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Unearthing Earth Day

April 22, 2016
  • Goucher College
Blog post by Thomas Walker, Ph.D., Director of the M.A. In Environmental Studies Program

So, Earth Day, April 22, is once again upon us—inevitable, resilient, and hopeful as signs of spring itself. Our annual observance of it, now spanning two generations since its founding, begs some questions about how an event that catalyzed a movement, defined the modern concept of environmentalism, and neatly catalogued its problems has seemingly become a commodity, a mere calendar custom.

What is it exactly?  Who cares? Our concerns and issues seem too urgent and truculent for celebration, as a commemoration might suggest, and, to be sure, the issues related to climate change are less about scientific uncertainty than political and social immobility. If the original language of Earth Day was about raising consciousness around the “environmental crisis,” the current, relevant equivalent might be to think about the varied models that Earth Day and the modern term “environment” make it possible to talk about.

Several articles and blogs in recent years have asked, “What’s happened to Earth Day?” as if to suggest that its potency is spent, that a slow attrition of meaning or interest over the years has rendered the movement a mere artifact of the 1970s.  Perhaps the question of what has happened to Earth Day can best be answered in asking what was this day in 1970?

Earth Day was conceived as a massive teach-in—itself an artifact of the 70s—kicked off in March of that year with a convening of 14,000 people at the University of Michigan for the “world’s largest seminar on ecology.”[1]  Barry Commoner was the keynote speaker.  He was already well known as a science celebrity who had graced the cover of Time magazine in their February 1970 issue, which included an article about the environmental crisis. As an ecologist, his goal was to partner the science needed to reveal the depths of an environmental crisis with the social action to resolve it.[2]

“It was a sudden, noisy awakening. School children cleaned up rubbish; college students organized huge demonstrations; determined citizens recaptured the streets from the automobile, at least for a day. Everyone seemed to be aroused to the environmental danger and eager to do something about it.”[3]

More than an awakening, the moment to which this trenchant remark refers introduced environmentalism as an integrative concept enabling us to catalog a wide array of environmental problems and planetary boundaries, and to comprehend a world of nature suddenly made social.  Environmentalism as a concept galvanized “a comprehensive understanding of the new human condition of global impact and global constraints.”[4]

Gaylord Nelson, an environmentalist and senator from Wisconsin, is credited with originating the idea of Earth Day and for choosing the day. Nelson’s archives at the University of Wisconsin reveal some of the diversity among the critics of that original Earth Day, suggesting just how variable the meaning of Earth Day was in the 1970:

“Anti-war protesters felt marginalized as they watched pollution displacing the Vietnam War in newspapers and campus organizing…. Others on the left complained…that environmentalists were not targeting the deeper economic structures responsible for pollution…. Conservatives spoke out against environmentalists’ goal to increase public spending and government regulation for the environment…. Similarly, some unions did not view the environmentalist agenda as enough of a priority in the lives of working people to get involved….  Even those who endorsed Earth Day, like the mayor of Gary, Indiana, worried that the new movement would ‘distract the nation from the human problems of the black and brown American.’ This view stemmed from the activities and rhetoric of the college teach-ins, such as when students at San Jose State College—Nelson’s alma mater—performed the burial of a brand new car. African American students decried such a gaudy display of privilege even in the name of environmentalism.”[5]

Whether or not Nelson was partisan in his views about Earth Day, he, like others, was acutely aware of the lack of legal or legislative instruments to address looming environmental problems such as air pollution and toxic oil spills.  Earth Day—if we remember nothing else about it—was the catalyst for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency later that same year, as well as for crucial amendments for the regulation and enforcement of clean air standards in the Clean Air Act. That legacy has proved far-reaching and contentious, and a salient reminder of the role for political determination and social action beyond the policy process and scientific evidence.  This legacy comes down to us today in the Clean Power Plan for the regulation of coal-powered emissions and the dumbfounding stay order imposed by a divided Supreme Court.

Looking for local Earth Day events? Baltimore Magazine lists some of the things happening in the region for Earth Day 2016:

Baltimore Magazine Earth Day Events


[1] Adam Rome, The Genious of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013), p. 3.

[2] Barry Commoner, Science and Survival (Viking: New York, 1963), p. 132.

[3] Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Man, Nature, and Technology (Knopf: New York, 1972), p. 5.

[4] Sverker Sörlin, Reconfiguring environmental expertise, Environmental Science & Policy 28(2013): 16.


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