Monday, April 22, 2013

The Historical Roots of Earth Day and its Relevance Today

Earth Day is celebrated around the world on April 22nd, and it is now one of the world's most popular global events, but it has a long history that dates back more than four decades. Quite understandably Earth Day has been criticized as being only one day on the calendar year, but increasingly Earth Day is about promoting responsible environmental conduct all year long.

As Explained by the Earth Day Network, April 22, marks the anniversary of what many consider the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. Earth Day was born out the cultural foment that saw the hippie movement, flower power and protests against the Vietnam war.

This was a time when Americans showed a flagrant disregard for the environment. They drove gas guzzling behemoths and industrial growth polluted the air and water.

One of the factors that helped to foster environmental awareness was the publication of Rachel Carson's New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962. Carson should be acknowledged as an environmental pioneer who helped to change our world for the better. The book represented a watershed moment for the modern environmental movement, selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries.

In this climate of wanton environmental destruction and popular cultural upheaval, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson drew upon popular anti-war sentiments to advocate for clean air and clean water in what he called a “national teach-in on the environment.”

Although it is hard to fathom given where the Republican party is today, both political parties spurred this burgeoning environmental awareness. In a true show of bipartisanship, Nelson secured the support of a conservation minded Republican Congressman by the name of Pete McCloskey, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land. Through their combined efforts 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies.

While environmentalism was not new, the idea of coming together to organize was a novel idea whose time had come. Students joined forces with disparate groups that were combating issues like oil spills, industrial pollution, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife. People from across the country and varying economic, cultural and educational backgrounds came together to demand action.

The first Earth Day produced powerful legacy that endures to this day including the EPA, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

As 1990 Earth Day became a truly global phenomenon mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries. This event helped to make recycling an internationally recognized issue and helped to spawn the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It also prompted President Bill Clinton to award Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995) -- the highest honor given to civilians in the United States -- for his role as Earth Day founder.

In 2000 the issue of global warming became the focus of Earth Day and in response people began advocating for clean energy en masse. This event included a total of more than 5,000 environmental groups in a record 184 countries encompassing hundreds of millions of people,

One of the features of the millennial Earth Day in 2000 was the fact that employed the technology of new media to send a message to world leaders demanding quick and decisive action on clean energy.

It is easy to malign the day for not producing the changes required to alter our current environmentally destructive trajectory. However, Earth Day is increasingly about far more than just raising awareness, it is about being more sustainable throughout the year. In the final analysis we are much better off with Earth Day than without it. As a focal point of awareness and action, Earth Day has a proud history and through the use of digital technologies it now has an international scope that affords us the opportunity to induce global change. Earth Day is one day a year, but what we do throughout the year is up to all of us.

© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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