Earth Day: Change Starts With You
Over a billion people on the planet participate in Earth Day activities each year, but do you know what started it all? In this episode, we learn about the history of Earth Day and 7 totally free ways to celebrate by contributing to a more sustainable planet. When we work together for a common goal, we can change the world!
But before we get into it – let’s talk about Earth. You know, the big blue, yellow, and green marbled planet that we all live on. Let’s imagine for a moment that you are traveling far above the Earth’s surface into space. At warp speed, you span its length. As you fly over you see its expansive mountains, rich valleys, vast plains some that are sandy, some that are wooded and coated with thick greenery, its sparkling oceans, and beautiful ice caps.
Astronaut Michael Massimino said that viewing the earth from space was like looking into “absolute paradise.” And if you’ve ever seen pictures of the earth and all its power and beauty, I’m sure you would agree that it is a paradise too.
But as you are floating above space, you also gain a new perspective. The perspective of the fragility of the Earth. You notice the thin veil of atmosphere that separates us from the rest of space. You can see how everything on Earth is connected. You then look around the blackness in space and discover that we are the only planet with bodies of water, our life source. Astronaut James B Irwin said,
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“That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.”
I quote these astronauts because it may not seem like it with our feet firmly planted on the ground, but when realizing our place in space – we can see that the earth is incredibly fragile. That it is our only home. And Earth Day was created to help protect it. Every year on April 22nd, Earth Day serves as a conscious reminder of how fragile our planet is and how important it is that we protect it.
History of Earth Day
So what’s the story of Earth Day? It’s not like any other holiday that is randomly generated like National Eat a Donut Day or World Juggling Day. It has a complex history.
The Industrial Revolution
Let me paint another picture for you. It’s the late 1700s/early 1800s and Industrial Revolution is taking place. We strip the planet’s natural resources for fuel. Toxic smoke and fumes billows from large factories run by coal pollute the air. Those same heavy metals and chemicals are poured into our waterways and soil as industrial waste.
Our landscape drastically changes as nature is bent to our will, and urbanized to make room for more factories and cheaply build homes for workers of those factories, drastically affecting the quality of life as overcrowding and unsanitary sewage is put into the streets.
For a lot of us, myself included, it’s hard to imagine the days when companies could openly spew toxic material into our air, waterways, and earth and no one blinks an eye. No laws were preventing it. No agencies in place to regulate it. It just was, and people accepted it until they didn’t. The Industrial Revolution opened people’s eyes to the impact that we were making on our environment and the people in it.
And although the industrial revolution may have been the most harmful to our planet it brought about the ideals of environmentalism that inspired leaders like Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, and George Washington Carver among many others, they weren’t the first of their kind.
Greenpeace.org states that “Ecological awareness first appears in the human record at least 5,000 years ago. Vedic sages praised the wild forests in their hymns, Taoists urged that human life should reflect nature’s patterns and the Buddha taught compassion for all sentient beings.” There were many writers, leaders, and artists all over the world who addressed smog, deforestation, soil erosion, and pollution throughout history. And worldwide, Indigenous communities have always put the preservation and harmony of nature at the forefront through their beliefs, culture, and practices.
1962 - Silent Spring
Fast forward again to the Industrial Revolution, we see the environmentalist movement as we know it takes shape. You see National Park Preservation across the world and official conservation groups start to form.
In Episode 18, Women Environmentalists You Should Know About, we talked about how Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring began the modern environmentalist movement. This movement opened the countries eyes to the consequences of chemical and industrial pollution (specifically with the use of pesticides like DDT), and interest sparked across the nation for how to live more sustainably.
In the years following, the public outcry pushes the US Congress to pass the Clean Air Act, Wilderness Act, National Emissions Standards Act, Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, Solid Waste Disposal Act, Air Quality Act – the list goes on.
1969 - Environmental Disaster
But there was a fuel that added to the fire – literally and figuratively. In 1969 an oil spill in Santa Barbara rocked the nation when Union Oil Company, now owned by Chevron, sent 3 million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean and environmental disaster ensued. In June of that same year, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, which had repeatedly been set afire for over 8 decades due to toxic industrial debris and waste being dumped into the river, caught fire for the 10th time, and the nation finally took notice.
1968 - Memphis Sanitation Strike
At the same time, the civil rights movement was leading the charge on bringing awareness to the inequity of environmental protection in communities of color. Most notably, the Memphis Sanitation Strike that occurred in February of 1968 brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to join sanitation workers in their protest against polluted and hazardous working conditions that also disproportionately spilled into their communities – bringing to light the issues of environmental racism. The strike, which lead to 42,000 people to the streets in protest, ultimately was a success for the environmental justice movement.
The First Earth Day
The nation could no longer turn a blind eye to the problems that had been plaguing the environment in our country and beyond for centuries. By the fall of 1969, one of the US leaders for environmental change, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin introduced his idea for Earth Day. Senator Nelson intended for the concept to be a grassroots effort so widespread that it would raise awareness throughout the nation on environmental degradation and permanently force environmental issues to the forefront of political policy. And it worked.
They employed 22-year-old Denis Hayes, to organize college campus teach-ins, hoping to connect to the already existing anti-war movement. April 22nd was chosen because it was a weekday that fell between Spring Break and college Final Exams so that they could maximize the greatest student participation.
Earth Day – April 22nd, 1970
But with the environmental movement already in full swing, Hayes realized that he could reach a bigger audience. He organized events and engaged various organizations throughout America, and soon news of the first Earth Day pulsed throughout the nation. On Earth Day April 22nd, 1970, an estimated twenty million Americans from all walks of life demonstrated in different cities across the United States, solidifying environmental issues as a national priority. In 1970 the EPA was founded, and throughout the 70s major reforms of the Acts mentioned earlier were implemented as well as many other new landmark environmental laws.
Earth day was effective in raising awareness about the environmental issues we are facing as a planet, but also how sustainability is humanity’s core issue. Senator Nelson said, “Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.”
Earth Day Goes Global
The message of Earth Day spread from the United States to the rest of the globe in 1990 when Denis Hayes yet again organized a campaign to reach the entire planet. In fact, today it is recognized by EarthDay.Org as the “largest secular observance in the world, marked by more than a billion people every year (in over 190 countries) as a day of action to change human behavior and create global, national, and local policy changes.”
Earth Day champions the successes of climate literacy, changes in public policy, voter outreach, funding for green initiatives, reforestation, and more. And they are all due to individuals having the right tools and information for taking action.
The Other Earth Day
There is also an Earth Day you may of never heard about. Prior to Senator Nelson declaring April 22nd as Earth Day, the term was actually used earlier that year by John McConnell, a peace activist and founder of the Earth Society Foundation, at a UNESCO meeting in San Francisco. His idea was said, “to celebrate the need to preserve and renew the threatened ecological balance upon which all life on Earth depends.” His celebration of Earth Day was set for the vernal equinox in March – the first day of spring and when night and day are in perfect balance.
The First Earth Day, now known as International Earth Day, was celebrated on March 21st 1970 and had global support. International Earth Day is still celebrated in many countries with the ringing of Peace Bells to mark the exact moment of the vernal equinox and the hope for a peaceful planet.
John McConnell also designed the Earth Flag, often called the Earth Day flag, which is a blue flag depicting the planet as seen from space during the flight of Apollo 10 in 1969.
Why do we need Earth Day?
To me, Earth Day is a worldwide collective demonstration of the lasting impact that each person can make. When we work together for a common goal, we can change the world. So my proposition is that we treat every day like it’s Earth Day. Treating every day like it’s Earth Day means you would be promoting a clean, healthy, and sustainable lifestyle for all people and wildlife through your consumption and actions.
And now more than ever, we need urgent action. Although we don’t overtly see the images of toxic billowing smoke clouds or heavy metals being poured in our waterways as I mentioned earlier, there is still a dire need to protect our fragile planet. We can see the effects of climate change as predicted, from severe storms to heatwaves, and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets leading to rising sea levels, as well as the endangerment and extinction of animal species.
We also continue to observe air and water pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, and natural resource pollution. And we are seeing at-risk populations suffer from food insecurity, flooding, water contamination, disease, and toxic pollution.
7 Ways to Celebrate Earth Day
So you may be like, “Whoa ok this is too much for me to handle, I’m just one person!” But take a sigh of relief. I’m going to give you 7 ways that you can contribute to a healthier earth that are totally free (except for your time) so you can treat every day like it’s Earth Day.
- Talk to the company you work for about their sustainable practices.
Ask if you can work with them to help implement a plan for more sustainable practices or even implementing education on climate literacy as part of the company culture.
- Choose a service opportunity.
That could be something as simple as going on a regular litter clean-up with a friend, joining a community garden, planting a tree, or even connecting with an environmental movement like the Sunrise Movement or the Sierra Club.
We need government intervention in order to help curb the disastrous effects we are seeing. Choosing environmentally conscious leaders at all levels of government is crucial. We’ve seen the impact that poor leadership can have on communities. You can find examples everywhere across the country, from the Flint Michigan water crisis caused by poor local leadership all the way up to the rollback of over 100 environmental rules that governed clean air, water, wildlife and toxic chemicals by former President Trump. Who we vote for matters, who you vote for matters.
- Save energy!
You can save energy in your home by turning off the lights and unplugging unused devices. These both seem like small things, but when you consume less power you help to reduce power plant emissions, conserve natural resources, and save ecosystems.
- Be mindful in the kitchen.
Actually eat the food you buy—and make less of it meat-based. Ok on this one you’re still going to have to spend money on food. But here we are talking about actually eating the food you buy, not wasting it, and eating less meat. We know that an estimated one-third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste. And that Americans consume more meat protein than necessary. But reducing our waste and eating less meat would both drastically decrease carbon emissions, save land, water, and natural resources, and even alleviate hunger. Bonus points if you can grow your own food and share what you have leftover with people who need it!
- Make changes to your driving habits.
Our cars produce excess greenhouse gas emissions up to 4.6 metric tons per year. Try biking, walking, carpooling, or taking public transportation when possible, and keep up with the maintenance of your car to help extend its life and increase fuel efficiency.
- Step out in nature!
There are a slew of amazing personal benefits from stepping out and physically connecting your body to nature, but studies have also found that people who have a higher appreciation of nature and more exposure to nature were more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors. So stepping out in nature is an easy no-brainer way to help the planet!
Something to Grow On
For this week’s Something to Grow on Segment, I wanted to bring it back to our view of space and talk about Joni Mitchell. Yes – I said Joni Mitchell. I had always grown up listening to Big Yellow Taxi, singing along with Joni “Don’t it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone, They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” (I would sing that for y’all but I do not have a singing voice so I’ll leave it to Joni).
As I was imagining my view from space – taking in the beautiful scenery of Earth, this song came to mind. But now I heard the song with a new ear. I had the thought, What if we end up paving our paradise and don’t realize we have until it’s too late? What if one day our view from space tells a story not of a fragile earth, but a broken one.
I read that Joni Mitchell wrote this song in 1969 after visiting Hawaii and seeing that amongst the natural beauty were paved parking lots. But she was from California and had been experiencing the same history that lead to the first Earth Day that I outlined earlier. Rachel Carson’s efforts to ban DDT with Silent Spring, as she sings “Hey farmer, farmer, put away your DDT. I don’t care about spots on my apples, leave me the birds and the bees.” She had likely seen the devastation from the Santa Barbara oil spill and heard of the burning of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in the same year she wrote that song. So how could she produce a song that was so sweet, melodic, and even joyful about the harm to the environment? I had always gotten such a positive feeling from the song, and then I realized that I still could.
The premise behind Earth Day still rings true, as does Joni’s environmental anthem Big Yellow Taxi. We need to protect our environment, our paradise. When we shine a light on these issues, whether it be through the conscious reminder that is Earth day, or a melodic song we can play sitting outside on a beautiful day, we can start to bring about the change we need.
So if you haven’t had a chance yet, this is your reminder to get out in nature today. Hit play on Big Yellow Taxi, sink your toes in the grass or dirt and enjoy your little slice of paradise.