Earth Day corresponds to the vernal equinox to mark the precise moment that spring begins in the north and autumn in the south. It’s the global moment when night and day are of equal length anywhere on Earth.
Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) took the lead in organizing the first Earth Day in 1970, to demonstrate popular political support for an environmental agenda. Senator Nelson staffed an office with college students and selected Stanford man Denis Hayes as coordinator. It was an era of student political activism and street protests that attracted lots of attention from the media.
According to Senator Nelson, Earth Day “worked” because of the spontaneous grassroots response. Though Nelson had neither the time nor resources to organize the millions of demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated, these things did happen. According to the Senator, “It organized itself.”
Earth Day became extremely popular in the United States with participants and celebrants in 2,000 colleges and universities, roughly ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and hundreds of communities across the U.S. Senator Nelson credited Earth Day with helping to persuade politicians that environmental legislation had a substantial, lasting constituency. Suddenly, it seemed everyone was an “environmentalist.”
Many important laws were passed by Congress in the wake of the early Earth Day celebrations. The Safe Drinking Water Act. The Endangered Species Act. The Marine Mammal Protection Act. Important amendments were added to the Clean Air Act. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were put into place within a few years of the first Earth Day. Indeed, the 1970s are often thought of as the golden age of environmental legislation.
Earth Day leadership fractured over the years, with Hayes and Nelson and other widely-known Earth Day leaders favoring more programmatic and conventional public relations approaches to the observance, while grassroots groups have sought to make Earth Day into a day of action which might actually change behavior and provoke meaningful policy changes.
During Earth Day 2000, the event’s 30th anniversary, actor Leonardo DiCaprio was chosen by Denis Hayes to be the spokesperson of the event, despite the fact that DiCaprio drove a large SUV at the time. DiCaprio was also viewed skeptically as trying to rehabilitate his public image in the wake of controversy over a film he’d recently made in a pristine national park in Thailand.
The idea of Earth Day seems rather shopworn today. With Earth’s species becoming extinct at rates unprecedented in thousands of years, climate change bringing on its myriad ill effects, varying kinds of pollution out of control and planetary population beyond unsustainable, it will take more than a day a year to raise awareness to the level that might actually lead to policy, let alone behavioral change. Many reputable scientists believe that we’ve already passed the apocalyptic “tipping point” from which there is literally no turning back. Sadly, it’s the children and grandchildren of the people reading this column who will bear the brunt of our collective ignorance and torpor.
The utter cluelessness of the majority of Americans allows people like George Bush to sit in the Oval Office, blithely ignoring even his own scientific advisors. On the Democratic side, the leadership is not much better. Even back when I was in Congress, Bill Clinton refused to spend a buck of political capital moving the Kyoto Accords through the US Senate, preferring to lay it on the line for NAFTA. Clinton and Al Gore abandoned their primary environmental initiative – the carbon tax – before they’d be in office three months.
Gore, who supposedly wrote the cutting-edge book “Earth in the Balance” in 1992 (the joke was that he not only didn’t write it, he failed to read it!) and who is now lecturing feverishly about global warming, chose not to bring up the environment during his campaign for the presidency in 2000. John Kerry left the environment out of his stump speech as well. The vaunted presidential debates of 2004 passed without mention of looming environmental catastrophe.
Americans are largely alienated from the environment. Our genes cling to the idea of nature as something wild to be tamed, and finally vanquished. We’re acculturated to think of the environment as something “out there,” separate and apart from human beings, adequately “protected” in parks and a few “wilderness areas.”
To our great and growing peril, the environment has become just another “issue” and not a very pressing one at that when compared to hot buttons like taxes, gun ownership and gay marriage. Sure there are scores of environmental groups out there trying to sound the alarm. But after awhile, it’s just a cacophony. And by the way, who are the Dodgers playing this weekend?