April 22 — Earth Day. I was leafing through an oversized magazine a friend gave me when she retired entitled, Earth Week ’70, published in 1970 as the Official Publication of the Philadelphia Earth Week Committee. At only 48-pages in length, it contains op-eds; artwork by adults and kids alike; an Earth Week Public Events calendar (April 16-22); an interview with the poet, Allen Ginsberg; statements from participants such as Senator Edmund Muskie, former Governor of Maine and its first Democratic Senator (elected 1964), and the primary sponsor of five bills on environmental improvement (a huge deal); environmental activist and four-time presidential candidate, Ralph Nader whose work birthed many key pieces of legislation in consumer protection; Senator Hugh Scott, a moderate Republican and environmentalist who served eight terms in the House as a Pennsylvania representative and another three terms in the Senate, eight years of which he was Senate Minority Leader; and celebrated author, professor, and former Episcopal chaplain, Alan Watts, to name a few.
Events included the signing of the Declaration of Interdependence, a poetry reading by poet, author, and Beat Generation team leader, Allen Ginsberg, performances by the Native American musical group, Redbone, and the Broadway cast of Hair; even a Seder reading. If the black and white photos in the magazine tell the whole story, Philadelphia, or Philthydelphia as the magazine’s authors called it, was a hot mess: smog so thick you couldn’t see from one side of the city to the other, even if you were standing on Billy Penn’s hat; pipelines running along the river’s edge, joined by trash and other debris (at least not plastic yet); and bellowing smoke stacks sending yet more particulate matter into the filthy air.
The first Earth Day, founded by Senator Gaylord Nelson, environmentalist, conservationist, consumer advocate, small business proponent, and peace-lover, was held on on April 22, 1970 as a teach-in to raise awareness of America’s long-standing environmental issues. Eight years before in 1962, Rachel Carson released her groundbreaking work, Silent Spring, decrying the overuse of pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides; on June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire for the 13th time; and in 1970, smog clouded not just the Los Angeles skyline, but cities across the country. In 1970, there were only 3.6 billion of us on the planet compared to almost 8 billion today which means, the problems are only getting worse.
The evidence of environmental degradation splattered across our nation by the end of the 60’s propelled 20 million Americans to attend Senator Nelson’s Earth Day party. Their efforts paid off: on December 2, 1970, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, leading to the expansion of some of our most important national legislation like the Clean Air Act (originally passed in 1963 and amended in 1970), and the Clean Water Act (originally enacted in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and reorganized and expanded in 1972). Last year, EPA celebrated 50 years of following its mission of protecting human health and the environment for all 328 million Americans, not just those of us who hug trees and care about bugs and bunnies.
The first Earth Day was a pivotal time in American history. Just this week we revisited the horrendous shooting of four college students on the Kent State campus in Ohio by members of the National Guard. Since the beginning, environmentalism has been intertwined with the anti-war movement of the 70’s. Whether that has hurt or helped the environment’s cause is anyone’s guess, but it reminds me that time is not linear but circuitous, that it may not repeat, but it definitely rhymes, and that if we don’t correct the mistakes of the past, we are destined to repeat them. Today we’re trying to leave a 20-year war in Afghanistan. History echoes.
Why do we still need Earth Day? Here are a few reasons: we are on the verge of a 6th mass extinction; according to the CDC, one in 12 people has asthma, a condition that’s on the rise in the U.S.; per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS and dubbed “forever chemicals” have been found “in the blood of virtually all Americans,” in our drinking water, and most recently, on Mount Everest; and for me, the most chilling, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
Earth Day is an origin story. The fervency surrounding the environmental issues on display during Earth Week in 1970 mirrors the fervency surrounding the intractable problems of today. With so many of our systems in disrepair, sometimes it seems easier to list the things that do still work. And while environmentalism in the U.S. may have started in earnest in 1970, it’s roots survive today thanks to groups like Philly’s own Global Water Alliance, and many others that work tirelessly for clean air, clean water, clean soil, and to cure environmental inequities.
Native Americans were the first stewards of this land. Today, those living on tribal reservations are among the two million people in the U.S. who don’t have running water or indoor plumbing. It’s always been time to add equity to our conversations about the earth, water, air, and access to resources that are common to us all, but not always readily available to everyone. Let’s not make this a one-day-a-year event. Rather, let’s revise our thinking, make a commitment to community, and choose to take decisive action starting now.
Today 97% of scientists agree that we humans are causing climate change. As a society, we need to take steps to arrest it before the planet gets any hotter; an increase of one of more degrees Fahrenheit could be the cause of the single biggest mass migration the world has ever seen. Even a couple degrees of warming will make places uninhabitable for billions of people. If you think a handful of countries have immigration problems now, wait until 3 billion people are on the move.
You will get no argument from me that today’s problems are ginormous, bigger than many of us can wrap our arms around, but now is not the time for cowardice, but strength, and foresight, and action, because if we ignore the problem’s of today, tomorrow’s environmental issues will make us long for the smog-filled days of the 70’s. This is the part of the movie where long-time enemies must join forces to fight the coming doom — aliens, King Kong, Thanos, empty seas, whatever we fear most — and hope that the sheer act of cooperation will buy us some grace.
To quote President Biden, “If we act now, in 50 years people are going to look back and say: ‘This was the moment that America won the future.’”
Let’s make Earth Day every day. There is no Planet B.
Pam Lazos is an environmental lawyer with a passion for assuring access to clean water for all, a blogger, author of the novel “Oil and Water”, about oil spills and green technology, and the VP for Communications at Global Water Alliance. She practices laughter daily.