Earth Day – Does the Grass Still Have Roots?

To many, April 22, 1970, marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The first Earth Day celebration brought somewhere around 20 million Americans together to demonstrate against environmental degradation. Protests had been going on for quite some time, sure, but this first Earth Day was what brought activists together, whether their cause was the fight against air pollution, factories, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways or the loss of wilderness.

Protesters at the first Earth Day.

Protesters at the first Earth Day.

The collective strength of this action proved to the people in Washington that they needed to take action. The 1970s became known as ‘the environmental decade’ as new federal legislation made great progress toward cleaning up our skies, lands, lakes, and oceans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established by the Nixon government in December of 1970. Between 1972 and 1974, Congress 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. President Kennedy called for scientific research that would validate the theories about the dangers of pesticides and pollution put forth by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. The new conservation movement fought successfully for causes like preserving Florida’s Everglades and protesting dam construction in the Grand Canyon.

Demonstrators outside of a polluting factory on the first Earth Day, 1970.

Demonstrators outside of a polluting factory on the first Earth Day, 1970.

Earth Day was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, a United States Senator from Wisconsin, and was originally envisioned as a teach-in on the environment to be observed by every university campus in the U.S., modeled after the highly effective Vietnam War teach-ins of the time. The idea came to him after seeing the horrific aftermath of the 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara and seeing politicians in Washington doing very little about it. The idea was brought all the way to John F. Kennedy, but Senator Nelson decided against a top-down approach, instead favoring a decentralized, grassroots effort in which each community shaped their action around local concerns. He felt that this was the only way to get the support of the younger generation, who, after the Vietnam War, was more skeptical of the government than ever before.

The idea was announced on September 20, 1969. Nine days later New York Times wrote, in a long, front-page article:
“Rising concern about the “environmental crisis” is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam… a national day of observance of environmental problems, analogous to the mass demonstrations on Vietnam, is being planned for next spring, when a nationwide environmental ‘teach-in’… coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned…”

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.

A young Harvard grad student named Denis Hayes read this article and traveled to Washington, D.C. to help out. Eventually, he would drop out of Harvard to lead the U.S Earth Day organizing efforts, with the help of a handful of other college graduates. In the months leading up to Earth Day, advertisements for the event stated: “It can be the beginning of the end of pollution. Or the beginning of the end.” It was a passionate statement full of the intense hope, horror and acute direness every activist feels for his/her cause. Some opponents condemned the movement to organize a national Earth Day as an unpatriotic deflection from the war in Vietnam. Others pointed out the fact that April 22, 1970 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, and warned Americans that Earth Day could be a clever communist plot.

Goodlifer: Earth Day 1970 ticket

Those critics would be proud of the Earth Day celebrations we see across the country today. Every company that wants to be perceived as “green” throws an event or launches something for Earth Day (or Earth Week, as it has come to be in many places).

Greenwashing, 1970s-style. 40 years later, advertisers are still talking about the same things.

Greenwashing, 1970s-style. 40 years later, advertisers are still talking about the same things.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Mother Earth having her own day—in fact, in 2009 the U.N. officially declared April 22 as International Mother Earth Day—but if I have to see another vinyl tent village decorated with fake leaves and astroturf and teeming with sales people pushing product, I think I will go bury my head in the worm compost bin. It’s the opposite of the grassroots spirit that catapulted this celebration into the revolutionary hearts and minds of people in the first place. Earth Day is supposed to be about collective action for positive environmental change, not frivolous things like open bars featuring the new it-brand of eco-vodka (not that I don’t enjoy those). Emails pushing a “Perfect Earth Day Feature!” have been flooding my inbox for weeks. In my mind, there is no perfect Earth Day feature.

In Toronto, the Reclaim Earth Day 2008 celebration was dedicated to "reclaiming the spirit of the original Earth Day."

In Toronto, the Reclaim Earth Day 2008 celebration was dedicated to “reclaiming the spirit of the original Earth Day.”

This year, let’s use this special day to honor Mother Earth by looking at how we can make happy changes in our own lives to ease our impact on the planet. Plant a tree, or a herb garden. Sign some petitions and volunteer with your favorite environmental stewardship organization. Eat only plants. Organize a carrot mob. Take your bike to work. Whatever you do, do it with passion and compassion. Let’s make sure that grass still has roots. Otherwise, my fellow Goodlifers, it’s nothing but toxic astroturf.

To learn more about the beginnings of Earth Day and the modern environmental movement, read our review and watch the documentary Earth Days.

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).
1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. Johanna,

    I agree! Earth Day should not be about companies marketing their ‘greenness’ (although hey, if it gets them looking in the right direction, no complaints here). I work in a startup company, Fashioning Change, that works every day to try and keep the ‘green’ industry on track. We offer eco-tips to inspire others to action in just some of the ways you suggest- planting, petitioning, volunteering, biking…the works.

    It’s nice to see there are others out there calling for real life changes- thanks for this bit of encouragement.


    P.S. I followed the link for carrotmobbing. I’d never heard of it before- such a great idea!

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