Celebrating Earth Day every April 22 is a great time to pause and reflect: How are we, today, treating the environment and the plants, animals, and people who live in it? What have we accomplished in the past year that makes our planet a better, more sustainable place to live and raise our families? What are our goals for future improvement?
In this blog, I provide a little historical perspective. How did Earth Day come to be? Why did it come about in 1970? What was life on the planet like before we started celebrating Earth Day?
“The lady who started all this”
Our country has always had proponents for the environment, going back to Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and even Teddy Roosevelt. But, in the modern era, the person who had the most impact on our understanding of how our business and cultural practices were destroying the environment and our own health and future was Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson, with a master’s degree in zoology, spent most of her career as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, eventually becoming their chief editor of publications. After the huge success of her book The Sea Around Us, she quit her job to work full time on her next project. Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1960, she was able to finish her research for and the writing of Silent Spring in 1962.
First serialized in New Yorker magazine, Silent Spring went on to sell 500,000 copies and touched off a national debate on the use of pesticides (such as DDT) and other chemicals that were damaging the ecosystem and all living things. The public outcry the book created touched off a series of federal and state investigations into the damaging effects of pesticides and other commonly used dangerous chemicals. Before her untimely death in 1964 at age 56, she testified at early Congressional hearings on pollution, and was introduced by then Senator Abraham Ribicoff as “the lady who started all this.”
It got worse before getting better
It’s important to remember that the Vietnam War was polarizing the country in the 1960s, with the polarization mostly occurring between younger and older citizens. Anti-war student demonstrations were becoming increasingly frequent and strident. Sharing space on the evening news, though, was increasingly bad news about the environment.
Acid rain—mostly created by emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power stations and with a pH as low as 2.1—was having detrimental effects on trees, freshwaters and soils; destroying insects and aquatic life-forms; causing paint to peel, steel structures such as bridges to corrode, buildings to be damaged or defaced; and generally damaging the health of most life forms, including humans.
In 1970, the average American car only got 12 miles per gallon, and those gallons of gas were fully leaded. Smog from auto exhaust and other sources was pervasive in larger cities, and many people did not venture outside during smog alerts without covering their noses and mouths.
Pollution of our rivers was so bad that, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, made the national news because it actually caught on fire (for the 13th time). Also in 1969, a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., killed over 3,000 sea birds and an unknowable number of marine animals. It was that oil spill that caught the attention of Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI). Nelson, with help from Congressman Pete McCloskey (R-CA), launched the idea of Earth Day. They wanted to harness the energy that students had been putting into war protests and channel it into environmental activism, so they picked April 22 to celebrate Earth Day since it was a date that fell between spring break and final exams.
The first Earth Day and the years that followed
On that first Earth Day in 1970, cities, towns, and universities throughout the country sponsored demonstration and education rallies that were attended by over 20 million Americans—10% of the total U.S. population.
With the national attention now firmly focused on environmental issues, bipartisan political support brought the government into environmental regulation. President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on December 2, 1970. This was quickly followed by the Clean Air Act, signed into law by President Nixon on December 31, 1970. The Clean Water Act followed a few years later, though it was initially vetoed by President Nixon (it was an election year, and Nixon needed to distance himself from the liberal Democrat, George McGovern). However, bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate overrode President Nixon’s veto, and the bill became law on October 18, 1972.
Rachel Carson wasn’t forgotten: due at least in part to her efforts, the United States banned the use of DDT in 1972. She posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982.
Over the next several decades, the EPA developed the expertise and authority to identify, regulate, and ameliorate pollution and its causes in the United States. But scientific evidence was beginning to mount regarding an even larger threat: global warming. A 2001 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the Earth was warming, and that the warming was due, in large part, to human activity.
The 21st Century
The last 20 years have seen many efforts to reduce global warming. In the 2015 Paris Agreement, signatory countries pledged to develop and implement action plans for their countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate impacts. An initial 195 countries signed the Agreement, including the United States. The U.S. dropped out in 2017 but rejoined in 2021.
These days, protecting the Earth—from pollution, greenhouse gases, fluorocarbons, or whatever—is not just the province of students and aging hippies. At a recent sustainability conference in neighboring Scottsdale, Ariz., there were over 2,000 attendees, all in business attire, representing many of the largest and most successful private companies in the world. And it seemed as though every fifth person I met worked for a bank, capital investment firm, or other financial institution. Why?
It seems that when people want to invest their money, they much prefer to invest it in a “green” business. Philosophy aside, it has been shown that, on average, sustainable businesses are a lower financial risk than non-sustainable businesses. On the same note, when customers buy products, they much prefer to buy products from “green,” sustainable companies.
All of this says a lot about the change in mindset that has occurred in the U.S. population over the past 50 years. We’ve gone from seeing the environment as an expendable resource that we can use up and discard in the pursuit of business success, to viewing the Earth and its resources as finite and in need of good care and good stewardship if we want to ensure a good future for our children and future generations.
And Earth Day gives us a great opportunity to pause and reflect: How are we doing? What have we accomplished in the past year? What are our goals for future improvement? We do this all the time at Huma, not just once a year. We’re doing all WE can to make the planet more sustainable for future generations.
If you’d like some ideas on how YOU can help make the planet a better place, go to www.earthday.org or click here for 10 simple ideas.