The 1960s were a hayday for political change. From the civil rights movement, to the anti-Vietnam protests, the 60s are lovingly remembered as a time when the American people had had enough of corruption.
According to the Earth Day website, the holiday came about after U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson witnessed the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Inspired by the protests of the nation during this time, he decided to hold a mass teach-in across the United States.
The date, April 22, 1970, was chosen in particular because it was between exams and spring break, allowing for students to be a massive voice in this push for change.
The teach-in worked wonderfully, with thousands of universities and organizations holding demonstrations to protest against the declining state of the environment. Most interestingly, the protests were very bipartisan, with people of all political ideologies and backgrounds coming together to take a stand against issues which they had silently endured for decades.
This activism had been building up for quite some time, but the founding of Earth Day was just one piece of building a movement. The 1960s as a whole is what gave way to the first real environmental movement in the United States. While there had been regulations for preservation and against pollution in previous years, this was the first time the American people were publicly questioning the sustainability of our way of life.
In its early waves, the environmental movement focused mostly on air and water pollution in the United States specifically. This was largely influenced by the bestselling book “Silent Spring” by esteemed biologist and conservationist, Rachel Carson. The book revealed the harms of the United States’ reliance on the pesticide DDT, which was killing off native organisms, specifically species of native birds.
The book, published in 1962, was written in a more poetic form than a scientific one. This allowed it to appeal to a much larger audience than many previous environmental texts which were too weighed down with scientific jargon, or just didn’t have Carson’s allure.
Even John F. Kennedy strongly defended the book, appointing a Science Advisory Committee to look into the issue. This is often cited as the beginning of the modern Environmentalist movement.
After the outrage over Silent Spring and the Earth Day protests, the EPA was established in 1970. From there, a series of environmental policy changes began, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act and many, many more. For a while, the environment became a priority for lawmakers, and real change began in the United States.
Though the movement has slowed down significantly since its 1960s inception, it is still important to the ways in which we interact with our world today. Had it not been for the environmental movement, we likely would not have the infrastructure in place to create change, nor the political interest in creating a better environment for all people.
Earth Day is still celebrated as a holiday of grassroots activism. Though we have come quite some way from the nearly completely unregulated business practices and the strong use of DDT, we still have a long ways to go. We are still attempting to regulate and understand global warming, mass levels of extinction, mass pollution and more issues to count.
Yet the fact that we do still continue to celebrate Earth Day means that we are still feeling that spirit of activism, that innate need to fix the injustices which we face. Hopefully, with the next many Earth Days we can channel the spirit of Rachel Carson and speak out against corruption when it’s present to create a better planet for everyone.