April is here, and Earth Day is just around the corner! Kids will be working on fun gardening projects in school, and our favorite local venues will be plastered with Earth Day celebration banners. It’s wonderful that we have a day to appreciate our beautiful planet, but have you ever wondered about the story behind Earth Day? Just as our own history here on Earth is complex and intriguing, so is the history behind this particular day of commemoration.
1960s: Setting the Stage
The first Earth Day took place on April 22nd, 1970, and was initiated by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. But let’s rewind a bit, first. Picture the 1960s. The hippie “peace and love” culture bloomed, the fight for equal rights became a national movement, and anti-war protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War spread quickly. Activism, in so many ways, was a marker of this decade.
Early on in 1962, biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a New York Times bestseller that described the harmful effects of the insecticide DDT on the ecosystem and, ultimately, humans. The idea that commonly used products like DDT may threaten human health caused uproar amongst readers across the nation. Big chemical companies like Monsanto lashed out. An American Cyanamid Company executive even stated, “If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insect and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”
1970: The First Earth Day
That same year, Senator Nelson began a quest that would eventually culminate in the first Earth Day. Though human rights and equality were big issues during the ‘60s, he felt little attention had been paid to the environment on a political level. Nelson proposed that President John F. Kennedy go on a national conservation tour to bring these concerns to light. Though JFK took up Nelson’s suggestion, little success was derived from this tour in terms of making environmental issues a hot topic.
Nelson continued to speak about conservation for several years till 1969. Anti-war protests had peaked around the country at this time, and “teach-ins” were particularly popular on college campuses. Nelson realized that these same grassroots efforts could be applied to propel the environmental movement into the public sphere.
Wow! So, you ask, Earth Day essentially started as a protest? That’s right - a protest to bring environmental concerns to national attention! At a conference in Seattle in the fall of 1969, Nelson announced that these environmental rallies would take place the following spring and invited everyone to participate. As the media buzzed over the event for the next several months, fellow Senators and college students joined together to plan the first Earth Day.
Millions participated, and popular news outlets like The New York Times covered the event in their publications. Democrats and Republicans both paid attention, and the effort helped bring about the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. Nelson later wrote, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
How the First Earth Day Affected Contra Costa County
The fervor that resulted from the first Earth Day even sparked environmental action right here in Contra Costa County. By the ‘60s, Contra Costa County had grown to a population of 409,030, which was 330,000 more people than in 1930! Concord especially skyrocketed, going from 1,373 residents in 1940 to 36,208, eventually becoming the county’s largest city by the ‘70s.
As a result, traffic increased, and many more needs had to be met. The General Plan was made state law, along with the California Environmental Quality Act and state Endangered Species Act. Additionally, Shell Ridge Open Space in Walnut Creek as well as other open space areas in Concord were both protected from development proposals made at the time. Contra Costa residents have been fighting for our environment for years!
Subsequent Earth Day Campaigns
Fast forward to 1990. Denis Hayes, whom Nelson named coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, was called to organize another big campaign to get people refocused on environmental issues. This time, Earth Day went global to most of the world’s countries, opening the door for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Brazil as well as prompting recycling to gain popularity worldwide.
Earth Day 2000 combined the grassroots efforts of the first Earth Day and worldwide reach of the 1990 campaign. Denis Hayes was called to help organize the campaign again. Millions were reached worldwide through the internet, and thousands gathered at a political rally in Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. Cries for investments in clean energy were prominent.
The 40th Earth Day in 2010 mirrored that of the first in 1970. As is still the case today in 2015, much of the environmental community was divided. Climate change had been widely challenged and denied by many, politicians and communities were in disagreement, and the oil industry was well backed. The Earth Day Network launched a series of opportunities for communities worldwide to engage with the environment and make positive changes. Millions upon millions took part in these projects and pledges.
Will You Carry On the Tradition?
Over time, Earth Day has changed from a grassroots “protest” effort to a worldwide campaign that employs the internet to get people taking action and discussing key topics. Even though the scope of Earth Day has changed over time in response to current environmental, economic, and social issues, it remains a fantastic opportunity to inspire diverse communities around the world to get involved with the movement.
By example of Nelson’s first Earth Day rally and the ones that followed, Contra Costa residents can also organize similar grassroots efforts to protect our own local natural resources and communities. What would you like to change, protect, or direct in Contra Costa? Perhaps Earth Day is the perfect opportunity to rally some support!
Thanks, Michael! SCOCO will have a table at the festival to tell you about the Community Resilience Challenge this May. Anyone and everyone is invited to get involved! Learn more about it at http://eastbayresiliencechallenge.org (website currently undergoing redesign; will be up and ready soon - thank you for your patience!)
Hope everyone can checkout Lafayette's 10th Annual Earth Day Festival on Sunday, April 26th from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.