendments, such as the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Other new laws protected natural resources and public lands.
Do Your Own Thing
Every April 22 since, communities worldwide have celebrated Earth Day in their own ways. Significant events marked the twentieth and thirtieth anniversaries. In 1990, a resounding 200,000,000 citizens participated in 141 countries as Earth Day went global. In 2000, Earth Day went online, using the Internet to reach 183 countries.
This year, over a billion people worldwide will participate in Earth Day. We’ll celebrate our planet’s generous, beautiful bounty and petition our leaders to act against the dangers of pollution and climate change and their effects on all living things. Thousands of events will share interactive digital displays of people, animals and places threatened by climate change, and also images of those who’ve made a difference in the ongoing battle.
No doubt that what with more extreme weather year on year, a relentless population explosion pressing natural resources, and increasingly grim figures for endangered species, this Earth Year will be the most poignant one ever.
How will you celebrate Earth Day? What does it mean to you? We’d love to hear from you! Oh, and by the way: Happy Earth Day!
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