On April 22, 1970, leaders addressed millions of people across the country as they celebrated the nation’s first Earth Day. “We are building a movement, a movement with a broad base, a movement which transcends traditional political boundaries… Earth Day is the beginning,” Denis Hayes, Environmental Action’s first director, told the crowd gathered at the Washington Monument. And Earth Day was the beginning – both for the environmental movement as we know it today and for Environmental Action, which was organized by the founders of Earth Day.
Here, speakers from the first Earth Day reminisce, assess today’s environmental issues and look toward the future.
Back in the early 1960s, when Gaylord Nelson was a freshman Democrat senator from Wisconsin, he says he could count the environmentalists in the Senate on one hand. But within a few years, the Cuyahoga River caught fire, beaches were closed because of pollution and “you could see industrial cities like Pittsburgh from miles away, they looked like they had a yellowish atomic cloud surrounding them, the air was so bad.” By 1969, Nelson decided to launch a nationwide teach-in modeled after those held on the Vietnam War. When word of what soon would be known as Earth Day got out, it became front-page news across the country. On April 22, Congress adjourned, something unprecedented except for official holidays, and members went to speak in their home districts. Since that first Earth Day, Nelson has spoken at dozens of colleges across the country to commemorate Earth Day. After leaving Congress in 1980, he joined the Wilderness Society as its counselor. He is chairman of Earth Day XXV. In 1970, he spoke at a number of colleges, including the University of Wisconsin.
Earth Day is dramatic evidence of a broad new American concern that cuts across generations and ideologies. At last count, programs are planned at 2,000 colleges, 10,000 schools and additional thousands of communities involving young and old, liberal and conservative.
The fact that so many Americans can agree on a problem could be the best news in decades. Earth Day may be symbolic of new national perspectives on the still pressing problems of the last decade…
Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human creatures and for all other living creatures. An environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without discrimination, without hunger, without poverty, without war.
Earth Day achieved what I had hoped for. The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and finally force this issue permanently into the political arena. It was a gamble, but it worked. An estimated 20 million people participated in demonstrations all across the country.
We are talking about a time when I got 60 or 70 phone calls from members of Congress asking for copies of my environmental speeches. They had never given one; they didn’t know what to say. Well, today everyone in Congress is an environmentalist – or at least they say they are. They think it’s a politically helpful thing to say, because 80 percent of Americans claim they’re environmentalists.
But you think back to 1970 when there weren’t any real environmental magazines, just hunting and fishing ones. There was only one environmental institute at a university, and now there are environmental departments at all the schools. There was not a single law school with environmental law courses. No grade schools taught environmental education. Today we’ve got environmental education to beat the band; in Wisconsin, for example, teachers need to take environmental courses just to get their teaching certificates.
So we’ve seen a change in the understanding and whole culture of the country since 1970. Some people look at Congress today and see a regression. There are senators who are saying, “I’m an environmentalist, but I’m not a crazy environmentalist. You’ve got to have clean air, but… You’ve got to have clean water, but…” All that stuff is just episodic. The public still wants environmental protection. The whole country has moved dramatically in 25 years, and there’s a huge public voice now.
Charles A. Hayes
A union official from the 1940s until he was elected to Congress in 1983, Charles A. Hayes has long spoken out for the rights of workers and people of color communities. In 1970, he was vice president of the Amalgamated Meatcutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, which later merged with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. As a member of the House of Representatives, in which he represented Chicago’s South Side for four terms, he was author of successful legislation aimed at preventing high school drop outs and consistently voted for worker protection and affirmative action measures. At the first Earth Day, he spoke at the Civic Center Plaza in Chicago.
Working people, black people and poor people have known about pollution long before it became so fashionable to talk about it. The steelworkers have been living under the belching smokestacks of the steel mills for the past 50 years or more. The packinghouse workers have been breathing in the stench of rendering plants both at home and at work since the turn of the century. The workers in the grain mills have been developing lung ailments for many decades from the fine dust in the air, both inside and outside the plant walls…
A better environment for us all will not come easy. What we have to recognize is that there are deeply rooted economic interests that will oppose us tooth and nail, but whose public relations departments will continue to issue fine statements about how dedicated they are to the search for a better environment. Nor will a better environment come from community anti-litter drives, desirable as these may be. The environment in which hundreds of thousands of families exist in inner cities across the country includes the rats that attack their children, the lead in the peeling paints that poison their babies, the decrepit housing conditions, the inadequate nutrition and the lack of green space.
We are told by Senator McGovern’s study of the hunger problems that 15 million people in America cannot afford an adequate daily diet. it is small comfort to breathe clean air while you slowly starve to death.
The black people and the poor of this country can understand and join in the fight for a better environment, so long as that fight recognizes the need for joint action on all the basic evils of our environment.
There has been quite a bit of change between 1970 and 1995. The steel mills of Chicago are almost gone. The packinghouse workers no longer exist. There is far less pollution running into our rivers and lakes. I think Earth Day brought about a change for the better.
At the same time, though, unemployment has risen to particularly gruesome levels among African Americans. I’m not saying my being in Congress solved any great society problems, but I was always an advocate for education and training programs to prepare people for jobs that are available. As a member of the Education and Labor Committee, I traveled throughout the country to see what Congress could do to improve quality of life, particularly in urban areas.
After I graduated from high school in the 1930s, I went to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps planting trees to stop erosion. It was a program that protected our rivers and environment and at the same time created jobs. I think something like that could be helpful now in rebuilding our deteriorating infrastructure.
I grew up in a family of 12 kids. We were very poor, and I’ll never forget my roots. I think we have responsibility to do something about poverty and to make life better for people instead of worse instead of sitting back and watching the rich grow richer.
Eugene P. Odum
Eugene P. Odum, widely acknowledged as the father of modern ecology, has been a professor of biology and ecology at the University of Georgia since 1940, where he founded the university’s Institute of Ecology. Author of numerous textbooks on ecology, Odum has also won awards for his pioneering work in ecology and conservation, including the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal and the Tyler Ecology Award, recognized as the most prestigious environmental prize in the world. In 1970, he spoke at the University of Georgia.
It is important to realize that the optimum population density for a highly technical and affluent society is very much lower than for a subsistence society because the individual’s use of resources and his production of wastes is so much great- er. Thus, the U.S. is now in as much danger of overpopulation at its level of living as is India at its level of living standards. We cannot just sit back and let the food supply determine how many people the Earth can support, because it will support more “warm bodies” than quality human beings.
To maintain an American diet and an American style of life, each person may need as man as five acres. Only a very small part of this five acres is needed to supply food, clothing and shelter, if we would be satisfied merely with getting enough calories, having one suit per year and living in a one-room apartment. But to support us in the good life to which we are accustomed, a lot of space is needed to take care of resource demands, domestic animals and recreation and to cope with air, water, noise and other pollution.
I think when astronauts first took pictures from the moon, we realized what a small, remote planet we’re living on. At the first Earth Day, people were at last becoming aware of population pressure. But the enthusiasms of the young people weren’t sustained. The environment went on the political backburner as short-term economics and the Cold War became chief issues.
In 1990, I gave another Earth Day speech in which I predicted the environment would come back to stay on the forefront for three reasons. There were the increasingly global threats to environmental quality, recognized in both rich and poor countries; the super powers were turning from confrontation to cooperation; and economic development and environmental protection were beginning to be recognized as interdependent rather than separate issues. Well, now I’m pessimistic again. We’ve got a Congress that’s saying, “Do away with all regulations. Let the rich get richer.” I concur with ecological economist Herman Dailey’s answer when he was asked “Are you optimistic about the future?” He responded, “No, but I’m hopeful.”
It’s pretty crucial to see what will come out of all this turmoil. I think the nation is going through the growing pains from adolescence to maturity. Everybody is scared. People don’t understand this transition from a time when there seemed to be endless opportunity for development to a more conservation-focused period. The question is, when do we stop getting bigger and get better?