Earth Day 51: More Than Just a Day
Sarthak Raval. Apr 30, 2021
No other event has the scope of Earth Day — the day’s observance extends throughout the entire globe and is meant to honor the Earth’s people, ecosystems and animals. Earth Day stands out from other annual events, as it has a form of prescribed ritual for the occasion. Just as people are expected to exchange presents in December or feast on Thanksgiving — Earth Day is observed by encouraging people to do good for the environment: communities host litter pickup days, towns conduct recycling drives, and schools hold events for their students. Earth Day has an unusual presence in the public mind for an occasion which is not a nationally recognized holiday nor are people given the whole day off, like President’s Day. People do appreciate having a long weekend in February, but there is not typically much thought given to the nation’s presidents. Earth Day stands out from the rest of the year — even though it falls during the school term, people still come together to make a conscious effort to devote time to honor the Earth.
Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for the founding of the first Earth Day in 1970, however the credit for the name itself goes to Julian Koening. He was responsible for landmark ads that sold Americans on the Volkswagen Beetle in the 1960s and is considered one of the most skilled ad men in the history of the field. Reflecting on his advertising career, he viewed his work as inherently manipulative, saying, “advertising is built on puffery — on, at heart, deception and I don’t think anybody can go proudly into the next world with a career built on deception — no matter how well they do it.” In spite of his views, he found solace in his coinage of Earth Day as a ‘counterbalance to some of his own negative feelings’ about his career; he was able to use his skills to create something built on generosity and volunteerism. Koening offered his services for free to help name and advertise the event, and would go on to do pro-bono conservation work. Koening’s story in the history of Earth Day displays its foundation of legitimate sincerity and serves as a testament for working toward a notion greater than one’s own life. There is a rare genuinity that comes with the event, which can particularly be seen in the revolutionary spirit that bore the first Earth Day in 1970.
In 1969, an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara flooded the waters with sludge that ruined the beaches; thousands of local seafowl and seals were killed and the waves grew so heavy with oil that they stopped crashing on the beaches and those nearby reported they could no longer hear the sound of the sea. This disaster sparked a huge outcry and suddenly attention was drawn to the state of environmental problems afflicting the nation, yet there was little response or accountability from the federal government. Senator Nelson of Wisconsin appointed student activist Denis Hayes to launch Earth Day to bring attention to these issues by galvanizing young people all over the nation. The first Earth Day in 1970 was largely uncoordinated, with Hayes’ team just trying to get the word out to colleges across the nation. He ended up getting 20 million people involved in some way — the largest single-day protest in American history. This usually took the form of college students mobilizing the local community in a street protest or else engaging in local environmental activities, like can-smashing events, river clean-ups, and litter pickups. An estimated 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools became involved and suspended normal operations to hold a teach-in day to devote school time entirely to environmental issues.
President RIchard Nixon visits the Santa Barbara Clean-Up Effort in 1969
Building on the momentum, Hayes and his make-shift team targeted twelve congressional candidates running in upcoming elections who had histories of hostility toward environmental issues, named the ‘Dirty Dozen.’ The team had little resources but managed to put on high energy campaigns in their local districts, taking advantage of the tight margins the incumbents were facing in their elections. They managed to remove seven incumbents from office and suddenly environmental issues were not a fleeting fad that could be ignored, but had to be reckoned as a serious voting issue. Once Congress realized their seats were in jeopardy, policy attitudes began to change. There went from no substantial environmental legislation on the books to the passages of the National Environmental Protection Act and Clean Water Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, all by the end of 1970. The stunning turnout of the first Earth Day forced environmental issues onto the federal agenda and resulted in some of the most landmark sweeping environmental protection laws in the world. Forty-six years to the day after the inaugural Earth Day, the Paris Agreement was signed by the United Nations in 2016 — the most significant climate change mitigation pledge ever signed.
Earth Day’s legacy lies in its ability to leave an impact in the national psyche. It has not necessarily reached the spectacular highs of the first one — and environmentally speaking we are in arguably worse shape than fifty-one years ago — however environmental issues have never been more in the public sphere. A survey conducted by PEW Research Center last year indicates that Americans are more environmentally aware each year — two-thirds assert that environmental issues should be top priority and that the federal government is not doing enough in regards to climate change. Earth Day has irrecoverably placed environmental issues front and center in the national sphere and today students are pursuing entire education and career paths based on their beliefs in securing a safe environment.
Denis Hayes went on to found the Earth Day Network, which coordinates and organizes global sustainability projects that continue year-round. Most notably they have partnered with the United Nations to orchestrate the Canopy Project which aims to reforest degraded natural areas around the world. In the last ten years they have replanted 100 million trees in 42 countries, focusing on impoverished nations and recovering populations, such as in Haiti where landslides from earthquakes have wiped out the nation’s arable land. The original humanitarian spirit of Earth Day lives on and has spread globally; it serves as a powerful example where ordinary citizens mobilizing and passionately asserting their beliefs can create meaningful change. At fifty-one years, Earth Day represents a rare monument for humanity — an entire day is meant to be devoted to giving back unselfishly and provides an opportunity to focus on a promise bigger than any one person: to assure the security of the Earth.