Co-hosts Anna and Paloma discuss the history of Earth Day and its accomplishments, as well as the lessons and legacy for the environmental movement today. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.
[Paloma:] So at its essence, the first Earth Day in 1970 was basically a protest against pollution. But where did all this pollution come from? In order to understand the roots of Earth Day, we have to rewind and go all the way back to the Industrial Revolution.
[Anna:] From the mid 1700s to the mid 1900s, industrialization turbocharged the energy sector, transportation, manufacturing, and so much more. This helped redistribute wealth and improve quality of life for many people, particularly in the West. At the same time, all this industrial activity was starting to heavily pollute the air, water, and soil, not to mention disrupt the climate.
[Paloma:] The environmental destruction and the human health impacts of all of this unchecked industrial pollution raged on without much public awareness until the 60s, when Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring shed light on the issue and planted a seed for the modern environmental movement. Another seed was planted in 1969, when Santa Barbara was hit by a disastrous oil spill, and a senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, seized the opportunity to stand up against the pollution.
[Anna:] Senator Nelson was inspired by the student activism and teachings surrounding the Vietnam War, so he joined forces with a young student activist named Denis Hayes, who started a team of other young activists to launch environmental teach-ins at college campuses across the nation.
[Paloma:] It turned out these teach-ins had a broad appeal, and they spread. The organizers knew they needed a better name, and to keep the momentum going with mass anti-pollution demonstrations. And so, Earth Day was born.
[Anna:] On April 22nd,1970, 20 million people– 1/10th of the United States population at the time– gathered in public spaces around the country to advocate for their right to live in a healthy, safe environment. It was the largest coordinated demonstration in American history at that point.
[Paloma:] And it didn’t stop there. The organizing efforts of the first Earth Day in 1970 led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency later that year, and in the next few years, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, Endangered Species Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and many more, all to help protect our environment.
[Anna:] And we most likely would not have gotten these critical pieces of legislation passed, if not for the Earth Day organizers sustaining their efforts beyond the day itself. Earth Day was not just a day; it was a movement. These activists worked smart and strategic; they targeted politicians who were anti-environment and did get-out-the-vote campaigns to replace them with those who were pro-environment.
[Paloma:] Another part of what made Earth Day just so successful was that it started as a bipartisan effort. Everybody needs clean air to breathe, clean water to drink; being pro-environment should not be a partisan or divisive issue.
[Anna:] The popularity of Earth Day and what it stood for made it so that any public official of any party could win or lose their seat based on their environmental track record and agenda. Of course, all that got turned upside down once Ronald Reagan came into office, and the polarization we see today– partially as a result of his backwards policies– feels almost insurmountable. But that’s why understanding our history is so important. Reaching across the aisle and building a coalition is possible, and often necessary for real change.
[Paloma:] Coalition building was a big part of what made Earth Day such a huge success. It tapped into existing anti-pollution campaigns all around the country and brought together these smaller fragmented groups to form one united movement. Communities had been feeling the impacts of industrial pollution in their local areas, oil spills, pesticides, toxic waste dumps, and they were fighting it the best they could. But these things don’t really get broad public awareness till Earth Day.
[Anna:] That’s sort of the genius of a day like Earth Day. It’s broad enough to encompass the array of environmental issues that different communities face, and it is different in every community. So Earth Day has become this tool where communities around the world now use this day to spread awareness about whatever problem they’re dealing with, and about the solutions that they’re trying to get more support for. And it’s a way for all these communities to be in solidarity with one another.
[Paloma:] At the same time, though, the modern Earth Day movement focuses too much on individual action instead of collective action. The organizers of the original Earth Day in 1970 were calling for a society wide transformation– a revolution. And you don’t see that in today’s Earth Day. It’s more about planting trees, [or] doing cleanups. It’s not that that isn’t helpful, but they could go further to drive home the message that we need systems change.
[Anna:] I definitely agree. And I do think that sort of shift in public consciousness that happened then is having a resurgence now. We see it in the climate justice movement, Black Lives Matter, March For Our Lives, LandBack, et cetera. And it’s important to note that back then, the revolution they thought we needed was about saving the planet from man. It had these weird misanthropic eco-fascist undertones.
To promote Earth Day in 1970, organizers put a full page ad in the New York Times that read “A disease has infected our country, it has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man”.
The problem is not human beings in general or at large; it is specific industries getting away with putting people’s health and even lives at risk, just so they can turn a profit. We still see some of these insidious ideas today, when climate change is blamed on overpopulation or immigration. The modern environmental and climate movement is about justice. It’s about rectifying inequality, lifting people out of poverty– ensuring everyone has access to clean air, clean water, and healthy food. It’s about building a better future for everyone.
[Paloma:] Amen! And that sort of brings us to the environmental justice movement, otherwise known as EJ, and it is pretty distinct from traditional environmentalism. I’d say the biggest difference is just how it started. It came from a very different type of fight. EJ was more of an offshoot of the civil rights and labor movements. So while environmentalism was advocating for conserving nature, environmental justice came from activists protesting the immediate pollution of their communities. Black and Brown communities are being disproportionately affected by hazardous waste, and these cases of environmental racism stem from a lot of different social forces, including redlining, zoning, and political influence– especially since the idea of NIMBY, a.k.a. “Not In My Backyard”, was frequently used in the environmental movement, and that led to placing the pollution burden onto other neighborhoods. Just because you blocked a factory from being built in your neighborhood doesn’t mean that it’s not getting built at all. It just means that they found another place to build it.
[Anna:] Exactly. There is so much here and we plan to talk more about these topics in a future episode, where we’ll really get into the social norms, narratives, and values under the umbrella of environmentalism, like eco-fascism, eco-feminism, queer ecology, et cetera.
[Paloma:] Fast forwarding to today, Earth Day is still going strong. This year’s theme is “Invest in our Planet”, a call to action that is especially relevant for leaders of financial institutions and others with access to the capital that could accelerate climate restoration and the clean energy transition. These investments would make Earth Day not just a rallying cry against ecocide, but instead a celebration of life and all the beauty and abundance our planet has to offer. I remember celebrating Earth Day when I was a kid, actually, and it’s always a day, at least for me, to reflect on my relationship with earth and nature. I didn’t grow up with the best environment, but it just inspires me to make it better.
[Sydney:] Hey, Earthlings, it’s Sydney. I’m on the SpaceshipOne team working mostly on Instagram and Twitter, but wanted to plug a new blog post on our website that I wrote. It’s about the month I spent in New Zealand earlier this year, where originally I was going to do mangrove research, but one of the biggest cyclones in the country’s history had other plans. Give it a read; the link is in our description.
[Paloma:] Thanks, Earthlings, for tuning into today’s episode. If you liked it, be sure to leave us a five star review, so more Earthlings can find us and get solutions-oriented content on climate, energy, health, and justice. Stay tuned for our next episode on repowering coal– converting the world’s 2,400 coal plants to nuclear.