by Morgana RavenTree
It began in the winter of 1969. Television (at least in California) showed horrific images of seabirds, seals, and marine life covered in crude oil, dead or dying. Humans trying to save them, finding ways to carefully clean off the oil and give them another chance at life. Union Oil’s Platform A, offshore Santa Barbara, spilled 80,000 – 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the channel and onto the beaches from Santa Barbara County all the way down Southern California, and caused the closing of Santa Barbara Harbor. For many years afterwards, I remember finding oil globs on Santa Monica and Venice Beaches. Cleaning up Santa Monica Bay (for this and other reasons) took decades.
Popular lore states that this event inspired Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to organize the first Earth Day in 1970. However, there was another environmental event in 1969. In June the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio literally caught fire, polluted with oily wastes, chemicals, and debris the burning river also gave momentum to the nascent national environmental movement.
Earlier in 1968, Morton Hilbert and the U.S. Public Health Service organized the Human Ecology Symposium, an environmental conference about the effects of environmental degradation on human health. Some say that was the true beginning of Earth Day. Yet another version of the origins story is that at a UNESCO Conference in San Francisco 1969, activist John McConnell proposed a day to honor the earth and the concept of peace to be held on Spring Equinox 1970. However, it took Senator Nelson’s efforts to name the day, set the date and issue a federal proclamation to make April 22, 1970 the first official Earth Day. Nelson chose April 22nd because he envisioned participation by college students and didn’t want it to fall during exams or spring breaks, or conflict with any religious holidays. There have been numerous efforts by agencies within the U.N. to move Earth Day back to Spring Equinox, but by now, April 22nd is firmly entrenched as Earth Day.
The 20th Anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 was sponsored by two groups, Earth Day 20 Foundation and Earth Day 1990. One was interested in obtaining funding from Silicon Valley and the other had a more “grassroots” focus, but Senator Nelson was the Honorary Chair of both. Both groups also included many of the same people who had been instrumental in organizing Earth Day 1970.
Earth Day 1990 was when the event really went international: 200 million people in 141 countries are estimated to have participated in Earth Day events.
Unfortunately, after the 1990 event stories soon circulated about the 152 tons of garbage left in New York’s Central Park the day after the event – leading to charges that people were just there for the free concert and didn’t give a cr*p about “the Environment.”
It was at this point that Earth Day became an annual event. Between 1990-1995, Earth Day USA organized Earth Day events. After the 25th Anniversary in 1995, Earth Day Network took over coordinating the event.
Earth Day 2000 was the first time that Earth Day organizers used the internet as their principal organizing tool. Kelly Evans, a professional political organizer, served as executive director of the 2000 campaign. More than 5,000 environmental groups outside the United States 183 countries participated.
Earth Day 2016, the Paris Agreement was signed by the U.S. and some 120 other countries. A key requirement of the agreement was enforcement of the historic draft climate protection treaty adopted by 195 countries at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in 2015.
So here we are in 2021. There are still online events planned for Earth Day, April 22nd, but if you prefer to observe it more simply, go for a walk. Bring a plastic bag and gloves for collecting trash, a reusable water bottle (or if it’s a disposable bottle, refill it at every opportunity and carry it out with you). Even if you’re in an urban setting, know that under the concrete Mother Earth is there, watching you. Let’s not repeat the aftermath of Earth Day 1990 and the tons of trash. Think about what the day means and which issues are most important to you. Is it climate change? Human population growth? Extinction of non-human species? Science education, research, practical application? Open your senses and feel the life around you. Every patch of ground, plant, weed is a sign the earth is struggling to survive. Join with your fellow humans and do your part to celebrate the day!