Earth Day at 45! The Evolution of Environmentalism

On April 22, 1970, 20 million people in the United States participated in a nationwide coast- to-coast teach-in for the environment.
«Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the destruction of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values,» was the first Earth Day, a yearly environmental event that is still celebrated 45 years later, according to

In New York City, Earth Day 1970 was nothing less than sensational. «In an unprecedented move, then-Mayor John V. Lindsay closed Fifth Avenue to traffic from Union Square Park to Central Park for two hours, essentially leaving Midtown traffic in gridlock. An ‘ecological carnival’ took place on 14th Street between Third and Seventh avenues. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller rode a bicycle to the Union Square rally and later signed legislation creating the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. At the time, the fair was considered the largest demonstration in Union Square since the socialist rallies of the 1930s,» ecological activist and author Brian Tokar wrote in 2010.

The massive event signaled a maturation and transformation in U.S. environmentalism and marked the birth of the modern environmental movement as we know it. Before Earth Day, the environment did not score high among the population’s concerns. According to, «The height of hippie and flower-child culture in the United States, 1970 brought the death of Jimi Hendrix, the last Beatles album, and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ Protest was the order of the day, but saving the planet was not the cause. War raged in Vietnam, and students nationwide increasingly opposed it. At the time, Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. ‘Environment’ was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news.»
However, in the 1960s an environmental awareness was already slowly developing. 1962 saw the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” a book which opened the eyes of millions of readers to the dangers of agricultural pesticides to human health and wildlife. The chemical industry launched a mean-spirited campaign to discredit Carson and her book, but by the time of her death in 1964 she had been broadly vindicated and “Silent Spring” went on to become one of the most important environmentalist texts of all time. Her research and activism inspired and galvanized many of the scholars and activists that would organize the 1970 Earth Day.

The idea of a U.S. nationwide day for environmental education is often credited to peace activist John McConnell, who proposed it at a UNESCO conference in San Francisco in March 1969. But it was Gaylord Nelson, U.S. senator from Wisconsin, who became the prime mover of the April 1970 Earth Day. Until 1962, Nelson had been the «conservation governor» of his state, known by that moniker because of his popular measures to clean up waterways, protect natural resources, create green jobs and maintain and improve the state’s recreation infrastructure. According to Nelson, once he became senator, «Six years would pass before the idea that became Earth Day occurred to me while on a conservation speaking tour out West in the summer of 1969. At the time, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, called ‘teach-ins,’ had spread to college campuses all across the nation. Suddenly, the idea occurred to me – why not organize a huge grassroots protest over what was happening to our environment? I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda. It was a big gamble, but worth a try.»
«Either capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies,» says Bolivian President Evo Morales.
The 1970 Earth Day festivities took place right in the middle of a very exciting and energetic period in the development of environmentalism. These years saw the first pioneering efforts to use the law to protect the environment. Inspired by the example of the ACLU and the NAACP, environmentally minded lawyers formed organizations that relied on the law and technical expertise, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. Scientist and environmental activist Barry Commoner made the cover of Time magazine in February 1970, the publication naming him «the Paul Revere of Ecology.» The prestigious and influential Sierra Club was transformed from an elite hiking club into an iron-jawed activist organization not afraid to lock horns with the government and polluting corporations, thanks to the able leadership of the forward-thinking executive director David Brower. Social critic Murray Bookchin combined cutting edge ecological concepts with anti-capitalist militancy and anarchism to create a new philosophy called social ecology. Ecologists Herman Daly, Kenneth Boulding, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Howard T. Odum were all publishing their most important works in those years.
And thanks to Earth Day, Ralph Nader, progressive crusader and public interest defender, began to appreciate and understand the importance of ecology and to incorporate it into his activism. «In 1970, the environmental arousal focused on pesticides, air and water pollution, with attention to workplace toxics contributing to occupational diseases,» reminisces Nader about those days. «Widely publicized were the (atmospheric) inversions in the Los Angeles area, choking with vehicles, and the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland where seeping petroleum slicks were sometimes set on fire–on the river! The action goals were legislative authority directing the federal executive agencies to regulate and reduce permissible pollution. Compared with today, legislation passed through Congress at a torrid pace. Objecting corporate lobbyists were swept aside,» said Nader.


Indian children celebrate Earth Day | Photo: AFP

But some voices on the left saw the whole Earth Day affair with skepticism. «It turns out that the original Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was initially a staged event,» says Tokar, a professor at the Institute for Social Ecology. «Politicians like Senator Gaylord Nelson and Representative Pete McCloskey took the lead in crafting the first Earth Day celebration that unexpectedly brought millions of people out around the country. The events, however, were supported by establishment institutions like the Conservation Foundation, a corporate think-tank founded by Laurance Rockefeller in 1948. Nixon even began the year with a presidential proclamation saying that the 1970s would be the ‘environmental decade.’”

Peace activists opposed to the Vietnam War argued that Earth Day was diverting the public’s attention away from the war, from the antiwar movement’s planned Spring Offensive campaign, and from efforts to educate about the root causes of war, poverty and destruction of the environment. An editorial in Ramparts, a leading activist journal of the period, described Earth Day as, “the first step in a con game that will do little more than abuse the environment even further.”

The April 1970 issue of Ramparts had an article titled “The Eco-Establishment,” which exposed the corporate think-tanks that were influencing the emerging environmental legislation. “[T]oday’s big business conservation,” Ramparts editorialized, “is not interested in preserving the earth; it is rationally reorganizing for a more efficient rape of resources … and the production of an ever grosser national product … The seeming contradictions are mind-boggling: industry is combating waste so it can afford to waste more … Ecologically, it could be the end.”

Indeed, the ultimate thrust of the first Earth Day was not revolutionary, but rather led toward Keynesian capitalism. The new laws and federal agencies that resulted from the enthusiasm generated by Earth Day signaled the start of what could be called Keynesian environmentalism, the idea that the state is entrusted with guaranteeing sustainable development and protection of the environment and natural resources. In the 1990s this doctrine would be pushed aside by neoliberal environmentalism, which postulates that only corporations and free markets can protect the environment.

Earth Day was slowly forgotten over the following two decades until it was revived in 1990, when it returned with a vengeance, mobilizing ten times as many people as in 1970. «This time, Earth Day went global, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting environmental issues onto the world stage. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It also prompted President Bill Clinton to award Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995) — the highest honor given to civilians in the United States — for his role as Earth Day founder.»

Earth Day 1990 included an activist direct action to shut down Wall Street, a precursor and foreshadow of the Occupy Wall Street movement that would appear on the political scene two decades later. In 1990, the environmental movement was much more socially and politically mature than 20 years earlier. According to Tokar, «The 1990 Earth Day Wall Street Action reflected the flowering of grassroots environmental activity that had emerged throughout the 1980s, partly in response to the compromises of the big environmental groups. The popular response to toxic chemical pollution — launched by the mothers of sick children living near the severely polluted LoveCanal in New York — grew into a nationwide environmental justice movement that exposed the disproportionate exposure of communities of color to toxic hazards. Earth First! grew as a decentralized network of grassroots forest defenders, using theatrical direct action, combined with acts of industrial sabotage to stem the tide of forest destruction. Others joined in solidarity with indigenous peoples’ movements around the world that had arisen in defense of traditional lands, responding to the new onslaught of neoliberal development policies. During the lead-up to Earth Day 1990, a hundred environmental justice activists signed a letter to the eight largest national environmental organizations criticizing the dearth of people of color on those groups’ staffs and boards, along with their increasing reliance on corporate funding.»

But he also notes that Washington’s political maneuvering around environmental issues also got a lot more slick and shrewd, «The Clinton-Gore administration of the 1990s perfected the art of channeling environmental rhetoric while simultaneously encouraging increased resource extraction — prefiguring Barack Obama’s recent overtures to the nuclear, oil and coal industries.»
At the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day, the environmental movement in the U.S. is fighting the twin threats of Republican anti-environmental policies and global warming denial, and cooption by clever corporate «green-washing» campaigns. Much depends on the movement’s ability to reach out to other constituencies, like organized labor, anti-patriarchy, and anti-imperialist movements in order to form a coherent front that can address the links between capitalism and environmental destruction. As Bolivian President Evo Morales said, «Either capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies.»

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