Earth Day and the Environmental Movement

By Genevieve Cottraux

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans demonstrated coast-to-coast to raise awareness for the ravages taking toll on the environment.  Dubbing this day “Earth Day,” its founder, United States Senator Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin), envisioned it as a “national teach-in on the environment.”  The idea was born in the aftermath of the January 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

Picture from US Federal Government (Wikimedia Commons)

At that time, it was the worst spill in American history.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) estimates that as much as 4.2 million gallons of crude oil contaminated the Pacific Ocean over more than one week, killing thousands of dolphins, seals, and sea birds.

Picture by Brocken Inaglory (Wikimedia Commons)

President Nixon responded to the disaster by first establishing an environmental council in his cabinet, and in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Earth Day was created that year partly to support the new EPA.

Also leading up to the watershed moment of Earth Day was the raging fire on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio on June 22, 1969.  The fire was ignited when sparks from a passing train landed on the oil-soaked debris on the river’s surface.  Although that fire lived on in infamy and inspired the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, it was not the first or the worst fire on the pollution-choked Cuyahoga River.  Flare-ups on the river were considered relatively common.

Picture by TheOriginalSoni (Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier, in 1962, Rachel Carson published her pivotal book Silent Spring, about the use and abuse of pesticides, especially DDT, and their devastating effects.  Silent Spring “galvanized conservationists, ecologists, biologists, social critics, reformers, and organic farmers to join in the American environmental movement,” adding to the mood in the country that led to Earth Day.  Carson’s book sold more than 2 million copies and was serialized in The New Yorker, reaching its target popular audience and bringing to their attention the data and case studies that were known to the scientific community but not the general public.  Many consider that the book changed the course of history.

Gaylord Nelson, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, was interested in the “social and ecological costs of technological innovation and industrial expansion” and, like Carson, questioned the “progressiveness” of the industrial growth of the 1950s.  Realizing he needed to reach out not just to his colleagues but to the American people, he proposed Earth Day as a day for Americans to speak out and get involved in grassroots efforts to protect and preserve the environment.

On the 25th anniversary of Earth Day in 1995, upon being presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nelson said:

The opportunity for a gradual but complete break with our destructive environmental history and a new beginning is at hand. . . .  We can measure up to the challenge if we have the will to do so—that is the only question.  I am optimistic that this generation will have the foresight and the will to begin the task of forging a sustainable society.

President Donald Trump has proposed “deep and wide-ranging” cuts to the EPA, shrinking the agency’s spending by 31%, from $8.1 billion to $5.7 billion, and eliminating one-quarter of its 15,000 jobs.  At risk are programs that monitor water quality, environmental criminal enforcement, regional cleanup programs, Superfunds, and climate change initiatives.  During his campaign, Trump pledged to “get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency ‘in almost every form.’”  In reaction, Earth Day has been set as the March for Science, in defense of evidence-based policy making and harking back to the ground-breaking 1970 Earth Day that resulted in the formation of the EPA.

April 22 is the anniversary of the Humane Party’s public launch in 2009.  Also referred to as Platform Day, this is when the party releases and updates its political platform.  Initially, the platform release was an annual event, but going forward it will occur during election years.

Photo by Bob Nichols, USDA (Wikimedia Commons)

The Humane Party recognizes the connection between animal-exploitation industries, like factory farming, and environmental destruction.  Called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), factory farms dump animal feces, urine, and antibiotic-laden waste into open-air lagoons.  This waste leaches into groundwater and runs off into waterways.  The waste emits an estimated 160 known toxic gases, polluting the air.  Decomposing waste creates greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.  CAFOs are typically located in poor, rural communities.  Groups such as the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment help struggling communities.  Regarding animals, treated on CAFOs as production units rather than sentient beings, the Humane Party is committed to rights for all animals as well as an ecosystem-neutral, sustainable economy.  We call for respect over exploitation and conservation over waste and the elimination of destructive practices.

We celebrate Earth Day on April 22, but believe that every day is earth day.

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Picture by Mobilus in Mobili (Wikimedia Commons)