Earth Day These Days

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“[O]n April 22, 1970, Earth Day was held, one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy…”
American Heritage Magazine, October 1993

Earth Day, April 22, 1970. A beautiful spring day. Twenty million Americans converge on a Wednesday, a day chosen so as not to conflict with studentsí weekend plans or final exams. Pete Seeger performs at the Washington Monument. Traffic is routed around New Yorkís Fifth Avenue so that Earth Day events can be held. Protests, rallies, marches, and parades take place across the country. In Urbana-Champaign, Students for Environmental Controls (SECS) -later renamed Students for Environmental Concerns coordinates an Environmental Crisis Week.
Nobody planned for Earth Day to become a recurring event. For SECS, regular annual Earth Day celebrations didn’t begin until 1982.
Harry S. Dent, in his book The Roaring 2000s, uses the environmental movement to illustrate what he calls the economic “S-curve”. In this paradigm, a new idea or product first gains support slowly, then suddenly surges upward in momentum until it eventually becomes “mainstream”, at which time its support levels off. In his charts, support for the environmental movement climbed gradually upward in the 1960s and 1970s, surged in the 1980s, and leveled off in the 1990s. If Dent’s paradigm is true, many environmentalists would be dismayed to learn that their cause has reached that “mainstream” level, since there still seems to be a lot of progress that needs to be made.
The way Earth Day is currently celebrated is a great indicator of the changes that have happened to the environmental movement in the last 32 years. Perhaps some of these changes have occurred because many people have forgotten the original purpose of Earth Day. For example, in his Earth Day speech last year, President Bush declared, “On April 22 each year for more than three decades, Americans have paused on Earth Day to celebrate the rich blessings of our nationís natural resources and to take stock of our stewardship of nature’s gifts.”
That seems a strange way to describe what Earth Dayís founder, Gaylord Nelson, described as “a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment”, or as many have called it, the first environmental protest. Earth Day was arguably the birth of the modern environmental movement. At the very least it marked a significant change in environmentalism, from “conservationists” endeavoring to protect natural areas to protesters rallying to protect people and the environment from unseen dangers such as DDT, lead, and other pollutants.
The original purpose of Earth Day was certainly not to celebrate the blessings of our natural resources (environmentalists do that every day), but to join together in demonstrating to those in power that they were doing a poor job of protecting and maintaining the clean environment that many people value so dearly, and that ultimately is essential to life itself. As Christine Todd Whitman, the current administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has stated, “That first Earth Day launched an unprecedented national movement to correct decades of environmental degradation, destruction, and damage.”
Mr. Nelson, who “organized” the first Earth Day celebration, came up with the vision of “a huge grassroots protest over what was happening to our environment.” According to him, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize 20 million demonstrators, and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
Many of the focal issues at the first Earth Day were those that were life-threatening. Citizens demanded laws regulating such things as pesticides, radioactive and other hazardous wastes, and air and water pollution in order to prevent human death. Some also called for recycling programs and bottle bills. In the 1970s, almost everyone wanted environmental changes.
Republicans and Democrats agreed that environmental reforms were needed. Richard Nixon created the EPA in 1970; in the same year, lead was banned from paint. The 1970s saw the passing of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the first fuel economy standards, hazardous waste regulations, and the Clean Air Act. Other events in the decade were environmental emergencies such as the OPEC oil embargo, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, and the discovery of severe dioxin contamination at Love Canal, New York.
Today, more than 200 million people in 140 countries celebrate Earth Day. National and international organizations, local school and community groups, governmental bodies, and even some businesses and corporations celebrate the day on which the first major environmental protest was held. Yet actual progress on environmental issues is glacially slower than it was in the 1970s. The US government”s commitment to positive environmental policy initiatives seems to have been virtually abandoned -especially under the current administration. Very few major environmental laws have been enacted in the past few years.
Plenty of environmental concerns still exist, but environmental problems are often less tangible and seemingly more intractable than they have been in the past. An example would be the proposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Environmentalists have to convince the public to care about this precious natural place that most will never see. The same is true for global warming. People must be persuaded to change their behavior in order to prevent something whose consequences may be far in the future. On the one hand, a number of environmental issues are international in scope and require cooperative international solutions. At the opposite extreme, certain environmental problems require for their solution personal behavioral changes as well as changes in government policy. These changes are often difficult to achieve, and success is uncertain.
There’s still much work to be done to repair the degradation done to our environment. Many corporations continue to employ abysmal environmental practices, polluting throughout the world. A number of the regulations passed in the 1970s and 1980s need to be strengthened, broadened, and enforced more consistently.
Still, one of the best places to achieve an environmental victory is in your own back yard. Locally, environmentalists are working to expand the City of Champaign’s recycling ordinance, to restore prairie areas, to encourage the use of renewable energy, to combat sprawl, and to increase environmental education.
This year’s local Earth Day celebration, hosted by Students for Environmental Concerns, will be held on the Quad at the University of Illinois on Sunday, April 21 from 12 to 6 pm. For more information, you can contact Jennifer Walling at or Joanne Messerges at

Local Environmental Organizations This web site has a listing of many of the local environmental organizations.
Students for Environmental Concerns, ; contact
Earth Doctors, ; contact
Environmental Resources, ; contact or
Red Bison, ; contact
Community Heartland Pathways, ; contact
Sierra Club Champaign
County Audubon Society, ; contact
Prairie Greens, ; contact
Illinois Student Environmental Network, ; contact
Grand Prairie Friends, ; contact

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