By Steve Schaefer
Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. I’ve been hearing about it for months, and, like most people, was preparing to go out and celebrate. With our current COVID-19-induced state of social distancing and staying at home, much of the festivity has moved online, but still, I’m not that excited.
You’d expect that as a trained Climate Reality Leader who spent three inspiring days in Los Angeles with Al Gore in August of 2018, I’d be thrilled at this milestone. But it’s not that I don’t care. It’s just that in 2020, every day has to be Earth Day. And what’s really a shame is that if we had taken what we learned on April 22, 1970 and done more together to fix the problem in the 20th century, we wouldn’t be in the dilemma we are in today.
I was around for the first Earth Day. As a high school senior, I was a little aware of issues like smog in LA and rivers in Ohio that were catching fire. My teachers made sure I read Silent Spring, or at least knew who Rachel Carson was and what she was talking about.
The sixties were a decade of protest, starting with civil rights marches in the south and later in the decade, many young people protested the Vietnam war with huge marches and peaceful demonstrations.
What many people may not know today is that Earth Day was conceived as a giant “teach-in,” where on college campuses across the country, students and other interested people would learn about what was then called “ecology”—the beginning of the climate action movement. We were worried about air and water pollution, and the effects of DDT. We read about the overpopulation problem. We read about powerful oil and coal companies ruining the natural environment. We were worried about the loss of species.
I heard about Earth Day at school, and I recall someone handing out black armbands to wear. I also remember my shame when the mean tough kid made me take mine off in my conservative Scottsdale, Arizona high school. I moved back to California a month later.
What came from this “Woodstock” of climate events was a need and desire in many people—including me — to start caring for the Earth. Earth Day focused attention on our environmental predicament. Many of the climate organizations we know today come out of that time.
Last year, I read The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, by Adam Rome (on my Kindle app, of course). Read it and you’ll learn a lot about how this unprecedented event, starting with a great idea from Wisconsin Senator and environmentalist Gaylord Nelson, expanded without a central blueprint to flower in many different ways in thousands of locations.
Commemorating the start of something is worthwhile, I guess. We celebrate the birth of the United States on the Fourth of July—Independence Day. We celebrate our birthdays and our wedding anniversaries. We commemorate sad things, too, like the death of a hero or events like September 11, 2001 or Pearl Harbor.
But in the case of Earth Day, we have to think, “Has it been 50 years already?” We are so behind now that we can’t just commemorate a holiday, buy a cool t-shirt, and move on. We have to be working on climate action every single day—we don’t have time to waste. If we truly take action, then maybe on the 60th Anniversary of Earth Day, if we’ve dropped our CO2 emissions by 50%, updated our electrical grid and EV charging network, taken natural gas out of many of our homes and buildings (especially all new ones), and done lots of other things to clean up our act, then we can raise a glass and toast the event. And then the next day, get back to work!
Happy Earth Day.