Earth Days: A History of the Modern Environmental Movement

Goodlifer: Earth Days: A History of the Modern Environmental Movement

Everyone and everything seems to be “Going Green” these days, and it’s hard to imagine a time when environmental issues were nowhere near the top of most people’s agendas. Forty years ago today, the first Earth Day events were held across the United States. Over 20 million Americans participated in celebrations and demonstrations — the largest gathering in American history — demanding political action to protect the environment.

New York City Mayor John Lindsay closed 5th Avenue for what would be the largest Earth Day gathering in the country.

In 1970, New York City Mayor John Lindsay closed 5th Avenue for what would be the largest Earth Day gathering in the country.

What makes this feat all the more amazing is that it was organized by a small group of people led by 25-year-old Denis Hayes, who had been hired — only six months earlier — by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to organize a national teach-in for the environment. Mostly by sending letters to like-minded groups across the country (they didn’t have money to make many phone calls) this grassroots call to action led to groundbreaking national legislation and created a new consciousness about the fragility of the earth’s resources.

Denis Hayes (seated) ran the small activist group co-founded by Senator Gaylor Nelson. The teach-in was designed to educate Americans about growing problems with environmental pollution and overpopulation.

Denis Hayes (seated) ran the small activist group co-founded by Senator Gaylor Nelson. The teach-in was designed to educate Americans about growing problems with environmental pollution and overpopulation.

The collective strength of the public’s outcry gave Washington a mandate for environmental action. In the years that followed, Congress was flooded with environmental legislation. Between 1972 and 1974, they passed the Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Endangered Species Act, Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act, Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

More than 20,000 people gathered in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia to observe the first Earth Day in 1970. A growing awareness of the effect of DDT and other potentially harmful pesticides is reflected in the child's T-shirt, reading "Let me grow up!"

More than 20,000 people gathered in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia to observe the first Earth Day in 1970. A growing awareness of the effect of DDT and other potentially harmful pesticides is reflected in the child’s T-shirt, reading “Let me grow up!”

The documentary film Earth Days looks back to the dawn and development of the modern environmental movement through the extraordinary stories of the era’s pioneers — among them Denis Hayes, Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall (who recently passed away), biologist/Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Apollo Nine astronaut Rusty Schweickart, and renewable energy pioneer Hunter Lovins. Directed by acclaimed documentarian Robert Stone (Oswald’s Ghost, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst) Earth Days is both a poetic meditation on man’s complex relationship with nature and an engaging history of the revolutionary achievements — and missed opportunities — of groundbreaking eco-activism.

Earth Days director Robert Stone.

Earth Days director Robert Stone.

I saw a preview of the film last week, and it is a really fascinating story of how activists really rose to the challenge in the late 60s and early 70s, only to drift off as the 80s approached. One thing we often forget is just how far we have come. In the post-war America of the 50s, companies could get away with just about anything, which led to rainbow-colored rivers, acid rain and self-igniting lakes. The expansion of the Interstate Highway system pushed people out into suburbs and laid the groundwork for the car-dependent society we still live in today.

Paul Ehrlich, Biologist and author of the best-selling "The Population Bomb."

Paul Ehrlich, Biologist and author of the best-selling “The Population Bomb.”

But, great strides were also taken. John F. Kennedy stepped forth and called for scientific research that proved Rachel Carson’s case to be right. The new conservation movement sprang forth and fought successfully for causes such as preserving Florida’s Everglades and protesting dam construction in the Grand Canyon.

Stewart Udall, ardent conservationist and former Secretary of the Interior, passed away on March 20.

Stewart Udall, ardent conservationist and former Secretary of the Interior, passed away on March 20.

The 1970s became known as ‘the environmental decade’, and new federal legislation made great progress toward cleaning up our skies, lands, lakes, and oceans. As President Richard M. Nixon declared, “The great question of the 70s is: shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water.” One may question Nixon’s motives, but he did lay the groundwork for the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, a feat that shall not be underestimated.

Denis Hayes, Environmental Activist and National Coordinator of Earth Day 1970.

Denis Hayes, Environmental Activist and National Coordinator of Earth Day 1970.

The environmental movement basically lost twenty years when Reagan won the election, but it is now back, stronger and more empowered than ever. Where we go from here and who will lead the way is history about to be written.

Part of the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE series, Earth Days airs on PBS on April 26, tune in buy the DVD or watch it online.

Earth Days movie poster

Top photo: This photograph, named “Earthrise,” was taken by the crew of Apollo 8. It was the first photograph of the Earth from space and would become the iconic image of the environmental movement.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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