Celebrating our Earth, Now More Than
I am sure he read the newspapers and listened to the news that
Sunday in June 1969. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland had caught
fire due to an oil slick on the river caused by decades of
industrial waste discharged into it by nearby manufacturing
plants. Would this be the event that would ignite an
environmental course of action by his colleagues in Congress?
The alarming story told by Rachel Carson in 1962 of eggshell
thinning caused by the application of synthetic pesticides like DDT
had not done so. Nor had the increasing number of reports of fish
kills occurring throughout the United States. He thought that the
southern California oil spill which occurred earlier that year in
January most certainly would have stimulated legislative attention.
It did not. And now a river had caught fire.
Back in 1963, he had introduced draft legislation on the Senate
floor to ban DDT. Not one single member of Congress would support
him. His only breakthrough in raising environmental awareness came
when President John F. Kennedy responded to his request to join him
and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall on what they called a
During this five-day trip, the President visited eleven states
from Pennsylvania to California and delivered fifteen speeches.
While most of his addresses focused on the environment and were
intended to raise the country’s awareness of existing problems, his
political agenda concerning the country’s national and international
affairs always took precedence.
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Anyone else might have
given up the fight, especially if he or she was a Senator of the
United States. After all, there were future elections to think about
and other issues to care about such as the growing unrest and
distrust surrounding the possible deployment of U.S. troops to join
the conflict in Vietnam in 1965. But this Senator was no ordinary
Senator. He cared deeply for the environment especially in his home
state of Wisconsin. No, for Senator Gaylord Nelson, there had to be
another way to focus the nation’s interest on an environment that
was under constant assault with no policies in sight to protect it.
He watched with growing interest the efforts of free-thinking and
well-informed college student leaders, who were organizing events
protesting the war in Vietnam while galvanizing America’s young
people around interests and ideals that were vitally important to
them, their futures and their dreams. Could he tap into that sea of
enthusiasm and generate such passion for the environment among his
Perhaps, it was these
thoughts that prompted him to pick up the phone and reach out to one
Denis Hayes, a Stanford graduate and a fellow Wisconsinite, to ask
him for help in drawing together the nation’s young people and
focusing their attention on the environment.
From this relationship grew the idea of a special day dedicated to
the planet Earth, driven by America’s young people and focused on
actions, not words. It would be held on Aril 22, 1970 and would
simply be called “Earth Day”.
The organizers of this inaugural Earth Day reached out to two
thousand colleges and universities, ten thousand primary and
secondary schools and hundreds of communities nationwide. But, would
they answer the call? Yes, indeed.
When Earth Day finally arrived on April 22, 1970, an estimated 20
million people nationwide gathered in public parks, college campuses
and high school auditoriums to do their part to raise environmental
awareness. And then, armed with brooms, rakes, shovels and
unfathomable energy, they put those words into action. Newspapers
the next day would carry photos of people sweeping public venues,
planting trees, holding fundraisers, and picking up garbage. Earth
Day was a success!
The spirit of that original earth day has not weakened over the
years. I was proud to help plan many of them during my career at
EPA. In 1990, Earth Day went international and, according to the
Earth Day Network, it is now celebrated in 193 countries every year.
On April 22, 2020 we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first
Earth Day. While 20 million people participated in the first Earth
Day in 1970, several billion people, globally, are expected to
celebrate her in 2020.
As Senator Gaylord
Nelson stood proudly before President Bill Clinton in September 1995
to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his environmental
achievements, one must wonder where his thoughts travelled. My guess
is that he was silently thanking people like you and me and the
thousands of others who have chosen to follow in his footsteps.
As I sat down to write this piece, my goal was to focus exclusively
on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Little did I know that we, as
a global community, would be focused not on how we must meet the
next environmental challenge, but rather on how we must win the
battle against COVID-19. I am confident that, like the movement
which produced the original Earth Day, we will come together and
meet and learn from this unexpected challenge, as well. And, as we
embark on the next fifty years of celebrating the Earth, we will do
so with a more well-informed attitude and a deeper appreciation for
the fragility of this planet which we call home.
Tom Murray is a pollution prevention and sustainability expert and
Director of Utility Relationships for the
Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC). Tom retired from the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 after over 44 years in
government service. At EPA, Tom served as a Senior Science Advisor,
leading efforts to develop action plans for several persistent,
bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals including Mercury.
All views expressed here are my own and do not represent the
opinions of any entity whatsoever with whom I have been, am now or
will be affiliated.