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Celebrating Earth Day

In the late 1960s, a series of environmental catastrophes occurred that scared a whole lot of people. The Cuyahoga River, which flows through the city of Cleveland, was so polluted that it caught fire, twice! A major oil spill occurred off the coast of California, smearing thousands of seals and ocean birds with gooey, life-threatening petroleum. Birds like bald eagles, pelicans and ospreys were disappearing, as pesticides caused their eggshells to thin, and the thin shells cracked when the mother bird tried to incubate her eggs. Dense smog covered too many cities, the product of car exhaust and industrial pollution. Rivers reeked from untreated waste flowing out of millions of pipes. Too much human waste poured into waterways uncleaned. Almost no one anywhere recycled anything.

In 1969, Gaylord Nelson, then a United States Senator from Wisconsin, decided to organize a national demonstration on behalf of the environment. During a speech he made in Seattle in September 1969, he announced there would be a national environmental teach-in in the Spring of 1970. The wire services carried the story nationwide. The response was dramatic. It took off like gangbusters.

“The objective was to get a nationwide grassroots demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda,” explained Sen. Nelson, former Counsellor to The Wilderness Society, a national conservation group. “It was a gamble, but it worked.”

On April 22, 1970, newspapers estimated that some 20 million Americans of all ages gathered in cities and towns across the country to say one word very loudly: Enough. Enough pollution. Enough waste. Enough endangered species.

That day was christened “Earth Day,” and it changed the world. Two decades later, the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day was a global happening of unprecedented proportions: more than 100 million people participated in events in more than 100 countries!

In October 1993, American Heritage magazine called Earth Day: “… one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy…” New laws like the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts were passed by Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon. The eggshell-thinning pesticide DDT was banned. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded. Several national environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were formed, and people began to see the world differently. Recycling programs started. Environmental education classes flourished in schools and thousands of people began tackling projects to protect the environment.

“It was truly an astonishing grassroots explosion,” said Nelson. “The people cared, and Earth Day became the first opportunity they ever had to join in a nationwide demonstration to send a big message to the politicians – a message to tell them to wake up and do something.”

This April 22nd, Earth Day returns, and so many things have changed, some for the better, some for the worse. Some endangered species like pelicans, eagles and ospreys have been saved. The air we breathe and the water we drink are cleaner in many places, and more recycling occurs now than ever before in history. There are many more people working full time in science, government and industry to solve environmental problems. Earth Day has become a day celebrated worldwide.

But the problems have not all gone away. There are new endangered species, and endangered habitats, too. Many scientists worry that the Earth's climate may be warming. While there is more recycling than ever, there still is a lot of waste thrown out. And while water and air pollution have been significantly reduced, we still have a long way to go.

Nelson said, “The future of the environment depends on kids asking hard questions, and following a ‘conservation ethic,’ understanding that everything on the planet is connected to everything else. We must always ask the question: If we mess with nature, what will be the consequence, and how can we minimize the damage?”

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