How the First Earth Day Impacted Environmentalism


By Patrick N. AllittEmory University

The late sixties gave a fresh impetus to environmentalism in the USA. Widespread concerns over pollution, chemicals in the atmosphere, and world overpopulation had gelled into the “ecology movement”. The celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970 was a remarkable achievement of this movement. How did the movement gain momentum after the sixties?

The Earth as seen from the moon's surface.
The picture of the beautiful Earth made people realize that this is our one and only home. (Image: buradaki/Shutterstock)

The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. It was arranged by Senator Gaylord Nelson, and on the ground running events was a Harvard law student named Dennis Hayes. Groups all over the country that day undertook symbolic acts “to show a new respect to the environment and to the Earth itself.”

Just a couple of years previously, the first spaceships had begun to fly to the moon and to take photographs of the Earth looking back from that vantage point. In 1969, men had walked on the moon, and the picture of the beautiful Earth floating in space, made people realize that this is our one and only home.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The First Celebrations to Save the Earth

Mt. Rainier, with port of Tacoma in foreground. Smoke emitting from an aluminium plant.
Americans in the sixties and the seventies were concerned about the rise in air pollution. (Image: National Archives at College Park/Public domain)

On Earth Day, a group of students in San Jose buried a “gas guzzler”—a massive American car, which only went a few miles to the gallon. One hundred students in Tacoma, Washington, rode horses to school, and in doing so held up traffic on the freeway. Mayor Lindsey, the Mayor of New York, closed 5th Avenue between 14th and 59th streets, and had a street fair. Many communities organized litter-cleaning parties, and there was a wonderful mood of participation and a feel-good atmosphere as well.

This was a period where most demonstrations were very bitterly divisive, and sharp disagreements and sometimes fighting among rival demonstrators was commonplace. The only relaxing moment in the midst of a very tense period was to make people believe that “we all breathe the same air.” At the same time, politicians from all the parties were hurrying to climb onto the bandwagon.

Many ecological activists in this period became involved in the movement. These people belonged to the mainstream and moderate groups like the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation, whose main interest was in bird watching and the protection of wildlife. There was another group, Edward Abbey’s “monkey wrenchers.”

Edward Abbey’s “Monkey Wrenchers”

Edward Abbey was a colorful environmental writer in the 1960s and 1970s, and he wrote a novel called The Monkey Wrench Gang. The novel is about a group of eco-terrorists. When they realize there’s a big mining project that’s being opened up, they sabotage the equipment to prevent it from working. When they find that new roads are being driven through previously wilderness areas, they tear up the engineers’ stakes.

They commit direct acts of environmental obstruction, breaking the law in doing so, to protect the wilderness. Like so many other groups in America in this era, they also claim that they’re acting on behalf of a threatened group, but it’s no longer a threatened group of people. Now, it’s a threatened group of landscapes and animals as well. They borrowed much of the rhetoric and techniques of the Civil Rights movement—which had been so widely borrowed by other groups.

The Class Divide and Environmentalism

Environmentalism was always very attractive to upper middle-class white people, and relatively less so to poorer people. This is partly because it’s usually only people who’ve satisfied their most important and urgent necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and regular work and income that can then turn their attention to lesser issues like a clean environment.

People who haven’t got a job aren’t going to worry about the environment, and if there’s a playoff between getting a job and protecting a grove of trees, most people will take the job. As it developed, environmentalism quickly became an activity and a preoccupation of prosperous people.

The words rich and poor written on green and red street signs respectively.
Compared to the poor, the rich could afford to work for the environmental cause. (Image: karen roach/Shutterstock)

The Government’s Endeavors to Save the Environment

The Congress passed crucial acts to improve the quality of air and water, and to reduce ambient pollution levels. Clean Air Acts of 1963, 1970, and 1990 imposed tighter emissions standards. These acts tried to cut down on smog being released from factories, and to reduce the hazard of acid rain (chemicals present in the atmosphere, fall in the form of rain) which can damage forests in vulnerable areas.

It became illegal to put lead compounds into gasoline after 1976 because medical research had shown a connection between high levels of lead contamination and brain damage among infants.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 toughened up legislation from 1960 and 1965. It understood that the “landscape was not a sink or a dump, but as itself something that is vulnerable and needs to be protected.”

A Push Towards Collective Responsibility

Sometimes embarrassments led to environmental improvements. For example, the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, caught fire in 1969 because the level of oil products floating on the surface was so great it could actually burn. The fire singed many of the buildings along the waterfront and caused a national disgrace. The city then undertook an ambitious cleanup program to restore life in the river.

This is what Lester Thoreau, an economist, has said about the ones who pay to clean the environment:

Whatever technique is used to reduce pollution, it is important to understand that the consumer is going to pay. Ultimately, firms pass along the costs of all inputs to the consumers. If they must pay affluence charges, they’ll raise the price of goods to cover these charges…This is not bad, but good.

It becomes everybody’s responsibility to pay for the cleanup and to take the issue seriously.

Common Questions About the First Earth Day and its Impact on Environmentalism

Q: What is acid rain?

Acid rain is a phenomenon in which harmful chemicals that are present in the atmosphere, fall in the form of a rain.

Q: Why did it become illegal to put lead compounds into gasoline after 1976?

It became illegal to put lead compounds into gasoline after 1976 because medical research had shown a connection between high levels of lead contamination and brain damage among infants.

Q: What did the Congress do to improve the quality of air in America?

The Congress passed the Clean Air Acts in 1963, 1970, and 1990. These acts imposed tighter emissions standards.

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