The First Earth Day Changed the World. Here’s What We Can Learn From It.


Maybe you, like me, have been inundated with Earth Day ads. Exist so much you can do to save the planet, they shouted. Pay money to plant trees! Come to Zoom, meet and greet the engineers who build sustainable apps! Watch Nascar drivers race in cars that are supposed to be carbon neutral! Purchase a sustainable cooler to carry your reusable wine bag for a zero-waste picnic in the park! Once you’re there, you can grill the new sustainable charcoal and eat the new sustainable peanut butter! You didn’t forget to wear eco-friendly socks, did you?

It feels like a parody, underscoring how performative Earth Day has become when we need meaningful action. A third of Americans have been hit by climate-related disasters this year, from hurricanes and wildfires to extreme cold. This month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, a climate assessment published by a group of leading scientists assembled by the United Nations, outlines how we can mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. It states that greenhouse gas emissions must peak in the next three years and then halve by 2030 to prevent a catastrophe. To achieve that, according to climate scientist Kim Nicholas, developed countries need to reduce emissions about 1 percent every month for the next seven years. Thus, having the right type of picnic accessories won’t make a lot of dents.

In fact, we have the science, technology, and funds to achieve that goal—clean energy costs, for one, have fallen. And despite the tantrum of climate deniers on social media, public concern about climate change is higher than ever. What we lack today is political will and action. As the IPCC report reveals, to no one’s surprise, political inertia and corporate resistance to change are key barriers to a livable future.

It’s easy to get discouraged in the face of a stalled Congress and oil maneuvers after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But before you do, remember that Earth Day was conceived at turbulent times but nevertheless managed to create urgency and meaningful outcomes for the environment.

Denis Hayes was a 25-year-old graduate student at Harvard Kennedy School when he was appointed by Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, to host the first Earth Day, in 1970. At that time, rivers were burning and birds dying horribly. mass due to air and water pollution. Other big problems also come into play: Vietnam is tearing people apart, and events like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the Stonewall Riots have fueled cultural divisions and kept the public on their toes. Even so, 10 percent of the US population took to the streets and protested the destruction of the environment on that first Earth Day.

The change is not immediate. A week later, Nixon began bombing Cambodia, and a week after that, the national guard shot protesters on the Kent State University campus. “The last thing on anyone’s mind two weeks after Earth Day is the environment,” Hayes said.

But in the months that followed, he and other activists founded the Earth Day Network, targeted specific politicians and policies, and spearheaded a broad letter-writing campaign. In the following years, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act, and established the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, along with a number of other protective measures.

I asked Hayes, who still works in environmental advocacy, what lessons we can all learn from that first Earth Day, to help move us away from socks and charcoal and toward meaningful carbon reductions. Here are the ideas.

Watch the ball

Hayes said that one of the advantages they had in the 1970s was “a good discrete problem with a good discrete solution.” Air and water pollution is very real and comes from traceable sources, which makes it easier to focus on movement. The problem we face today is not that simple—environmental degradation comes from many angles. But as the IPCC report states, you can still reduce the threat to our planet’s habitability to two greenhouse gases: carbon and methane.

There are many other problems that we can and should face (including continuing to protect species and tackle pollution), but at this point, we need to focus our greatest efforts on the biggest problem: emissions.

Know Your Enemy

“It is a universal truth that people are most easily mobilized when there is a clear enemy,” Hayes said. “In the late sixties, it was pretty clear who was causing the air and water pollution, because we saw chimneys pouring into the atmosphere.”

He worries that emission sources are less visible and specific at this time. But the IPCC report also names the obvious criminals—fossil fuel companies and the politicians who enable them—and cites them as the biggest obstacle to tackling climate change. IPCC authors have given us guidelines on who to target with our votes and dollars and who to encourage action. It’s not your non-biodegradable picnic basket that’s the problem, so don’t waste your efforts there.

If You Don’t Like Politics, Change It

In the US, we are currently mired in a system where a very few politicians among the parties can have great influence in blocking laws. To achieve those emission reduction goals, we need to pass some kind of climate law ASAP, and the upcoming midterms don’t look promising to climate advocates.

But, says Hayes, one little politician can also make a positive difference, and in 1970, Earth Day activists targeted the “dirty dozen”—congressmen who opposed environmental action and who were in changeable districts. Their efforts to shift seven out of twelve by a small strategic margin, send a signal that voters are making choices based on environmental issues. “It was gunfire that was heard around Capitol Hill,” he said. A month after that election, Congress passed the Clean Air Act.

Don’t Worry About Being Perfect

Hayes said the passage of the Clean Air Act could instruct current climate advocates, who he fears are too caught up in the details. “The Clean Air Act is an imperfect vehicle, but it dramatically changes air quality,” he said. “You can have something that looks elegant on paper, but if you can’t get past it, it won’t do you any good.”

Also, regulating emissions doesn’t just have to happen at the federal or international level, Hays said. Local energy codes and vehicle emission standards are often easier to implement and improve. “Take the imperfections and move forward,” he said. “We have to create momentum that says, ‘We’re cutting this.’”

Give People Something to Believe in

Speaking of moving forward, Hayes worries that some of those at the front of the climate movement today are talking too much about the (very real) consequences of inaction and not enough about the profound, life-saving benefits of climate action. “It’s hard to get people involved around something that seems hopeless,” he said. Back in the seventies, they could show voters the benefits of clean water and air, which felt real and good. Now, we need to positively demonstrate the ways we can use the technology we already have to electrify energy and transportation, reduce carbon and methane emissions, and stop financing fossil fuel production. Now we need to demonstrate positively the ways we can move away from fossil fuels, switch to clean energy, and make the places we live healthy and resilient. We’re on the thin edge of survival, but we have the tools to repair the ship. We just need action.

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