Oden Taylor, EcoNews Intern
April 22 marks 53 years of the celebration of Earth Day. As children many of us likely celebrated by planting trees and flowers, or making arts and crafts at our schools, to honor the beauty of our planet. But this year let’s remember the way the celebration of Earth Day really began—as a protest.
Though a peaceful protest, Earth Day was born from student activism, much like movements we see today with the Sunrise Movement and other, mostly Gen Z, climate justice organizations. Conceptualized by Gaylord Nelson, a junior senator from Wisconsin, and Dennis Hayes, a young activist, Earth Day took off with a bang.
It is estimated that approximately 20 million people participated on this monumental day at tens of thousands of primary and secondary schools, universities, and community sites across the United States. Much of the driving passion for those involved came from shedding light on environmental racism and the harmful effects of industry on low-income communities of color.
This was fueled by an already emerging concern for the well-being of the environment after a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, as well as the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching fire due to water pollution in 1969.
Societal tensions were also already rising due to the anti-war movement which sprang up in response to the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Senator Nelson took this as an opportunity to blend the energy of anti-war protests with a broader concern about air and water pollution caused by capitalism as a whole.
The influence of the first Earth Day was so powerful that by the end of 1970, just one year after the planning of the event, the Nixon administration had both formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and through it passed the Clean Air Act. Thanks to this change alone there has been a 66.9 percent decrease in air pollution, adding an average of 1.3 years to the American life expectancy according to the Air Quality Life Index, a tool used to measure the effects of pollution concentration on life expectancy across the globe.
Since the creation of the EPA we have celebrated many important legislative successes towards the protection of our planet. In the years following its creation, the EPA banned the carcinogenic pesticide DDT and other cancer causing pesticides, as well as passed the Clean Water Act and Ocean Dumping Act. These protections and more have made huge differences in the safety of our world.
Today, the effects of climate change are being seen right in front of our eyes like never before. We must be realistic about the limitations of our planet and our role in these changes. Just like in 1970, we must be looking out for those who are the most vulnerable to these changes.
The effects of environmental racism are only exacerbating across the globe. As harmful chemicals from fossil fuel factories and others are seeping into groundwater systems, climate change driven tropical storms and earthquakes caused by fracking have further devastated communities of color.
In our own country, the Flint, Michigan water crisis continues to this day. The crisis began in 2014 when in an attempt to save money officials chose to switch Flint’s drinking water supply from the Detroit city system to the Flint River. The highly corrosive polluted river water caused lead to leech from the pipes it flowed through into the homes of thousands of Flint residents.
After millions of dollars spent and eight years of trying to clean up this disaster the city has yet to fully fix the effects of this damage to the land and its people.
Unfortunately this is only one example of the ways that capitalism has failed to create incentives to protect public health and the health of our planet. Because of this reality it is up to us to push for more environmental protections and policy changes to safeguard the future of humanity.
The Northcoast Environmental Center was founded in 1971, shortly after the original Earth Day, and has been pushing for change ever since. There are many things you can do now to honor our planet and all its inhabitants this Earth Day and every day.
Demand climate action and justice from your local, state, and national representatives. Commit to making sustainable changes in your own life that benefit the lives of everyone on this planet, such as reducing your use of plastics and other fossil fuel products, and by eliminating food and textile waste in your home by not over-purchasing. And finally, be sure to spread this wisdom everywhere you go.
Fifty years from now, we hope that this message has been well received. As our grandchildren play in clear water, breathing clean air, we will harvest the fruits of our labor. Until this is a reality we must all keep fighting.