A group of third-graders in little Kennard, Nebraska, did their part one school day afternoon. In the spring of 1970, the dozen or so schoolmates and their fourth-grade comrades patrolled the town of about 300, picking up paper, bottles, glass – anything they found – and put it their garbage bags. After they had walked the two or three blocks immediately in front of the two-story wood schoolhouse, they headed to the creek on the east edge of town, determined to clean up their community. This was my introduction to Earth Day. In fact, it was the first Earth Day. In 1970.
Before then, leaded gas was used to power automobiles. Smokestacks spewed thick, black soot into the air. Garbage was strewn on the sides of the road. Pollution was so bad that Los Angeles couldn’t be seen from the local hills. Water so full of chemicals and poison that you dare not eat the fish you caught. This was life in the United States. Rachel Carson penned the book “Silent Spring” in the early 1960s. It raised public awareness around the world that we needed to take better care of the planet before it was too late to save it.
Then, in 1969, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson recruited college students to spearhead a movement to address pollution. Then, he recruited his colleagues in Congress, both Republican and Democrat (Congress at one time worked together) to support his idea for Earth Day. April 22 was selected because it was midway between spring break and finals. Communities became involved and sponsored community trash pickup days.
Earth Day turns 50
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. While people around the world self-isolate and practice safe distancing to stop a deadly virus spreading around the world, we pause to reflect on the accomplishments achieved as a result of that first Earth Day in 1970. President Richard M. Nixon signed legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency. Other legislation followed – Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, among several more. Each designed to help preserve the planet, creating safe drinking water, clean air to breathe and more. Rivers were cleaned up and some even redesigned to reflect earlier times before mankind started using them for travel and then polluting them. Communities once smothered by pollution saw the sky as it should look. Water once deemed poisonous, became drinkable.
Today, several of those achievements are under attack by politicians and business leaders, who view the laws as too restrictive. Flint, Michigan, is the largest city in America with water that no one dares to drink. Efforts to repeal the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act seek to remove the protections. Endangered animals are even game for those seeking business interests over the welfare of society.
Regardless of attacks on ensuring a safe environment, people continue to work to keep the planet safe. Earth Day festivities celebrate the successes of the program and address the need to continue moving forward to help Mother Earth. Community groups sponsor clean-up days of sections of highways. Recycling programs seek to reduce waste in landfills and create opportunities to reuse resources for new products.
One billion people celebrate
Today, more than 1 billion people in nearly 200 countries participate in Earth Day events, according to Earth Day Network. So, whatever little thing you do today – tossing a piece of garbage into a receptacle instead of on the ground or throwing plastic bottles in the recycle bin – you’re helping the world. If we each do one small thing every day, we can continue to preserve the Earth and make it a better place for our children and grandchildren. And their children and grandchildren.
I’ve long been a fan and supporter of Earth Day, ever since that spring afternoon when my classmates and I picked up garbage around my hometown. I fear for our future and the planet’s just like others. However, I want to remain positive that whatever a group of shortsighted people may do today, can be undone tomorrow. Have a safe and happy Earth Day 2020.