What the First Earth Day Achieved

by |April 21, 2020
earth day march 1970

Approximately one million people participated in the first Earth Day celebrations in New York City. Photo: NYC Dept. of Records and Information Services

The U.S. was a much dirtier place back in 1970. There were very few regulations to stop industries from dumping toxic materials into the nation’s land, water, and air. City skies were choked with smog. Polluted rivers caught on fire. Acid rain was eating away at our buildings and natural ecosystems.

Those conditions didn’t go away overnight, but the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, helped to kickstart major changes to clean up the environment. Fifty years later, as the U.S. faces new and old environmental crises, the lessons from this critical period can offer inspiration, wisdom, and courage to face the challenges of the future.

Evolution of the environmental movement

Earth Day was born out of the environmental movement of the 1960s and a growing awareness that humans were harming the planet. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, called attention to the dangers of pesticides; Barry Commoner’s Closing Circle suggested restructuring the economy to conform with ecological principles; Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb spoke of the dangers of an overcrowded planet. And the first photos of the Earth from outer space helped to underline how fragile it is, says Steve Cohen, director of the Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management at Columbia University.

Throughout the 1960s and the preceding century, the environmental movement was largely focused on conserving natural areas and protecting wildlife. But by the end of the 1970s, Earth Day had helped people to understand that the environment was also a public health issue. Cohen says that people started to realize that “pollution is not just unsightly — you can die from it. Toxic waste can kill you. Air pollution gets into your lungs and can cause cancer. Lead in the water can harm your brain, and your children’s brain.”

Earth Day impacts

“You had, through the ‘70s, a series of very important environmental laws, and in many ways, Earth Day was a catalyst for that,” says Cohen, who worked for the EPA during that time period and specializes in environmental policy.

Environmental law professor Michael Gerrard was just a sophomore when he reported on the first Earth Day for the Columbia Spectator. His article, published on the paper’s front page, detailed plans for rallies, teach-ins and a march on campus. Columbia students and faculty were among the 20 million Americans (about 10 percent of the population at the time) who took part in the first Earth Day demonstrations.

The goal of the first Earth Day was to put environmental issues on the national agenda, and their efforts paid off in dividends. By the end of 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established to protect human health and the environment. And the momentum continued throughout the decade, with the passage of landmark environmental legislation, including:

  • the Clean Water Act;
  • the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which governs the disposal hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste;
  • the Toxic Substances Control Act, which regulates the introduction of new or already existing chemicals; and
  • the Superfund law, to investigate and clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances.

These laws dramatically changed the face of the country, cleaning up the air and water and making the U.S. a much safer place to live — all without sacrificing economic growth.

Lessons for the future

While the U.S. has come a long way since 1970, there is still plenty of work to be done in order to protect people and the environment.

The April 22, 1970 issue of the Columbia Spectator — the same issue that carried Gerrard’s report of the first Earth Day activities — contains an editorial denouncing the government’s tax loopholes for polluting industries. It also calls for an end to fossil fuel subsidies in order to encourage renewable energy. Meanwhile, on another page, a Budweiser ad asks consumers not to litter, and laments the fact that it can’t make its cans and bottles self-destruct. “Someday, soon, things will be different, though,” the ad promises, “because we and a lot of other concerned people are all working on the problem in earnest.”

Fifty years later, the same problems still exist. America still hasn’t kicked its addiction to fossil fuels — even though it is now clear that burning them is cooking the planet. The current White House is fighting to give polluters more free passes. And the pressure is still on consumers to clean up the messes that companies make, rather than requiring products to have built-in reusability in a circular economy.

These challenges are not insurmountable. The 1970s show that it is possible to change the status quo, and that “mass demonstrations can lead to legislative action,” says Gerrard. “Earth Day was when the modern environmental movement burst forth as a mass movement. The members of Congress noticed, and that helped to spark the lawmaking that followed in the several years to come.”

One of the keys to the 1970s’ success, says Cohen, is that Democrats and Republicans worked together to craft and pass environmental legislation. “Having clean air and clean water and toxic-free land was not a partisan issue. And I think it’s still relatively bipartisan today, once you get it out of Washington, to the local level.”

In addition, Cohen says, “I think there was a focus on building bridges rather than judging the behavior of others.”

Lasting changes

The first Earth Day achieved its goal of getting the environment onto the national agenda, and even onto the global agenda. Earth Day is now celebrated around the world.

“When I started this, the environment was a fringe issue,” Cohen says. “I walked into an environmental policy class in 1975 and nobody even knew what it was. There was no Earth Institute, with 700 people working on sustainability science and policy. Now, half a century after the first Earth Day, this is a central function of government. You have millions of people working on energy efficiency and renewable energy, and environmental protection is an industry. ”

Similarly, when Gerrard started in law school, there was no environmental law program. Now he’s a specialist in the field, and director of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, developing legal techniques to fight climate change.

“Things were nothing like this 50 years ago,” says Cohen. “We have a long way to go, but the environment is on the agenda, and people are working on it.” To him, that counts as a resounding success.

To learn more about what environmental science and activism has accomplished since the first Earth Day, and examine today’s challenges and opportunities, watch the video below from the Earth Institute’s Earth Day 50/50 event.  

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Earth Institute is presenting a variety of special coverage and programming. See our Earth Day website for more info.


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