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Earth Day Turns 45 - A Cause for Celebration with Deep History

Earth Day Turns 45 - A Cause for Celebration with Deep History

Believe it or not, Earth Day is the largest civic event in the world. It’s a time when over a billion people from 192 countries around the globe take part in public actions that support the environment. These actions can range from planting trees in a local park to participating in nationally organized seminars, demonstrations and rallies.

As we observe Earth Day 2015, we’re seeing large segments of the world’s population migrating to cities. The reality of human-caused climate change means the need to create sustainable communities is urgent and complex. This requires an enlightened and active public, forward-looking environmental policies, and smart investments in sustainable technology--all on a large scale. A tall order, but it’s worth taking a moment to look at how Earth Day came about in the first place.

Arguably, environmental consciousness began in 1962 with Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. She documented the detrimental effects, particularly on birds, of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. It became a best seller and remains a relevant reference.

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Then in 1969, appalled by a devastating oil spill near Santa Barbara, California, Gaylord Nelson, a democratic senator from Wisconsin, announced a plan for a "national-teach-in on the environment.” He persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican, to co-chair his efforts. They brought in Denis Hayes as national coordinator, assembled a staff of 85, and promoted events nationwide. And on April 22, 1970, close to 20 million people from nearly 2,000 colleges,10,000 primary and secondary schools, and in hundreds of communities across the country turned out to participate in peaceful demonstrations advocating environmental reform.

The next year Earth Day was noted in Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo. Looking at trash in the forest, Pogo says, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” In the years since, with activities coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network, the annual event has been used to take stock of the environmental movement; its strengths and weaknesses and where it should be headed.

In 1990, Denis Hayes was again asked to organize a campaign, and this time Earth Day went global, resulting in events in 141 nations. Then in 2000--using the internet for the first time as an organizing tool--more than 5,000 environmental groups outside the USA participated in Earth Day activities.

In 2010, in spite of well-funded oil lobbyists, climate change deniers, and indifferent politicians, the Earth Day Network brought 225,000 people to the National Mall for a Climate Rally, and outlined a huge number of service actions towards its 2012 goal, called a “Billion Acts of Green.”

Finally, let’s remember that the first Earth Day in 1970 helped encourage a rare political alignment that resulted in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the passing of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Environmental Species Acts. “It was a gamble," founder Gaylord Nelson later reflected, "but it worked."

As we mark Earth Day 2015, let’s celebrate the possibilities that can come from the collective action of a billion people.

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