Many know that the Earth Day movement first began in 1970, but few have heard the idea behind it. The Earth Day founder, then U.S. Senator Nelson, had recently witnessed a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara. The year was 1969, seven years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring became a New York Times bestseller, and in the height of the student anti-war movement. Nelson figured that he could ride the wave of energy of a burgeoning public awareness of air and water pollution and get environmental protection onto a national political agenda.

Keep in mind that this was long before Whole Foods, the Prius and An Inconvenient Truth. According to Steven Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, “the connection between environmental quality and public health was not yet clear.” This is something we take for granted today, but was a momentous turning point of understanding.

Senator Nelson announced the idea of a national teach-in on the environment, and with a staff of 85, he promoted events across the United States. As a result of this hard work, 20 MILLION Americans rallied in streets, parks, and auditoriums for a sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. People began to see the threads between species depletion, polluting factories, toxic dumps, oil spills and loss of wilderness. If this weren’t enough, Earth Day 1970 also enlisted the support of both Republicans AND Democrats in a rare political alignment, the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts!

So, what is Earth Day now 45 years later?

Eyes on what you love.It’s easy to feel that it’s lost some of its initial steam. Attendance at Earth Day festivals around the country are far from the turnout in 1970. Yet humanity has evolved in a number of interesting ways that are important to remember. Environmental pollution is now widely viewed as a health issue. There is still broad public support for a healthy environment. Global sustainability, once at the fringes of public policy, has now moved closer to center if not yet in the bullseye. Alternative energies like solar power are flying full steam ahead. We have  also discovered (or remembered) that there is a deep connection between economic wellbeing and a healthy environment. An Inconvenient Truth is still the most successful documentary of all time.

Wherever you are this Earth Day on April 22nd, please remember its history and do one thing to help.

Here are five ideas to help:

  • Encourage a non-environmentalist to do one environmentally healthy thing, like recycle.
  • Plant wildflowers, which will encourage local pollinators. Hell, plant a tree.
  • Pick up the litter you just ignored.
  • Carpool with a friend instead of both driving to that rad event.
  • Cook a special Earth Day meal of organic and locally-grown foods.


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