The first Earth Day shifted the 1960s early environmental movement into overdrive. In September 1969, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson announced that a national Earth Day would be held the following April 22nd. As a student at Caltech, the announcement electrified me: Here was a cause I could support: a clean environment, focused on passing laws reducing air and water pollution.
Earth Day organizers envisioned holding events on college campuses and in secondary schools around the country. Young people would create educational teach-ins for other students, their parents, and the community. This announcement was a wake-up call, speaking to my emerging political orientation. As a student of environmental engineering, I felt I had to get involved.
Earth Day was the biggest mass demonstration in American history. More than 2,000 colleges and 10,000 schools participated in the first Earth Day celebrations and teach-ins, engaging an estimated twenty million people, nearly ten percent of the U.S. population.
With another Caltech student, Paul Wegener, I coordinated Earth Day events at the Caltech campus and worked with students at ten colleges to organize Earth Day activities on campuses throughout California.
At Earth Day 1970, American students issued a clear call to action – the war on the environment had to stop! Earth Day pushed me to become an environmentalist.
I called the office of Democratic Congressman George Brown, Jr., our local representative, and worked my way through a series of aides locally and in Washington until we got his commitment. Meanwhile, Senator Nelson and other Earth Day supporters raised enough money to put eighty people in a Washington office, creating a national Earth Day organization. The event rapidly gained credibility in the media. Politicians started looking for ways to be involved with a “safe” and popular cause like Earth Day.
All this organizing activity took place in the paper-and-pencil era: no mobile phones, no Internet, no personal computers, no social media, no cheap copiers – it took a lot of time, mostly face-to-face, to organize a large event. Still, things got done; it was just harder and took longer.
At first, I connected with students at nearby campuses like USC, UCLA, and Pasadena City College. A few months later, I helped to organize a Student Environmental Coalition of California with Earth Day coordinators throughout the state. Among its student organizers, the Coalition had nine Democrats and one lone Republican, a ratio pretty much unchanged in fifty years.
In planning Caltech’s Earth Day events, we focused on the teach-in aspects of the celebration, but we also wanted to have exhibits to engage people in a practical way: information on how to recycle, conserve water, protect natural areas, and similar actions.
Earth Day at Caltech featured an Ecology Faire for the community, bringing together children and their grandparents, serving organically grown food under lines of black balloons representing air pollution floating skyward above the faculty club lawn. At the Ecology Faire, students helped build two open-air, Buckminster-Fuller-inspired, plywood geodesic-type domes on the lawn near the faculty club, demonstrating simple structures anyone could build for less than $100.
In an article for the Caltech magazine a month after the event Paul wrote,
The Teach-In and Ecology Faire were designed around people and laughter, not numbers and fear. Numbers are vital to an understanding of what is to be done and how to do it, but there is a point at which they should be left behind.
He expressed the sentiment of that first Earth Day succinctly: we should celebrate what is good and work to change what is not, never forgetting we’re doing this for everyone, both for ourselves and for future generations.
As a one-day event, the first Earth Day came and went. Nothing changed right away on most campuses. But it spurred national political action and gave birth to an enduring environmental movement. The time was ripe for major changes at both the national and state level, and Earth Day quickened the process.
In 1970 Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency. The California Legislature also passed its own environmental law in 1970, the California Environmental Quality Act. President Richard Nixon and Governor Ronald Reagan, both Republicans, signed these laws. Many pieces of environmental legislation passed during the next half-decade. Earth Day created enough momentum by channeling public outrage to bypass “politics as usual” and get things done fast.
What made Earth Day so significant? The historian Adam Rome observed,
Earth Day was an educational experience as well as a political demonstration. That rare combination enabled Earth Day to have both a long-term and short-term impact.[i]
Next year, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of this first Earth Day. What are the lessons learned that we can apply to the fight against climate change?
The first lesson is this: We already know what we must do to prevent the worst aspects of climate change from happening and, importantly, we have done something like it before. With the first Earth Day, we collectively started a national environmental movement that over the next two decades reduced pollution dramatically and protected many wild places.
The second lesson is that collective action works, through politics, economics and changes in lifestyles. We’re on the cusp of beginning to take this collective action in an effective way. The next decade will prove critical to the success of this effort.
(Adapted from my forthcoming memoir, The Godfather of Green: An Eco-Spiritual Odyssey.)
[i] Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, 2013, New York: Hill and Wang, p. 273.