The importance of Earth Day has not waned in the 48 years since its inception. In fact, the importance of caring for our planet has risen to a new level of urgency with the challenges of climate change, and as the Trump administration seeks to undo much of the environmental progress that has been made over the years.
Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin kicked off the event on April 22, 1970 as a teach-in on environmental issues in response to a lack of a presence of the environment in the political or media spheres. The first Earth Day attracted the participation of 20 million people worldwide; by its 20th anniversary in 1990, the number of participants skyrocketed to 200 million people across 141 countries. In 2016, it was estimated that over one billion people around the globe participated. Earth Day continues to be a reminder that stewardship of the earth is important not just on one day, but every day.
Bob Morris, the Trinity County Representative on the Northcoast Environmental Center’s board, recounts a 2010 NEC board meeting where, when he brought up that it was Earth Day’s 40th anniversary and suggested that the board of directors share their first Earth Day memories. He was met with silence and then laughter, as several folks around the table stated that they either weren’t born yet or were very young when the first Earth Day happened.
Morris, however, remembers it like yesterday. “It’s very vivid to me,” Morris says. “I was a freshman in college and it was kind of a big deal on campus. There were speeches given, banners and parades, and it was a real eye-opener. Kind of like, “Whoa, something’s going on with this environmental stuff.”
Morris had attended Sierra Club meetings during his senior year of high school and was exposed to topics of environmental awareness there, but says that Earth Day proved something was truly brewing in the environmental corner.
“You know, it’s a cliche, there’s that bumper sticker that says,
“Every day is Earth Day!” But I just live that way now.” – Bob Morris
Dan Sealy, NEC’s Legislative Analyst, also remembers the first Earth Day. “I grew up in Oklahoma and my first recollection is in high school. A friend of mine and I had discovered a fairly significant fish kill on a creek that flowed into a small river in about 1969 and it was about the same time as the Santa Barbara oil spill, which of course had national headlines everywhere. We were really naive but wanted to do something.”
“We asked our school if we could organize a school assembly about Earth Day and have people come and talk about various topics about environmental concern,” Sealy says. “Because of our work with the fish kill, we knew some people at the water quality board, and one of our teachers worked at the Oklahoma City Zoo. We had speakers come and it was packed with people. We had all of these great speakers on weather and water and wildlife. Kind of naive stuff at the time, nothing as complex as it is now, but from that we wound up getting a bunch of people to do water quality monitoring on streams in the area where we lived.”
Ideas about how to spend it have evolved over the years. Some have argued that individual action is the way to go, while others claim that structural and systematic changes are the ones that count. Sealy states, “Like so many things that are good, it has become, probably by necessity, somewhat institutionalized. And in doing so, it loses some of that initial, real grassroots, activist spirit. It’s not that people care any less, it’s just that it’s become kind of like an expected thing rather than a mobilization thing.”
Sealy continues, “Environmental messages have gone from overly simplistic, like “save the whales” or “save the rainforest,” to extremely complex things like climate change and carbon sequestration and energy budgets. To me, Earth Day is an opportunity to really broaden the subject and grab people’s hearts. So that it’s not all about the science, not all about the data, it’s about why it’s important when you walk out the door every morning.”