Earth Day’s Birthday

By Mackenzie Nelson

Figure 1. Students and faculty from the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at UW representing at the March for Science in Seattle.

Each year, Earth Day comes and goes like any other day for me. The only difference being the ubiquitous presence of eco-friendly advertisements and related pro-Earth conservation propaganda that inundate my social media channels. My lack of celebration does not stem from an apathetic view of Earth Day festivities. Rather, I like to think I celebrate the values expressed during Earth Day everyday through using reusable shopping bags, opting to walk or take public transportation to reach my destinations, buying locally grown produce, and caring for the one plant I have managed to keep alive—albeit minus the obvious displays of love I have for my home planet.

But that is exactly the basis of much of the criticism of Earth Day: that it is a single day out of the year where people focus on the environment but fail to incorporate these practices into the rest of the year.

While large-scale public events like Earth Day provide a setting to express concern for the environment as well as spark discussions of sustainable options for energy generation, these are conversations that should continue throughout the year. Environmentalism is not a one day event, it is a lifetime commitment.

So how did the first annual celebration of the big ol’ blue and green planet start?

Months before the moon landing, the release of the last Beatles album, and the election of Richard Nixon: it was January 28, 1969, and three million gallons of crude oil were flowing into the Pacific Ocean. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin watched in dismay as the Santa Barbara oil spill unfolded before his eyes. In a world where vehicles fueled by lead-based gasoline were the norm, the widespread problems of air and water pollution did not concern most American politicians. But this was not true of Nelson.

A product of progressivism and New Deal politics, Nelson trusted in the power of the American people to push for environmental changes that were struggling to gain support from political leaders. Nelson was inspired by the anti-war “teach-ins,” action-oriented discussions on current political affairs. To channel activist energy into the rising environmental movement, a single day was set aside for teach-ins focused on issues in the environment. With the help of 20 million Americans and thousands of colleges and universities across the country, April 22, 1970 marked the first national Earth Day celebrated as the activism-focused event as it is known today.

The overwhelming public interest in protecting the environment grabbed the attention of the United States government to address the severity of emerging environmental issues. The result was the creation of the US EPA and the passing of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. Each year, millions of Americans continue to devote April 22nd to acting for the environment.

Figure 2. Me and the orca pool toy, affectionately named Sallie Salish by SMEA students, as we prepared to walk from Capitol Hill to the Space Needle.

This year, Earth Day took on a new agenda. April 22, 2017 marked the nation-wide March for Science, an event organized by members and supporters of the scientific community to promote integrity in scientific research and encourage the application of science to policy development and decision-making.

While I do not consider myself an activist or even an active celebrator of Earth Day, I found myself surrounded by thousands of fellow scientists marching the streets of Seattle, WA. I thought about what that first Earth Day looked like forty-seven years ago when another Nelson (note: not related to me) believed that public demonstrations by the people of the United States were enough to encourage political leaders to listen to the issues that mattered to them. And I like to think it looked a lot like what I saw last week.

But that being said, let us revisit the point of criticism about Earth Day mentioned at the beginning of this post. While annual Earth Day celebrations and public events—like the March for Science—bring attention to environmental issues, the real solutions to these concerns occur with continued action throughout the other 364 days of the year. Showing support on a single day is not enough to help our planet.

Now that Earth Day has passed, what will you do with the rest of your year?

Resources and further readings:

Information about Gaylord Nelson and the history of Earth Day

More about the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill

More about the Earth Day date

Earth Day Network