On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets for the future of our planet. In hundreds of cities, they protested environmental ignorance and demanded a new way forward for our planet. This is what happened at the inaugural Earth Day 50 years ago, as written on the Earth Day Network website.
From the late 1940s through the early 1960s, Gaylord Nelson held multiple political offices in Wisconsin, successfully implementing innovative environmental and land preservation programs never before seen in the United States. In 1962, Nelson became a U.S. Senator, working hard to bring his environmental ideologies to Senate discussions. Change was slow, but his efforts eventually resulted in the passage of fundamental laws, including the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Despite the creation of important laws, however, Nelson’s fellow senators were initially skeptical of the need to discuss environmental concerns, which were considered unpopular opinions at the time. Inspired by a story he read about students protesting the Vietnam War through a series of teach-ins, Nelson decided he wanted to have a massive teach-in on the environment, and on September 20, 1969, proposed the idea of a national Earth Day on the Senate floor. The idea was to encourage citizens nationwide to host their own teach-ins to make people aware of local environmental problems and to promote their events to elicit maximum participation.
Interestingly, Nelson rejected the creation of a centralized organization to handle Earth Day operations and refused to be its leader, insisting that a one-size approach would not be useful and that individual communities needed to spearhead their own visions for ways to help the environment at local levels. Nelson’s progressive plan caught the attention of 20 million people who, on April 22, 1970, formed the largest demonstration of civic action ever witnessed in United States history.
For 20 years, 1970-1990, impassioned speakers of environmental issues concentrated their efforts on Earth Day events within the United States; in 1990, Earth Day reached global heights while introducing worldwide recycling efforts to the public.
Since 1990, several large groups have worked on activities for Earth Day, held each year on April 22. Starting in 1995, the Earth Day Network (EDN) emerged as the nonprofit group in charge of coordinating Earth Day activities. Environmental attorney and advocate Kathleen Rogers, president of EDN, works year-round to educate people on how best to work in harmony on environmental goals on a global scale.
When asked about the single-most important task for the EDN, Rogers repeatedly mentions civic engagement. “Our goal is to teach our people civics skills [especially because] there are no active civic engagement programs in the states,” she explains. Rogers further distinguishes civics from volunteer efforts, which are typically marked by separate, individual acts that are nonpolitical in nature. Civic action, notes Rogers, expands traditional volunteerism with communications and participation that engages the political world in some way, such as meeting with members of Congress, attending city hall meetings or voting. Rogers stresses that even young children have the ability to participate in civic acts by identifying important issues and writing letters to political leaders.
A well-traveled busy executive, Rogers has spent a fair amount of time abroad to advance environmental efforts. She has seen disappointing environmental situations and hazards in many places. A visit to India, for example, left an indelible mark on Rogers’s psyche after she saw a startling vision – the sight of “children in India playing in hundreds of pieces of plastic in waves,” she states. In addition, Rogers visited the outskirts of Paris and was unpleasantly shocked to see litter everywhere. Those observations have helped her appreciate U.S. laws in place for managing recyclables and garbage.
Though the United States has an imperfect system for recycling its many materials and disposing trash, not everything is doom and gloom. Rogers states: “I’m proud of our successes [in the U.S.]. Over time, people will recognize the laws of the country. [Earth Day is] 50 years of making progress!”, notes Rogers enthusiastically.
Rogers declared climate change as the top environmental concern in 2020. Climate change reached unprecedented global importance in mid-2018 after Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Since then, her youthful innocence, juxtaposed with undeniable adult fervor in urging political leaders to address the global climate crisis caused by global warming, has turned Thunberg into a household name.
Despite constant headlines with scientific proof that the climate crisis, if not controlled, will ultimately demolish the well-being of people, plants and animals, Rogers remains firmly optimistic that “we can do it.” The EDN offers loads of resources and information to educate people on how to restore the earth.
Earth Day 2020
According to Rogers, the main campaign for Earth Day 2020 is EARTHRISE, which embodies the urgent need for climate action through education and inspiration to effect change. EDN is promoting and supporting Strike With Us, a unique coalition of youth-led climate groups and adult allies, that will comprise the largest group of intergenerational activists participating in this year’s Earth Day activities.
Despite the EDN’s emphatic call to action to encourage as many people as possible to take action through peaceful rallies, strikes, voter registration and the like, Rogers insists families and schools can do small things that are meaningful and still support the Earth Day movement.
“For example, you can decide as a family to do something around nature. It can include conversation and simple things like hiking, walking, doing things in the yard, planting things and doing local clean-ups in your community,” notes Rogers.
In particular, Rogers discusses the importance of community cleanups and citizen science – an awareness of air and water pollution and associated health issues – and encouraging people to take steps to counteract damage done to the environment. Keeping close with Gaylord Nelson’s initial vision to avoid creating a central body that organizes and manages Earth Day, Kathleen Rogers and the EDN enthusiastically support environmental actions of others and list Earth Day activities taking place globally. Earth Day events are searchable on the Earth Day Network website: earthday.org.