Don’t Forget: The First Earth Day Was A Protest, A Revolution

Gas masks were a popular protest prop during the first Earth Day

Today, Earth Day is a relatively innocuous phrase–it inspires, what? A park cleanup, a few speeches here and there, and maybe a hiking event complete with birdwatching and smores. We’ve completely forgotten the militancy of the first Earth Day, and how it was one of the most forceful expressions of democratic voice this country has ever seen. 

What do we do for Earth Day? We get out, we explore our national parks, we take in all the natural beauty that our states have to offer. And most likely, we forget about it tomorrow. Earth Day, through no one’s fault, is in danger of becoming another half-hearted celebration of ‘let’s-care-for-a-day.’ And so it would be useful now to remember: the first Earth Day was planted in rebellious and volatile ground. It took root in post-Vietnam War unrest and dissatisfaction, a time where in which the public was outraged at government expenditure on a fruitless war that diverted funds from other crucial public services. It was a time so like our current moment, and yet so different. One of these differences was that the word ‘environmentalism’ had yet to be invented.

The First Earth Day was marked by huge public protests

Protest at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. via

In the 60s, America was barely becoming aware that the industrialization it was so proud of might be a cancer on the country. Against calls for restricted government spending, and a return to normalcy in the midst of student protests and demonstration, Wisconsin senator (and future Earth Day founder) Gaylord Nelson took the floor to voice concerns that had gone unreported and unacknowledged. Incensed by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, inspired by the anti-war protests, he delivered a speech that year to Americans for Democratic Action. He asked why we as Americans were able to win World Wars, develop weapons of mass destruction, and put a man on the moon, but we

1. Can’t get food to our hungry children in a nation with too much to eat.

2. Can’t get downtown in the morning or travel across country in an efficient mass transit system.

3. Can’t get medical care to the Ghetto, the elderly or the poor in rural America.

4. And with all our lavish spending, we can’t even create an educational system that capitalizes on one of the strongest drives a child has — the desire to learn.

5. And in a nation more abundantly endowed than any other we can’t quite get organized for a massive effort to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink or the beauty of our countryside. How could we organize to win a big war, create the nuclear weapons system and rocket to the moon — And still fall so short of our historic goal — The creation of a social structure founded on quality instead of quantity and moral might instead of military might.

He goes on to note that, up to that point, the public had depended on large companies to be as productive socially as they were materially, that they could “do our social planning for us too,” a view whose naivete he then attempts to express:

The challenges are open and obvious for all to see … That the most important measure of success in this system is power, affluence, abundance, bigness, gross national product, and profits. It is a challenge that says any system that becomes dominated by these forces is incapable of producing a society of quality.

Nelson’s concerns sound eerily similar to “revolutionary” ideals still propounded today, don’t they? Today, Earth Day is a global celebration, called the “biggest secular observance in the world,” and Nelson has since earned himself a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 for his efforts, the highest award that can be bestowed upon a civilian. But back then, it was just another scrappy grassroots protest that baffled the media and attracted the ire of civil authorities.

Gas masks and picket signs were common on the first Earth Day

News coverage of the first Earth Day did the event little justice. To be fair, this was partially the fault of the event’s organizers, who asked journalists and major news outlets to turn their cameras towards events in major cities and open air demonstrations. The first Earth Day was meant to be peaceful, and by and large, it was so. But news networks were able to capture the handful of events that turned violent, and these are absolutely fascinating to observe through the lens of current protest movements.

In this CBS news segment from 1970, anchor Robert Shakne comments on a non-violent protest in Boston, Massachusettes, spearheaded by student demonstrators. He notes:

It wasn’t clear why the state police ordered the demonstrators out, but they were leaving when for no visible reason–trouble. The police charging the crowd, seizing the coffins, pushing those who moved too slowly, and arresting 13. There had been talk in advance of crowds of thousands, in attempts to disrupt the airport, but that didn’t happen. This crowd, just a few hundred, had seemed orderly and non-violent.

The first Earth Day was a proud projection of the public voice, against domineering networks of power, that struggled to make a cause known. We have the historical hindsight today to say that this was a brilliantly successful revolution. Don’t do it injustice, don’t make it a fad. Do you know why Earth Day is on April 22? Nelson chose that day because it was between Spring Break and Finals Week. Earth Day was created with students in mind, with protests in mind; the first conception of Earth Day was a “national teach-in event” to instruct the world.

In the decade following the first Earth Day, this is what we accomplished: the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the passing of the Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species, Toxic Substances Control, and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Acts. So what does Earth Day mean? That protest works. That revolution enacts change. That if you care about a thing, you can save it. The proof is in Earth Day, the historical fact that its proponents did win the day, and the fact that you do know what environmentalism means. Now go forth and give a damn.

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