The History of Earth Day

 

Silent Spring

“Silent Spring began with a ‘fable for tomorrow’ – a true story using a composite of examples drawn from many real communities where the use of DDT had caused damage to wildlife, birds, bees, agricultural animals, domestic pets, and even humans.” (Lear) This made a lasting impression on people who read it and the topic was very controversial at the time. Critics even accused Carson of being a fiction writer rather than a scientist (Lear).

It was serialized into three parts in The New Yorker. It was instantly a best-seller and it was the most talked about book for decades. Carson spent over six years documenting her analysis that people were misusing chemical pesticides before knowing the full extent of their potential harm to the whole biota. She was deeply concerned about the future of the planet and all living things on earth. (Lear).

Carson believed the federal government was part of the problem and she warned her readers to ask “Who Speaks, And Why?” She also noted human arrogance and financial self-interest as the heart of the problem and asked that we live as an equal on earth’s systems rather than act as the master of them. She spent the last years of her life defending her conclusions until she passed away in 1964 (Lear).

Senator Gaylord Nelson

Gaylord Nelson, who was then a senator from Wisconsin, came up with the idea for a national day to focus on the environment after he witnessed the severe damages from an oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969. He was inspired by the anti-war movement and realized that if he could immerse the energy of anti-war protests with an increasing awareness about pollution, then environmental protection could be forced onto the public agenda ("The History of Earth Day").

Senator Nelson then stated an idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media. Congressman Peter McCloskey served as his co-chair and also recruited Denis Hayes from Harvard as national coordinator. An 85-member staff was created to promote the events across the United States. ("The History of Earth Day").

“On April 22 in 1970, 20 million Americans — at the time, 10% of the total population of the United States — took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment.” ("The History of Earth Day")

Earth Day 1970 had support from both Republicans and Democrats alike and by the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to this, it also led to the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts ("The History of Earth Day").

After leaving the Senate, Nelson continued his mission by serving on the board of The Wilderness Society. President Clinton awarded Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1995 on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day.

Creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency

Due to heightened public concerns about air pollution, places littered with debris, and water supplies being contaminated, President Richard Nixon presented a 37-point message on the environment in 1970 ("The Origins of EPA" 2018). These points included:

  • “requesting four billion dollars for the improvement of water treatment facilities;
  • asking for national air quality standards and stringent guidelines to lower motor vehicle emissions;
  • launching federally-funded research to reduce automobile pollution;
  • ordering a clean-up of federal facilities that had fouled air and water;
  • seeking legislation to end the dumping of wastes into the Great Lakes;
  • proposing a tax on lead additives in gasoline;
  • forwarding to Congress a plan to tighten safeguards on the seaborne transportation of oil; and
  • approving a National Contingency Plan for the treatment of oil spills.”

("The Origins of EPA" 2018)

He also assembled a council around that time – in part to consider how to organize federal government programs made to reduce pollutions, so that they could accurately address the goals in his message on the environment ("The Origins of EPA" 2018).

The president followed the council’s advice and sent Congress a plan to consolidate several environmental responsibilities of the federal government under on agency, which became the Environmental Protection Agency ("The Origins of EPA" 2018).

This reorganization would permit response to environmental problems in a manner beyond the previous capability of government pollution control programs:

  • “The EPA would have the capacity to do research on important pollutants irrespective of the media in which they appear, and on the impact of these pollutants on the total environment.
  • Both by itself and together with other agencies, the EPA would monitor the condition of the environment--biological as well as physical.
  • With these data, the EPA would be able to establish quantitative "environmental baselines"--critical for efforts to measure adequately the success or failure of pollution abatement efforts.
  • The EPA would be able--in concert with the states--to set and enforce standards for air and water quality and for individual pollutants.
  • Industries seeking to minimize the adverse impact of their activities on the environment would be assured of consistent standards covering the full range of their waste disposal problems.
  • As states developed and expanded their own pollution control programs, they would be able to look to one agency to support their efforts with financial and technical assistance and training.”

("The Origins of EPA" 2018)

After conducting hearings, the House and Senate approved the proposal, and the agency’s first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, took the oath of office ("The Origins of EPA" 2018).

Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act is the federal law that regulates air emissions from stationary and mobile sources. It allows EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards to protect public health and public welfare and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants ("Summary of the Clean Air Act" 2019).

One goal of the Clean Air Act was to set and achieve National Ambient Air Quality Standards in every state by 1975, which was meant to address public health and welfare risks posed by certain air pollutants. It was amended in 1977 as well as 1990 to set new goal dates for achieving the fulfillment of National Ambient Air Quality Standards due to the fact that there were many parts of the country that did not meet the deadlines ("Summary of the Clean Air Act" 2019).

“Section 112 of the Clean Air Act addresses emissions of hazardous air pollutants. Before 1990, the Clean Air Act established a risk-based program in which only a few standards were developed. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments revised Section 112 to first require issuance of technology-based standards for major sources and certain area sources. "Major sources" are defined as a stationary source or group of stationary sources that emit or have the potential to emit 10 tons per year or more of a hazardous air pollutant or 25 tons per year or more of a combination of hazardous air pollutants. An "area source" is any stationary source that is not a major source. For major sources, Section 112 requires that EPA establish emission standards that require the maximum degree of reduction in emissions of hazardous air pollutants. These emission standards are commonly referred to as "maximum achievable control technology" or "MACT" standards. Eight years after the technology-based MACT standards are issued for a source category, EPA is required to review those standards to determine whether any residual risk exists for that source category and, if necessary, revise the standards to address such risk.” ("Summary of the Clean Air Act" 2019)

Clean Water Act

The basis Clean Water Act was initially enacted in 1948 under the name “Federal Water Pollution Control Act”. However, it was reorganized and expanded. It became commonly referred to as the “Clean Water Act” with amendments in 1972 ("Summary of the Clean Water Act" 2019).

The EPA implemented programs for pollution control under the Clean Water Act. One example is setting wastewater standards for industry. It also developed national water quality criteria recommendations for pollutants in surface water ("Summary of the Clean Water Act" 2019).

The Clean Water Act made it illegal to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable water – the only exception is if a permit was obtained. Point sources can include pipes or man-made ditches (Summary of the Clean Water Act" 2019).

National Environmental Policy Act

“The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was one of the first laws ever written that establishes the broad national framework for protecting our environment. NEPA's basic policy is to assure that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment.” ("Summary of the National Environmental Policy Act" 2019)

These requirements are invoked in a variety of instances, such as when airports, buildings, military complexes, highways, parkland purchases, and other federal activities are proposed. Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements, which assess the chances of impacts from alternative courses of action, are required from all Federal agencies and are the most visible NEPA requirements ("Summary of the National Environmental Policy Act" 2019).

 Endangered Species Act

“The Endangered Species Act (ESA) provides a program for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they are found. The lead federal agencies for implementing ESA are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service. The FWS maintains a worldwide list of endangered species. Species include birds, insects, fish, reptiles, mammals, crustaceans, flowers, grasses, and trees.

The law requires federal agencies, in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the NOAA Fisheries Service, to ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat of such species. The law also prohibits any action that causes a "taking" of any listed species of endangered fish or wildlife. Likewise, import, export, interstate, and foreign commerce of listed species are all generally prohibited.” ("Summary of the Endangered Species Act" 2019)

Earth Day goes Global

A group of environmental leaders approached Denis Hayes to organize a major campaign for the planet – this time, Earth Day went global. 200 million people in 141 countries participated, which put environmental issues on the world stage in 1990. It boosted recycling efforts across the world and it also created a path for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ("The History of Earth Day").

In addition, it is also what prompted President Bill Clinton to award Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role as Earth Day founder ("The History of Earth Day").

Earth Day for A New Millennium

Denis Hayes agreed to lead another campaign – which was more so focused on global warming and pushing clean energy. Earth Day 2000 helped build both local and global conversations and 5,000 environmental groups in 184 countries reached out to millions of people ("The History of Earth Day").

Earth Day 2000 sent world leaders a clear message: People all over the world wanted action on global warming and clean energy ("The History of Earth Day").

Earth Day 2010

When Earth Day 2010 came around, it was a challenging time for the environmental community in their attempts to combat the distrust of many people, including oil lobbyists, politicians, and a generally disinterested public ("The History of Earth Day").

Despite the many challenges, Earth Day was a success. Earth Day Network reestablished Earth Day as a major event for global action for the environment. 250,000 people went to the National Mall for a Climate Rally and a global tree planting initiative was introduced into The Canopy Project ("The History of Earth Day").

In addition to this, Earth Day Network also launched the world’s largest environmental service project which was called A Billion Acts of Green. This helped engage 75,000 partners in 192 countries in observing Earth Day ("The History of Earth Day").

Earth Day Today

Although Earth Day is now widely known and recognized throughout the world and brings more than a billion people every year to promote changing human behavior and policy changes, the fight for a clean environment is becoming more and more urgent. As people become more aware of the increasing urgency of our climate crisis, they are also demanding action for the planet and life on it ("The History of Earth Day").

“Digital and social media are bringing these conversations, protests, strikes, and mobilizations to a global audience, uniting a concerned citizenry as never before and catalyzing generations to join together to take on the greatest challenge that humankind has faced.” ("The History of Earth Day")

When combining some of the learnings and outcomes of the first Earth Day with the energy and coordination of the youth climate strikes, there is hope that the 50th anniversary of Earth Day will help empower people with the information and tools needed to make an impact and push for change ("The History of Earth Day").

 

   

References:

  1. Lear, Linda. “Silent Spring.” The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, rachelcarson.org/SilentSpring.aspx.
  2. “The History of Earth Day.” Earth Day, earthday.org/history/.
  3. “The Origins of EPA.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 19 Nov. 2018, epa.gov/history/origins-epa.
  4. “Summary of the Clean Air Act.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 15 Aug. 2019, epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-air-act.
  5. “Summary of the Clean Water Act.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 11 Mar. 2019, epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-water-act.
  6. “Summary of the National Environmental Policy Act.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 15 Aug. 2019, epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-national-environmental-policy-act.
  7. “Summary of the Endangered Species Act.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 5 July 2019, epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-endangered-species-act.