In 18th Century Europe, during the Enlightenment, Romantics saw the industrialization of cities as a degradation to man; they regarded the Earth as sacred, and laissez-faire economics was tearing it up. As more Europeans became cogs in the machines of their smog-filled cities, philosophers began to see unblemished earth as a source for spiritual renewal. This conflict, between industrialists and romantics, was our world’s first environmental battle. This battle had been a losing one for centuries; as cities developed, their smog contaminated the spiritual renewal that romantic thinkers spoke of. By the 1960s, as populations grew, our world had become even more disposable, drained for its resources, and left to rot. Humans were reckless, unaware of the collateral damage, and unwilling to care.
On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire as chemicals and oil spilled into the water. On January 28, 1969, an oil rig spilled and left a harbor in Santa Barbara blackened with grease. One of America’s most potent symbols of patriotism, the Bald Eagle, was dying off due to heavy usage of DDT.
In 1969, after the atrocities in the Cuyahoga River and Santa Barbara Harbor, Senator Gaylord Nelson recognized the necessity for environmental legislation. With his colleagues mostly unwilling to support his wishes, Senator Nelson turned to the power of the people.
With the help of Denis Hayes, who dropped out of his Harvard Grad program to work alongside Nelson, Earth Day 1970 was planned. On April 22, 1970, more than 2,000 colleges and universities, 10,000 public schools, and 20 million citizens in cities across America participated. That day, nearly 10 percent of the U.S population demonstrated: demanding change to the way we treat our wildlife, use our finite resources, and view our Earth. By 1990, Earth Day had gone global, including over 100 countries across the globe.
Since that first demonstration, our world has transformed. We have become more connected and globalized, careful of environmental statistics, and willing to switch out combustion engines for electric. However, as technology has improved, our consumption and pollution has grown exponentially, and therefore, a long term solution towards full environmental protection is out of reach, still intangible. We have a long way to go.
We have not reached the goal that Romantic philosophes fought for three-hundred years ago. We have not reached the goal Nelson, Hayes, and nearly ten other million Americans fought for 50 years ago. We have made incredible progress: establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Education Act, and countless statewide bills across the nation. We have reached targets, but have only scratched the surface. Moreover, our time to take effective action is waning.
This year, we will share thoughts over video calls rather than chants on Fifth Avenue. COVID-19 has forced us off the streets and into our houses, but we will prevail. We have no option otherwise. The continuity of our solidarity is essential for fighting for the same world that Nelson, Hayes, and millions of Americans did 50 years ago. Progress is made through unity, regardless of circumstance, and through our unity on this Earth Day, we will march closer and closer to a dream of environmental protection. Your involvement in this online Earth Day, as with mine, is vital to achieving our goals.
Happy Birthday, Earth Day. I promise we will keep fighting for your Birthday wishes, no matter how many Earth Days it may take.