I’ve come to believe that Earth Day is the least understood famous event in modern American history. Every April 22, we pay ritual homage to the planet. This year, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the hosannas are likely to be especially loud. But few people appreciate what made Earth Day great. Even environmentalists have not learned the most important lesson of Earth Day 1970.
Adam Rome is one of the leading environmental historians in America. His first book, The Bulldozer in the Countryside, retold the story of the origin of the environmental movement, placing its origins in the nation’s new suburbs, not just its remote wilderness areas. He was the editor of the journal Environmental History, and teaches at Pennsylvania State University. His history of the first Earth Day will be published by Hill and Wang.
The first Earth Day was even bigger than the biggest civil rights march or antiwar demonstration or woman’s liberation protest in the 1960s. Roughly 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools held environmental teach-ins. Earth Day activities also took place in churches and temples, in city parks and in front of corporate and government buildings. Though the largest crowds gathered on April 22, many institutions and communities celebrated for a week, not just a day. Millions of Americans took part.
The original event ultimately was about do-it-yourself empowerment, not about education or protest or celebration. In the course of writing a history of Earth Day 1970, I’ve tracked down dozens of people who organized Earth Day events, and I’m impressed by how many still are involved in the environmental cause. They defend rivers, promote green building, administer environmental-protection agencies, host eco programs on radio and television and much more. Some already were environmentalists before Earth Day, but most were not. Earth Day helped to make the first green generation.
Earth Day was superb leadership training. Often, the local organizers worked for months to plan their events. They were tested repeatedly. What counted as an environmental issue? Was the goal to advance an agenda or to involve as many people as possible? Would the emphasis be on education, activism or media spectacle? What relationship would the Earth Day effort have to other social movements, if any? Should the program feature local speakers or outsiders? Were any sources of funding off limits? Almost every question was potentially divisive. Yet the experience of planning Earth Day gave thousands of people a chance to develop the skills, contacts and sense of mission that provided a foundation for future activism.
Earth Day grew out of a call for a national environmental teach-in by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who was smart enough to let others take ownership of the event. To help promote the teach-in, Nelson hired a group of young activists led by Denis Hayes, and the Hayes group formed Environmental Action after Earth Day to continue to press for change. But the essential organizing effort came at the grassroots. Tens of thousands of people organized Earth Day events, and the organizational effort transformed many of those involved. What these small, independent networks achieved is startling.
Of course, the sheer scale of Earth Day became the big story. The event was an unprecedented demonstration of public concern about the environment. Though Americans had begun to address many environmental problems before 1970, no one used the phrase “environmental movement” before the planning for Earth Day began. Earth Day gave people a sense that the environment had become a powerful cause.
But even in 1970, only a few activists appreciated the significance of the Earth Day organizing effort. The most notable were the leaders of Environmental Action. In partnership with the United Auto Workers and the social-concern committee of the United Methodist Church, Environmental Action invited about 200 local Earth Day organizers to a follow-up conference at the UAW’s Black Lake education center in July 1970. The goal was to turn the newly empowered organizers into leaders of a true movement.
The Black Lake conference proved a road seldom traveled. In the 40 years since the first Earth Day, the major environmental organizations have devoted few resources to empowering activists. Many of the national groups do not have local affiliates: Their members are a source of funds, not a grassroots force. Even the groups with local chapters have not made a consistent effort to nurture the skills of potential leaders.
That neglect handicaps the cause. Though environmental organizations have millions of members, their members typically lack the deep commitment built by the hard work of organizing. The result is a movement with many highly skilled professionals but without the social base needed to address the many challenges of climate change – perhaps the defining issue of the 21st century.
Unfortunately, Earth Day itself no longer is a force for empowerment. In many communities, Earth Day has become a green trade fair or a corporate-sponsored celebration for kids. But the story of how the first Earth Day was organized still might inspire environmentalists to think more creatively about how to build a more powerful movement. That would be another lasting legacy.
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