Forty-five years ago, on April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million people took to the streets for the first ever Earth Day. It was the largest public demonstration in United States history and helped turn environmentalism into a mass social movement for the first time. Today, Earth Day is known for feel-good concerts, eco-fairs, or recycling parties. But in 1970, Earth Day still had bite. The story of how it came together, where it succeeded, and where it failed, contains powerful lessons for today’s environmental movement.
Back in 1969, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a longtime environmental advocate in Congress, watched as teach-ins against the Vietnam War swept college campuses across the nation. Could this student energy be harnessed to protect the environment, he wondered?
“I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the national political agenda,” Nelson later recalled.
While politicians had been slow to respond, by the late 1960s there was already a growing public outcry over the state of the environment. All across the country, smog, trash, and water pollution were ravaging America’s natural beauty and impacting public health. Then, a series of high profile environmental disasters helped put environmental concerns at the top of the agenda.
In 1969, an oil rig exploded off the coast of Santa Barbara, spilling millions of gallons of crude into the ocean, much of which washed up on some of California’s finest beaches. The New York Times later referred to the disaster as the “ecological shot heard ‘round the world.” That same year, Time magazine ran a special report on the Cuyahoga River, which had famously caught fire because of all the oil and pollution befouling the waterway. Meanwhile, the smog in major American cities had become a national crisis. “Just breathing the air in some areas of Los Angeles is said to be equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in 1970. Something needed to be done.
The team behind the first Earth Day was perhaps an unlikely crew to rise to the occasion. While Earth Day 1970 had the backing of a prominent politician in Nelson, the organizing effort took a distinctly grassroots approach.
While the nation’s traditional conservation groups helped promote the event, they weren't the driving force behind the effort. Instead, Nelson hired Dennis Hayes, a Harvard graduate student, to head up a ragtag crew of students and volunteers who based themselves out of a cramped office above a Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C. The group quickly got to work tapping into the environmental energy that was exploding across college campuses and communities around the country. They worked around the clock, sending out thousands of mailings, hitting the phone lines, and issuing regular press releases documenting their progress—anything to get people to circle the date April 22, 1970 on their calendars.
The effort benefited from alliances that may seem unlikely today. Earth Day organizers, for example, found a strong ally in the hard-hitting United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. Known as the “most dangerous man in Detroit” for his ability to take on the auto industry, Reuther had a soft spot for Mother Nature—and a radical vision of how the UAW could be at the forefront of a new industrial revolution.
Pointing to the smog choking America’s cities, Reuther put the blame squarely at the feet of the car companies. “The auto industry is one of the worst culprits and it has failed to meet its public responsibility,” he declared. “It is asinine (I don’t know of a better word to describe it, to have hundreds of thousands of people all going to the same place at the same time for the same purpose and all of them dragging two tons of gadgets with them.”
As a solution, Reuther envisioned a partnership between industry and government to create the most extensive, modern mass-transit system in the world. He proceeded to write the first check to the Earth Day organizing committee, providing much-needed funds to get the operation up and running. Just weeks after the day’s success, however, Reuther died in a plane crash, taking much of the energy behind his transformational vision with him. Today, labor and environmentalists are just beginning to come together again to put forward a vision much like the one Reuther dreamed of decades ago.
The first Earth Day also helped invigorate a discussion between the environmental and civil rights movements. African Americans, especially in inner cities, had been fighting problems like pollution, lead paint, pests, and improper waste management for years, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that these were identified as “environmental” issues.
Some African American leaders saw Earth Day as a dangerous distraction from the many daily injustices from which white America would prefer to avert its eyes. “The nation’s concern with environment has done what George Wallace was unable to do: distract the nation from the human problems of the black and brown American, living in just as much misery as ever,” said Richard. G. Hatcher, the mayor of Gary, Indiana. George Wiley, the director of the National Welfare Rights Organization, argued that before they started proposing new policy solutions, environmentalists had to “deal initially with the problem of racism in the United States of America.”
Other civil rights leaders saw an opportunity in Earth Day to get whites on board with solving these pervasive challenges. “But now that White America is being threatened, perhaps we can deal with black needs and white needs -- human needs -- in a united effort to remedy the value system that has brought us to this Earth Day,” the Rev. Channing Phillips told an audience in Washington, D.C.
Whatever their motivation, when Earth Day arrived on April 22, 1970, tens of millions of people took to the streets across the nation. In New York City, tens of thousands marched and the mayor bicycled around town to give various speeches. In Chicago, high school students marched to protest air pollution. In West Virginia, students collected five tons of garbage along a five-mile stretch of highway and dumped it on the steps of the Harrison County courthouse. In Los Angeles, organizers sold tickets to a “car smashing” to people who wanted to “vent their feelings about cars.” Up in San Francisco, a group of 300 divers scoured the adjacent ocean shelf to collect trash.
In total, more than 1,500 colleges and 10,000 primary and high schools hosted events. Even those that chose to stay home could watch the special “Earth Day” programming on nearly every major network. Newspaper estimates put the total number of participants at 20 million, but the scale of the day made it nearly impossible to count. “I’ve been on the road at least three days a week this last year,” said Hayes, the organizer, a year later, “and I have never been in a city or school which didn’t take part in Earth Day.”
The outpouring of public activity made an immediate political impact. In the years following Earth Day, President Richard Nixon, hardly a bleeding heart, passed the National Environmental Protection Act, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and more. “Environmental concerns have become part of our political value system,” reflected EPA Administrator Douglas M. Costle some years later.
Like any political moment, the energy didn’t last forever. Just a week after Earth Day, President Nixon announced that he’d given the order for American troops to invade Cambodia, sparking a new wave of protest against the Vietnam War. Then, on May 4, National Guard troops fired on students at Kent State.
The good mood of Earth Day vanished overnight. “With an almost manic abruptness, the nation seemed, as Yeats once wrote, ‘all changed, changed utterly,’” wrote Time magazine. Environmentalists were able to maintain momentum during the Ford and Carter administrations, but came up against a brick wall once Reagan took office, forcing the movement back on the defensive, where it has largely remained ever since.
Now, 45 years later, it seems as if many of the conditions that led to the first Earth Day could once again be falling into place. Just as the “pollution crisis” began to move the forefront of American’s minds in the late 1960s, the climate crisis is beginning to creep its way up on the national agenda. Iconic disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, the California drought and the BP oil spill, are galvanizing a new environmental consciousness, while fights against projects like the Keystone XL pipeline are invigorating a newly powerful climate movement. Last September, more than 400,000 people took the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March, an effort that united the climate movement with social justice, labor, faith communities, and more. Across college campuses, the fossil fuel divestment campaign is emerging as one of the most powerful sources of student organizing in the country.
When Sen. Nelson first dreamed up the idea of Earth Day in 1969, he hoped that it would spread to at least twenty or so campuses. Instead, it swept the entire nation and resulted in the largest public demonstration in the history of the United States.
It’s hard to know when you stand on the brink of incredible change. But as today’s climate crisis threatens to spin out of control, Earth Day should give us hope. When the right conditions arise, we can still come together to do extraordinary things.
Correction: This article originally misstated the date of the Kent State massacre as May 5, 1970. The shootings took place on May 4.