Earth Day History

“What if, long after all of nature has been finally ground up in the garbage disposal of the technologic sink, it becomes clear that there are indispensable genetic needs for many of these components of nature?” –Hugh Iltis, in a letter to science

In 1916, Gaylord Nelson was born into the forest of Northern Wisconsin. Like many kids from his time, his youth was spent between the trees and his curiosity fed by ever-changing landscapes, scurrying critters and Earth’s pools. His interest in life and the inspiration from political speakers he’d seen in town would eventually mix to create a politician who advocated for our planet.

California State College, Wisconsin law school and four years serving in World War II failed to deter him from his core values he established at a young age. After 10 years as a state senator, he became the governor of Wisconsin and worked to protect wild places, starting a $50 million program to buy privately owned lands and preserve them for wildlife and recreation, funded by a penny-a-pack tax on cigarettes. This program was the one of the first in the nation. He also established other laws on littering, trash disposal and detergent use. After two terms as governor, he took a seat in the U.S. Senate representing Wisconsin in 1962. 

After the media outrage of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill (pictures of crude-covered wildlife and provocative headlines), environmental consciousness was becoming a bigger topic of discussion. Students on college campuses were already holding teach-ins, prolonged periods of lectures and speeches conducted without interruption by members of the faculty as a technique of social protest, on the disapproval of the Vietnam War. Nelson thought to use this energy of social protest to advocate for the environment, kickstarting teach-ins on water and air pollution on April 22, a day falling between spring break and final exams to maximize the attendance of students. Nelson recruited Denis Hayes, a backpacker and anti-war activist attending Harvard, to help grow the movement and gain a national staff to further promote the event across America to all sorts of other organizations. The event quickly caught media attention after being coined “Earth Day” and inspired 20 million Americans to take to the streets, parks and auditoriums in a protest against the deterioration of the environment. 

Earth Day 1970 crossed party lines and social classes, leading to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of other, first of their kind, environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), the Clean Air Act and later the Clean Water Act. By 1990, Earth Day was global and mobilizing enormous groups of people, boosting worldwide recycling efforts and paving the way for the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992. By the 2000s the focus shifted from air and water pollution to climate change and clean energy using the help of computers to rally hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Earth Day 2010 was a little trickier after a new breed of climate deniers, heavily-funded lobbyists and a divided country spurred public disinterest. But Earth Day prevailed, thanks to, and re-established April 22 as a moment for public action to protect the environment. 

After the 2016 election, Earth Day became more of a serious political movement, as President Donald Trump was working hard to overturn all climate-related legislation and loosen the grips of regulations on oil-drilling and other climate industries, spurring a new community of environmentally frustrated people and adding a new vocabulary word into therapy rooms, “climate anxiety.” As conditions worsen for Earth and its inhabitants, more and more people have a crippling fear of the future stemming from observing the irreversible impact humans are making on the Earth. 

Environmentalists rallied at the polls in 2020, thankfully so. When Joe Biden was elected as the new president, he immediately signed the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change; canceled the Keystone XL Pipeline, a large oil pipeline set to run through the fragile ecosystems of Canada; and revoked other Trump-era orders, committing his administration to environmental justice. Though the administration is a big improvement, it is still deserving of criticism. Scientists and environmentalists, alike, know the climate issues are urgent and extreme and need to be acted upon aggressively and immediately, something that is hard to achieve in an extremely divided society and government. Money isn’t being spent, bills aren’t being signed and action is often slowed by conspiracy and doubt. 

Though the destruction of our green world is intermingled with corporate greed, there are some things you can do to loosen the chokehold climate anxiety has taken on you. Whether or not you believe one person can make a difference in a completely rigged, complex system doesn’t matter. For one second, take a deep breath and pretend to be the fork stuck in the garbage disposal of the technologic sink this Earth Day (and every day). 

You’ve probably heard all these things before but in case you forgot: 

  • Buy local produce. Riverside Arts Market is a great place for this. The fruits and vegetables are not expensive and are always in season. 
  • Limit your damn beef consumption! Those little f*ckers fart so much they are changing the climate. The trees that are being cut down to give them space would normally filter the methane but instead are releasing huge amounts of CO2 amidst their destruction. The soybeans used to feed the cows along with all the other things “necessary” for the process use water so inefficiently we’re basically wasting billions of gallons of water. And feeding them destroys the soil, also releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. 
  • Bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Every cool place in town has a cute tote you should be using.
  • Take care of your car. Fill your tires and get regular oil changes so you waste less gas.
  • Compost. Hit up Apple Rabbit Compost for local composting!
  • Don’t buy fast fashion. (Giving you a hot tip if you’ve made it this far: City Thrift. Google it.)
  • Avoid traffic! “Sorry I’m late boss. I was saving the world!”
  • Turn off your lights when you’re not home.

I was going to add “recycle,” but this is Jacksonville so I’ll say “reuse” instead. Can’t believe it’s not butter: Can believe it’s Saturday night’s leftovers!