What are you doing for Earth Day? I’ve been asked this several times over the past few weeks, and it has me reflecting back on the times that led up to the first Earth Day in 1970. That movement led to the passage of major environmental protection legislation. And now, we have the opportunity to do even more as we look towards Earth Day 2020.
Organizing the Original Earth Day in 1970
What started as a bold idea from the late Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) soon became an intense period of social and political activism that brought on a rapid and irreversible change in direction — not only for our society, but for many of us young idealistic students as well.
We called this event the First National Environmental Teach-In, and the intent was to have one day each year where teachers and students would focus their class — in all subject areas, from history to mathematics — solely on an aspect of the environment. The hope was that it would raise public awareness about the issues discussed in books we were reading such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, among others. Our ultimate hope was to encourage positive environmental and societal change.
When we first started in 1969, organized and encouraged by graduate student Denis Hayes, we had a few dozen students involved across the country. By the time activities started the morning of April 22, 1970, we had expanded to gatherings at 2000 colleges and universities and an estimated audience of 20 million.
This proved to be a wake-up call — not only for our society, but also for many of us young activists. Before Earth Day there were no significant environmental regulations and polluters ran roughshod on the environment. By late summer the dialogue had reached Congress, and in December the EPA was authorized, soon to be followed by the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. My entire career focus shifted from entering university teaching and research, to community programs related to environmental sustainability.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
How did all of this happen? It happened through the individual activism of millions of mostly young people. Earth Day 1970 arose at the end of a decade of intense social unrest. Many of us were disillusioned not only by the killing in 1963 of JFK, but also by the later assassination of role models like Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Every day brought more depressing news from Vietnam, for a war that seemed to never end. And we could see firsthand that pollution of our environment was not only serious, but steadily getting worse. The times were not positive.
Earth Day 1970 began as activism, fueled by student energy. The tragic events of the 1960s shocked us out of complacency and led to the mobilization of 20 million people, united in a desire to protect the world we all share. We pushed the system, and it responded. This resulted in a raised public awareness that led to significant environmental and social policy changes at the local and national levels.
Over the decades, and as long as we had a relatively progressive government, we built on this momentum and continued to make positive progress on a wide range of sustainability-related fronts, including alternative energy, endangered species protection, and CO2 emission reduction. On all of these issues, most Congresses and presidents were on our side, and our role was to urge them to continue enacting progressive environmental and social legislation.
The Dangers of Polluters Owning the Government
This was a good strategy until 2016, when everything dramatically changed for the worse. A week before the 2016 election, many of us stressed the critical importance of voting thoughtfully, and electing candidates that had a platform that would preserve the hard-earned social and environmental progress we fought for over several decades.
Unfortunately, the worst happened, and we now find ourselves at a crucial turning point with a president and Congress owned by polluters, controlled by corporate money and enacting policies that go against everything we have worked for since the first Earth Day. It seems like each day, something happens to remind us that we stuck with a captured government headed by a clueless embarrassment of a president, a dysfunctional senate, and government agencies beholden to the polluters they’re supposed to be regulating.
How does this relate to this year’s Earth Day and to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020? This week many of us are engaging in local activities, like beach clean-ups and Earth Day festivals. These build community and help us feel connected in solidarity as we share difficult times for our society and the environment that sustains us. They are necessary to building a coalition, but they have limited impact on reversing the really big challenges that threaten the viability of our lives in the time ahead.
Overpopulation, climate change, and depletion of natural resources are here now. They will continue to contribute to increasing sea level rise, drought, and food shortages, all of which will result in the migration of untold millions. We need swift and effective action now, and this will only happen through legislation and strong governmental regulatory action. And as we learned in 1970, that can only happen if the people demand it.
Let’s continue to organize a strong, effective, and youth-led mass political response that will grow over the year ahead, in the vein of groups like The Sunrise Movement. The time is right for millions of us to again band together in solidarity as we did in 1970, so that we can take our government back from polluters and preserve our collective futures.
5 Things We Can All Do This Earth Day
What is my dream for Earth Day 2019? I visualize us working together, creating a huge and rising wave of progressive political action leading up to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020. This wave will continue building momentum through the summer and fall, until it crests and breaks over the 2020 election that will wash away the polluters blocking critical action on the life-or-death social and environmental issues we share.
One of the best things each of us can do is to assume personal responsibility for helping to get us out of this mess we find ourselves mired in. Make a commitment to take direct action in the year ahead, not only by doing small local activities, but more importantly through political action geared toward the big picture. We need action that will help ensure a livable environment into the future for us, for our kids, and for generations to come.
We have to move our country back onto a progressive social and environmental track by electing a Congress and a president who will care more about society and the environment than about money. This can only happen one vote and one election at a time. Between now and November 2020, we need to do whatever we can so that we will wake up the morning after Election Day certain we finally have solid progressive control of local, state, and federal governments, and that polluters have no representation.
Devote some of your time between now and November 2020 to help get out the vote — especially the youth vote — for progressive candidates at the state level, and for a progressive congress in Washington. What specifically can we all do?
1. Make a personal commitment to register, and then to vote, at every regular and special local, state, and national election, especially between now and November 2020. And in order to ensure that you can actually vote, this has to include making sure before election day that you are on the eligible list in your voting precinct.
2. Commit to taking responsibility between now and November 2020 for discussing the issues we are facing with your immediate family and friends, and for explaining to them the importance of the vote. Encourage and support them to register and vote in every regular and special election, and if needed, be willing to help them.
3. Reconnect with friends that you have all across the country, and commit to calling one or two of them each month to not only catch up, but discuss with them the issues and the importance of voting. Urge them not only to register and vote themselves, but to also contact their friends to do the same.
4. Share articles, memes, and videos on your social media profiles about these issues, and the need to network and get out the vote.
5. Give money and/or contribute time to organizations whose mission is to get out the vote.
Of course all of us are busy and have important things to do every day. But consider this — the average American spends about 11 hours each day consuming media, whether it’s watching TV or browsing social media, according to a 2018 MarketWatch report. That’s 77 hours each week, and about 166 days of the year.
Reflect on how much time you spend looking at TV or a computer/phone screen. What if each of us only spent even 1 or 2 of those hours each week working on something that will help take back our country from polluters and deal with the issues that will guarantee a future for all of us?
If we succeed at this, we will no longer need to spend our time and resources fighting assaults on our rights and values, and we can return to supporting progressive activities that will move us forward in an environmentally and socially positive direction.
On this Earth Day 2019, please commit to taking action. Do it for yourselves. Do it for your family and friends. And do it for future generations to come, and for this beautiful planet that we all share.
Dr. Bruce Justin Miller was one of the student activists who planned and organized the first Earth Day in 1970. He directed the Office of Sustainability at the University of Hawaii, drafted the nation’s first ozone protection legislation, and received the 1999 Environmental Hero Award from the Department of Commerce for his environmental work.