The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was, by all accounts, the beginning of a powerful grassroots movement, helped immeasurably by a famous TV commercial that premiered on Earth Day 1971 of an Indian shedding a tear as he saw pollution all around him.
Today, being green is routine in many people’s lives, but some of the environmental problems from 40 years ago still exist. The difference, according to conservationists, is that environmental issues are woven into the social, economic and political fabric of the country.
“The survival of our planet, our society and our quality of life are intricately linked and much more profound than we understood 40 years ago,” said Jeremy Madsen, the executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance, a San Francisco nonprofit group that champions open space and transit-oriented development in the Bay Area. “The issue of climate change, our overall reliance on the automobile, and therefore our dependence on oil, are areas where we haven’t made the progress that we’ve seen in other areas.”
The greatest challenge
There is no doubt that enormous strides have been made since 1970, especially in terms of cleaning up pollution and recycling the garbage humans produce. Clean energy and fuel, from solar power to hydrogen fuel cells, are being developed, and the protection of endangered species is a globally accepted priority.
But many environmentalists think the world is in greater peril now than it ever has been. Climate change is, to most environmentalists, the greatest challenge, especially as the world’s population continues to grow.
Fighting global warming is a daunting task that experts say would require the revamping of America’s energy infrastructure to accommodate clean, sustainable energy. Alternative power and fuels would have to be mass produced and economic incentives compelling enough to change the way industry operates would need to be implemented.
“The big problem now is that we are facing a global economic recession and we are also trying to transform the economy to break the dependence on fossil fuels,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board. “Right now, at the national level and here in California, we’re going through one of those cycles where, as part of the struggle for dominance, people are moving to the barricades instead of toward solutions.”
The political squabbling, driven in some cases by a denial that human-caused global warming even exists, is one of many obstacles environmentalists have faced since former Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., founded Earth Day.
Before Earth Day
In truth, the environmental movement in America goes back much further than Earth Day. It could probably be traced back to the slaughter of the American buffalo and, later, the emergence of naturalist John Muir and President Teddy Roosevelt as early preservationists.
The nationwide Keep America Beautiful campaign started in 1953 and eventually produced the famous ditty that lives in the memory banks of every Baby Boomer, “Please, please, don’t be a litterbug.” “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book by biologist Rachel Carson, awakened people to the harmful effects of DDT.
The great battles in the Bay Area to halt tract home developments and prevent the fouling of pristine coastal habitat began in the 1960s, but it was Earth Day 1970 that galvanized the troops, according to those who were involved.
“Prior to Earth Day there was a conservation movement, but most of these groups focused on their own communities,” said Denis Hayes, the national organizer of the original Earth Day and chairman of the 2010 campaign. “What Earth Day did was bring them all together into a unified universal campaign.”
Major provisions of the Clean Air Act were passed in 1970, the same year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created. Agricultural use of DDT was banned in 1972, and in 1973 President Richard Nixon created the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was one of numerous environmental laws passed that decade, as was the Clean Water Act. It was also in the 1970s that members of the Chipko movement in India wrapped their arms around trees to protest deforestation, leading to the first known use of the term “tree huggers.”
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was established in 1972 out of a collection of U.S. Army posts, beaches, bluffs and vacant rolling hills.
“We literally changed the ground rules for environmental policy,” said Hayes, who is also president and chief executive officer of the multimillion-dollar environmentally focused Bullitt Foundation. “The first 10 years, up through the Carter administration, was a period of real accomplishment. We had a raft of legislation, tough limits on air and water pollution, toxic dumps and the Endangered Species Act. I think everyone who was part of that process would say that but for Earth Day this would not have happened.”
Some of the world’s worst environmental disasters have occurred since that first Earth Day, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.
Those catastrophes, and the oil embargoes in the Middle East in 1973 and 1979, helped focus the attention of Americans on the need for alternative energy.
Pushed into action
“The relevance of Earth Day was very visceral, very tangible,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional EPA administrator in San Francisco. “That pushed us into action.”
Since 1980, carbon monoxide in Los Angeles has been reduced 70 percent, even though the population has increased 64 percent and people drive 44 percent more miles than they did then, Blumenfeld said.
Californians now recycle 50 percent of their garbage, compared with 11 percent in 1989. The 51 million tons of waste Californians diverted from landfills in 2008 was enough to fill 100 football fields to the height of the Empire State Building.
Although great strides have been made in many areas — including wind- and solar-power development, hybrid technology and energy-efficient construction — Hayes believes there has recently been a momentum shift.
There are deep divides in this country over environmental policy, he said, and a glaring lack of international cooperation in the effort to curb carbon emissions.
“In the United States and Canada there have been spectacular successes, but we have been abysmally unsuccessful in achieving much success worldwide,” Hayes said. “The United States was really out in front of the world 30 years ago, but has really ceased playing that role.”
Hayes said the National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 1979 urging action to reduce carbon emissions.
“It’s 30 years later and we haven’t done squat,” he said. “To continue on the path we were on at that point would have been relatively inexpensive. Now it’s a genuine crisis.”
The difference, Blumenfeld said, is that Democrats and Republicans worked together on important legislation in the 1970s, a fact illustrated eloquently by the landmark environmental laws that bear Nixon’s signature.
“Hopefully we can rekindle that spirit of bipartisanship that, sadly, I think we have turned away from,” Blumenfeld said. “I think it would be much more difficult to pass a Clean Water Act or a Clean Air Act today. There isn’t that bipartisan effort in moving forward, and there needs to be.”
Organizers hope that the 1 billion people in 190 countries who will participate in Earth Day activities this year will inspire the enactment of a national climate policy that values energy efficiency and renewable energy, creates green jobs and contributes to a global green economy.
But the major strides, at least in the near future, will probably be made on the grassroots level, according to Will Rogers, president and chief executive officer of the Trust for Public Land in San Francisco.
“People on the ground care deeply, and demonstrate that when they are given the opportunity,” Rogers said. “When it comes to protecting places that people care about, there are no red states and blue states. There are only green states.”
Ultimately, the goal of Earth Day is to foster an appreciation for nature and the environment and, according to organizers, spur action on global issues that transcend politics.
“Hopefully Earth Day can remind people that 40 years ago we faced a lot more environmental challenges than we do today, and we’ve overcome most of them,” Blumenfeld said. “Earth Day is about that strong grassroots effort without which we are lost.”