In recent years, Earth Day has come to be associated with buying green. Earth Day is coming up; buy compostable bamboo plates for your next picnic. Earth Day is coming up; offset your airline miles by donating to rain-forest preservation. Earth Day is coming up; buy yourself a pair of athletic pants made from recycled plastic bottles.
While mindful purchases do make a difference, the greater meaning of Earth Day is often drowned in a puddle of consumerism. Shouldn’t Earth Day be about activism? When it first began, Earth Day was a revolution, one intended to question our values. It wasn’t about buying things; it was about demanding change.
It’s been 46 years since the first Earth Day. April 22nd, 1970 was a day of nationwide rallies, protests, demonstrations, and environmental activism. College students, environmental organizations—including the Sierra Club—and political groups joined together to build awareness around the many environmental ills they had witnessed; pollution, sewage dumping, toxic waste, oil spills, and declining wilderness.
The man behind Earth Day was Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. The 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California inspired him to host a national teach-in on the environment—which ended up becoming the extensive mass of activism known as Earth Day. He recruited Congressman Pete McCloskey and Harvard graduate student Denis Hayes—an activist against the Vietnam War—and a staff of 85 people to help him plan events all over the country. Their work paid off; the public outcry of 20 million people and an influx of awareness led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, which continue to uphold the environmental values of those original protestors.
As we all know, Earth Day didn’t stop there. It became an annual event, serving as a celebration of the Earth’s beauty, a kindling of hope for a greener future, as well as a tool for building movements and amassing support for the environment.
Rather than remaining an American holiday, Earth Day went on to become globally recognized. Thanks again to organization by Denis Hayes, 141 countries participated in Earthy Day 1990. Efforts were focused on promoting recycling and halting rainforest destruction. Restoration, tree planting, and community works caught on as new ways take action. Earth Day became a chance for different cultures to band together, and to unite over something we all care about—the well-being of our shared planet.
In the new millennium, much of the focus has been on climate change. Protestors have demanded swift action, a transition to
clean energy, and an end to fossil fuel use. Both 2000 and 2010 were big years for Earth Day. The international approach was upheld and broadened to over 180 countries. Hayes has continued to organize awareness events worldwide, including a campaign to plant over 1 billion trees. With another milestone year coming up in 2020, more big events are in the works.
Earth Day 2016 may not be a milestone by number, but it will surely be remembered for years to come. On April 22nd, China and the U.S. will band together to sign the Paris Climate Agreement. By taking early initiative in signing the agreement, both countries hope to set a precedent for the remaining 55 countries who need to sign on. With climate change accelerating, this action is crucial. Public support, as well as a demand for further solutions to climate change, will play an integral part in developing a clean energy future.
The history of Earth Day is proof of its power—Earth Day allows us to grab the world’s attention. It gives us a stage on which to demand change. It should not be an opportunity to ease our guilt. It should not leave us saying, we ate locally today; we bought organic socks, so we’ve paid our penance for the year. We should be making environmentally friendly choices each and every day, with Earth Day serving as a magnifying glass and a microphone; it should be the spurring point of action, the rapids before the waterfall, the point of coalescence for all those who care. Earth Day is a powerful tool; let’s use it.
You can help put the activism back in Earth Day (and every day) by getting involved in your community or volunteering with local environmental groups, like the Oregon Chapter Sierra Club.