It was 1969, the age of peace and love. And activism. Protests occurred regularly, often against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Troops began coming home while the Beatles gave their last public performance. Woodstock blew us away, and Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.
Meanwhile, people were choking on smog-filled cities. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire from the chemicals and debris in its waters. Seventy-five species were endangered, including America’s symbol, the bald eagle. Spraying insecticides killed fish and animals, and caused birth defects in humans. Could things get any worse? Yes. Yes, they could.
Union Oil was drilling oil along California’s coast. On January 28, 1968, an explosion rocked the sea floor and cracked it in five spaces. Crude oil began spilling out off the coast of Santa Barbara. For a month, a thousand gallons of oil gushed out every hour. Approximately three million gallons of crude oil resulted in a 35-mile long oil slick. Thousands of sea mammals, fish, and birds died. Beaches turned black.
Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, along with millions of others, were horrified. Nelson knew something had to be done. He was joined by Pete McCloskey, a conservative Republican congressman from California, proving that partisan action can work. The first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. About 20 million people—10% of the population–in the United States participated in some way. Teaching, learning, protesting. Concern for the environment transcended political parties, geographical boundaries, and economic class. And the first Earth Day brought results:
- Within three months, the Environmental Protection Agency was created. National legislation followed.
- The Clean Water Act passed in 1972. Water pollution decreased; Fishable waters increase.
- The Clean Air Act passed in 1973. CFC’s (causing holes in ozone) have been phased out. Key pollutants leading to acid rain have been reduced. Lead pollutants haven been reduced by 92%. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Clean Air Act prevented the premature deaths of over 400,000 people.
- The Endangered Species Acts passed in 1973. It has been 99% successful at preventing extinction. Without the act, at least 227 species would now be extinct.
Things improved. Air became cleaner. Rivers no longer caught fire. In 1990, Earth Day went global with 200 million people in 141 countries focusing on environmental issues. Since then, it’s spread to 192 countries around the globe.
Unfortunately, the fight isn’t over. We’ve seen more oil spills. The Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. BP in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The current administration has rolled back many of the reforms as we face a significant climate crisis.
Yes, I know were in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. But our health also depends on a healthy environment. What can you do? Here are some ideas to get you started.
But if we learn anything from the first Earth Day 50 years ago, it’s that we can make a difference. We may not be able to protest in the streets right now, but we can protest on social media. We can demand “a new way forward.”