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The American celebration of the environment began on April 22, 1970, with activities from coast to coast in dedication of a renewed concern for land, water, and air. Earth Day was initiated, in part, by the moon landings and in particular from emotions stirred by the first photograph of the earth from space. Earth Day was the inspiration of Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) who spent the previous eight years deeply concerned about the state of the physical environment, wanting to take action to rectify the damage. In 1962, Senator Nelson convinced President John F. Kennedy to conduct a national conservation tour to bring the issues of a degrading environment into prominent national view. The president began the tour in September 1963, but his efforts did not bring the results Senator Nelson had hoped for. Nonetheless, President Kennedy’s efforts did provide an important start to the program. In September 1969, Senator Nelson announced at a conference that a demonstration aimed at garnering public support for the environment would be held in all areas of the country the following spring. The resulting notoriety from this announcement was extraordinary.
Estimates of participation in Earth Day were set at 20 million, as communities, schools, and a variety of organizations took part in a countrywide outpouring of support for the environment. In New York City, Mayor John Lindsay closed Fifth Avenue from Central Park to 14th Street for two hours in order to provide the celebration a dedicated space. The resulting series of speeches, discussions, musical performances, and Vietnam-demonstration-style “teach-ins” to raise awareness of environmental concerns carried on until midnight. Earth Day was a huge success and it ushered in a new ea in America’s stewardship toward its natural endowments that became known as environmentalism.
The era of environmentalism succeeded the conservation movement, which had its greatest prominence from 1850 through 1920. The conservation approach embodied the basic relationship between humans and the natural word, an association that had been articulated in various forms throughout history. However, by 1850, U.S. urbanization brought about a new appreciation for regions of wilderness, dedication to the wise use of natural resources, and the preservation of areas of natural grandeur. The conservation movement recognized and documented human impact on the natural world, suggesting that this influence not be destructive. There emerged a philosophical basis as well for the appreciation of nature. Writers began to discuss the interface between nature and the American identity in spiritual terms, and to identify a moral connection between the urban dweller and the land. Wilderness and areas of natural beauty were not only idealized, but were also seen as places to preserve for the use of all citizens.
The conservation movement coincided with several large-scale socioeconomic changes that permanently transformed the geography of North America. The industrialization of the American economic system was at its high point of development 1850-1920. This era also marked the emergence of large-scale agriculture and the decline in the small farm. A vast expansion in the surface transportation system occurred during this period, and the emergence and solidification of the urban system took shape. By 1920, North America entered into an era of economic expansion unprecedented in world history. The Soil Conservation Service was founded in 1935 during the New Deal Era under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Act was enacted to fund fish and wildlife programs. The most ambitious and far reaching single project undertaken in this period was the Tennessee Valley Authority, aimed at taming the wild and unpredictable Tennessee River through the construction of a series of nine dams along its course and a series of electric generating stations. The conservation movement also created the national park system, the national forest system, and the Forest Service. Much of the activity in conservation followed President Theodore Roosevelt’s view of conservation as a central focus of national policy.
Earth Day represented a new direction in public concern for the environment. The conservation movement aimed at warding off unwanted misuse of land, air, and water. Earth Day focused widespread attention on a degraded environment and the focus became remedial. Following years of dumping waste materials into Lake Erie, scientists studying the lake proclaimed its literal death in 1970. The Great Lakes were threatened by pollution from the many steel-making plants, taconite processing plants, refineries, paper mills, and sewage systems. Lake Erie was the hardest hit of the Great Lakes as fish life essentially ended and the water became severely fouled.
However, within a decade, the concerted efforts of the United States and Canada brought about what some experts considered a miracle in bringing Lake Erie back to a healthy state and ensuring that regulations were in place to protect the entire Great Lakes freshwater system. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements of 1972 and 1978 brought the two countries together in the gargantuan task of cleaning the entire water system. The Clean Water Act, enacted in the 1970s, ensures the continued monitoring of the Great Lakes and other water bodies and the immediate remediation of any environmental dangers.
During the 1970s, legislation to protect the environment appeared, including the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Resource Recovery Act, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. On January 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law. NEPA requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision-making processes. This federal requirement gave birth to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a key document prepared by federal agencies including the impact on the environment of proposed actions and the listing of reasonable alternatives to those actions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was authorized under the NEPA. The mission of the EPA is straightforward: to protect human health and the environment. In place since 1970, the EPA works toward the development and maintenance of a clean and healthy environment for the American people. The EPA is headquartered in Washington, D.C., has 10 regional offices, and employs 18,000 people.
Ahead of His Time
The founder of Earth Day and its most energetic supporter, Senator Gaylord Nelson is considered to have been far ahead of his time on the environmental front. As governor of Wisconsin in 1961, he created the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program. The aim of this program was the state acquisition of one million acres of wetlands, parklands, and open space for common use. While in the U.S. Senate, he authored legislation to protect the Appalachian Trail and the creation of the system of national hiking trails. In addition, he co-sponsored the Wilderness Act, the Alaska Lands Act, and worked on various aspects of consumer protection and protection of national parks. In 1990, Senator Nelson received the Ansel Adams Conservation Award, given to a federal official exhibiting commitment to the cause of conservation and to the American Land Ethic. He was also a recipient of the Only One World Award from the United Nations Environment Program. In 1995, Senator Nelson received the country’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton. The proclamation stated, in part: “As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event: The Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
- C. Daily, The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable (Island Press, 2002);
- Robert Gottlieb, Environmentalism Unbound: Exploring New Pathways for Change (MIT Press, 1998);
- Mary Graham, The Morning After Earth Day: Today’s Practical Environmental Politics (Brookings Institute Press, 1999);
- R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (W.W. Norton, 2001);
- Gaylord Nelson, Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise (University of Wisconsin Press, 1999);
- G. Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (Yale University Press).