Earth Day, a Story of Success

Progresses and Backstrokes of American Environmentalism During the Last Forty Years

Seminararbeit, 2010

22 Seiten, Note: 1,7


Table of Contents


2. American Environmentalism Now and Then
2.1. Earth Day, a Groundbreaking Idea
2.2. Environmental Law and the US Government
2.3. Ecological Consciousness or Ecofascism?

3. Cures for the Cancer or Cancer for the Cure?
3.1. Big Business and Economic Growth
3.2. Technology and Science, A Solution For All Problems?

4. The Third World and American Overpopulation

5. Environmentally Friendly Behavior, a Question of Attitude?
5.1. A Matter of Religion and Philosophy
5.2. Environmental Education

6. Conclusion

7. Pictorial Sources

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Everybody has heard of Earth Day at least once in a lifetime.Earth Day has been celebrated for the first time on April 22, 1970 in the whole United States.It was the largest demonstration that should ever take place in this country. Twenty million people, from coast to coast, gathered in cities around the nation to speak up for nature and to make environmentalism a political issue.

Today Earth Day is solemnized in over 175 countries around the globe; some local communities even dedicate themselves to the environmental good throughout a longer period, in a so-calledEarth Week or Earth Month around April 22.This year Earth Day has celebrated its 40th anniversary, but what has changed within these four decades? Did Earth Day and the idea behind it accomplish its goals, is the job to remedy the circumstance of our environment done or did it fail?Which environmental challenges did people face in the 1970s and which challenges do we face today? These questions are not easily answered.

The founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson had the ideology to inspire awareness and appreciation for the earth’s natural environment among people. It is sure that Nelson did not invent environmentalism; the environmental movement had its precursor in the conservation movement. Especially considering that ecologists like Aldo Leopold or Rachel Carson had set the benchmark for ecology and environmentalism with their literature earlier.

Nevertheless, Senator Gaylord Nelson was the first politician who realizedthat environmentalism was the most urgent task of the 20th century. It is a fact that environmentalism gained credence at the dawn of the 1970s environmentalism was no longer ignored, but fully respected by public, media and policy. Since then the U.S.Congress passed over thirty environmental laws and established offices, but is plain legislation enough?

“Think Globally. Act Locally.“ has been the Earth Day motto ever since, but indeed it is hard tomanage to live this way, to act locally for earth’s and nature’s sake.Undeniably, it is important to transform our society into a sustainable society, but first of all it is crucial to understand the structure of consumption in the Western world, especially the US.A lot of changes will be necessary to strike a new path for environmentalism, for true and deep ecology.

There are direct consequences for human intervention into ecosystems and they actually will drop back to humanity, if they have not already; but these ecological interplays are very complex, sensitive and hard to explain.

However, what seems to be most important is that every part of the society will play its role in the development of the ecological future.Involved parts throughout this process will be media, the public, environmental organizations, the government and enterprises.

Cooperation between each and everyone will be essential and above all environmental education will have to start in early infancy.Notably our success will depend on an interdisciplinary way of solving the environmental problem of today. To analyze the success of environmental progress and Earth Day in the United States of America, it is needful to collect historical, scientific, economic and philosophical information. Analysis is a guideline for behavioral change and problem solution.

Therefore which expectations did the people have for Earth Day, which promises were kept and broken within the last forty years?

To find answers as precise as possible I will especially focus on Earth Day agendas and essays around Earth Day and environmentalism to compare different opinions and ideas, written with various approaches by authors with different backgrounds. The spectrum will reach from ecologists, philosophers to economists, and chiefly be complemented with reference to the founder of Earth Day himself: Gaylord Nelson.

2. American Environmentalism Now and Then

It is obvious that since 1970 people have changed their minds to change the planet or at least they have realized that environmental pollution is hazardous to ecosystems, to the maintenance of species and to human health. But the question is, what caused these changes in specific, what has improved the environmental situation, and in contrast what endeavors failed and why? How far did legislation play a part in contributing to enhance the ecological situation? Why do people give Earth Day the leading role in the environmental movement and – investigating beyond the surface - are environmental organizations as immaculate as they appear?

2.1. Earth Day, a Groundbreaking Idea

In 1969theCuyahoga River burned, city smog was present everywhere, as other environmental catastrophes and ecological disasters hit the American nation between the 1940s and 1970s one by one.[1] Rachel Carson’s non-fiction book Silent Spring published in 1962, a national bestseller, revealed the danger of pesticides, especially DDT, which lead for example to the extinction of the eastern anatum peregrine falcon.[2] During this period people’s concern about the environment and pollution was silently growing.

Democrat Gaylord Nelson, who became senator of Wisconsin in 1962, recognized the problem. He knew that environmentalism had to become an important political issue.

Nelson had the idea that a national conservation tour, with president John F. Kennedy contributing speeches, could attract public attention. Kennedy supported this plan and so he, Nelson and several other senators did the conservation speaking tour in 1963, traveling eleven states in five days.The tour turned out to be quitedisappointing, it seemed as if press and public did not consider the environmental situation as threatening as the foreign policy of Cold War.[3]

For the next six years Nelson was struggling to arouse the public and government’s interest in the environment, until he finally found his inspiration in the Summer of ’69. It was not hard to realize that anti-Vietnam War demonstrations having spread around national campuses, made a great stir in public.If this anti-war movement was able to awaken society, why should not an environmental “teach-in“ do so?

On September 20, 1969 Nelson proposed his idea of an environmental teach-in in front of a yet minor, but emergent conservation group in Seattle, WA.Earth Day seemed to organize itself; it was an idea that set public afire and managed to become a movement imposing new standards.

When April 22, 1970 became the appointed date for Earth Day, conservatives felt threatened by the upcoming dawn of ecology. Right-wing politicians even accused Nelson and his proponents of creating a communist conspiracy, for evidence they pointed out that April 22 was Vladimir Lenin’s birthday. So was this new movement really treacherously communistic or was it rather highly democratic? Actually April 22 was chosen, because it was before school summer vacation and beyond college exam time.[4]

In February 1970, two months before Earth Day was held, the business magazine Fortune dedicated its entire fortieth anniversary release to “The Environment: A National Mission for the Seventies.“Fortune’s editors wrote that “Environmental anxieties have coalesced [into] a permanent part of the American awareness, part of the set of beliefs, values and goals within which U.S. business operates.“ and that conservation organizations, as the Sierra Club for example, were fighting a new environmental battle, supported by ardent lawyers.[5]

Necessary preparations for the first Earth Day got going, but the fact that private donors supported it, as Larry Rockefeller and labor unions cannot be suppressed, financial help was essential.[6]

All in all Earth Day appeared to be what people wanted and needed, otherwise twenty million American citizens would not have pooled together to demonstrate in the name of nature.

On April 22, 1970 a powerful public interest group emerged that politicians finally did not underestimate.

Earth Day was successful indeed and soon it was called the first D-Day of the environmental movement. It appeared as if public fell into euphoria. The New York Times described this phenomenon as a grassroots power that was able to exceed political boundaries. It did not matter, if someone was independent, left- or right- wing; Earth Day had its supporters everywhere.[7] Years before, only civil liberties campaigners, mostly participants of the civil rights and anti-war movement, had supported ecology; but after April 1970 environmentalism was not just an activists’ concern anymore.

2.2. Environmental Law and the US Government

So what happened after Nelson’s movement took the U.S. by storm? Whenever people preach Earth Day’s success, they usually rely on a heavy list of federal environmental measures that have been adopted since 1970. That is an absolutely true fact, but a lot of environmentalists claim that environmental law began as a legacy of Earth Day, which is partly wrong.[8]

Environmental law already had a history of about twenty-five years back then, it occurred around 1945. Unfortunately in“the Pacific Northwest and on the High Plains during World War II the national state used law to impress nature into military service“.[9]

Despite heavy governmental mistakes like that,congress did a few good jobs. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) of 1972 for example, which was meant to protect interstate water quality, was altered five times before and already had its first appearance in 1948.[10] It was an inevitable law to protect citizens and nature, because states and cities were unable to solve or manage the problems they had with fouled andpolluted waters. The chronic condition of New York and San Francisco’s bays, the Great Lakes and rivers throughout the country was catastrophic before FWPCA. Back then American interstate waters were predominantly neither drinkable, swimmable nor fishable.

Nevertheless government and congress could not remedy all deficiencies.It seems absurd, but whenever communities could not manage environmental problems, it required solutions on a federal level and whenever federal initiatives remained ineffective it became a community or state task once more.

When New York City was hit by a serious smog incident in 1953, people living in other big cities became anxious. And so it happened that California issued a statewide comprehensive stationary regulatory system in 1959, which was followed by the first mobile source law one year later. These Californian initiatives set a new air quality standard and pressurized the federal government to take action as well.

In 1958 president Dwight D. Eisenhower called the first national “Conference on Air Pollution“.To stress the problem of air pollution two Californian law professors, James Krier and Edmund Ursin, drafted Pollution and Policy: A Case Essay on California and Federal Experience with Motor Vehicle Pollution, 1940-1975.[11]

Inspired by the effects on human health of gaseous pollutants,Californian Senator Thomas Kuchel introduced bills to empower the US Department of Health and Human Services to prohibit the sale of motor vehicles that produced too many hydrocarbons.This short example shows that the State of California became a pacesetter in environmental law and so it stays in this position until today.

Though environmental laws had been passed before, their tendencies principally increased and took effect after the first Earth Day, but are legislations enough?In his book Before Earth Day, author Karl Boyd Brooks describes it like this: “Environmental law appeared steadily during a long, complicated process of legal change.“ He also says “environmental conditions [were] formed by centuries of ecological dynamics.“[12] Werepeople perhaps too eager, were they expecting a quicker betterment of ecological conditions than time allowed?

Environmental law seemed exciting, even radical at the beginning of the 1970s, but it was often criticized that“state action tended to consist in curative rather than preventive measures“.[13]

Many legal historians believe that the fundamental problem of the American citizen lies in the New Deal spirit.Many Americans believed that governmentwould solve any public issue, but the truth is that since the New Deal “a central problem of government lies in the vast area of administrative ’discretion’ that often masks submission to the demands of powerful interest groups“.[14] The problem is that government often negotiates about procedures, details and budgets, before it really brings something into action.Anyhow, people were highly optimistic after the first Earth Day; everyone thought that tomorrow could be saved easily. The fiery environmental movement evolved into a sort of cosmetic campaign. People cleared vistas and planted trees, littering fees were introduced,illuminated advertising was reduced, and state waters as well as the air appeared cleaner.[15] This odd form of environmentalism had the effect that pollution obvious to the eye was abolished, but not invisible dangers to human health and ecosystems such toxic chemicals or hazardous greenhouse gases. It seems that people did not want to be reminded of the awkward condition of the environment day by day. True to the motto: What the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve over. It is needless to mention that a mindset like this accumulates trouble, instead of solving problems.Although the 1970s are often called “the decade of the environment“politics remained business as usual and the public debate on environmental challenges often remained superficial.

In 1971 a so-called Earth Tool Kit was published by the organizers of the first Earth Day. It gave advice to citizens how to represent their environmental interests on a serious level.

The authors pointed out that a well-informed group of anxious citizens should rather consult a lawyer instead of just hoping for betterment. Yet this guide also criticized that citizens “often lose interest, even if they understand the technical issues“.[16]

The environmental movement was often suspended by far-right politics or the influence of Wise Use groups. Environmentalism even suffered an enormous backlash at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s due to stagflation and the oil crisis of 1973.Nevertheless there is another reason why environmentalism did not evolve as promising as expected.

The acceptance of environmental law is widespread in the US, but few Americans are willing to mobilize against environmental pollution or to change their habits. This non-action is actually not to be underestimated; it even seems to be a core problem of the ecological crisis. Legal historian Karl Boyd Brooks warns: “Should this lassitude persist, environmental law’s future will track labor law’s past“.[17]

Describing the current situation, environmentalist Neil Evernden goes the extra mile: “If there is one role that the original Earth Day continues to play, it is to show us that nothing has changed. Earth Day 1970 gives us a benchmark by which we can evaluate our “progress“.[18]


[1] Gaylord Nelson with Susan Campbell and Paul Wozniak, Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), p. 6

[2] William Leiss, “POLITICAL ASPECTS OF ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES,“ ECOLOGICAL CONSCIOUSNESS: Essays from the Earthday X Colloqium ed. Robert C. Schultz, J. Donald Hughes (University Press of America, Inc., 1981), p. 246f.

[3] Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Earth Day: a simple idea, a world of change, (September 2010)

[4] Nelson, Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise, p. 7f.

[5] Karl Boyd Brooks, BEFORE EARTH DAY The Origins of American Environmental Law, 1945-1970 (University Press of Kansas, 2009), p. 186ff.

[6] Nelson, Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise, p. 8

[7] Nelson, Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise, p. 8ff.

[8] Boyd Brooks, BEFORE EARTH DAY, p. xi ff.

[9] Boyd Brooks, BEFORE EARTH DAY,p. xiii, l.13f.

[10] Boyd Brooks, BEFORE EARTH DAY, p. 123

[11] Boyd Brooks, BEFORE EARTH DAY, p. 132 ff.

[12] Boyd Brooks, BEFORE EARTH DAY, p. 139, l. 32 ff.

[13] Boyd Brooks, BEFORE EARTH DAY, p. 133, l. 29 ff.

[14] Boyd Brooks, BEFORE EARTH DAY, p. 192, l. 19 ff.

[15] Robert C. Schultz, J. Donald Hughes, ECOLOGICAL CONSCIOUSNESS, p. vii

[16] Boyd Brooks, BEFORE EARTH DAY, p. 193, l. 28

[17] Boyd Brooks, BEFORE EARTH DAY, p. 208, l .42 f.

[18] Neil Evernden, “Ecology in Conservation and Conversation, “ AFTER EARTH DAY: Continung the Conservation Effort, ed. Max Oelschlaeger (University of North Texas Press, 1992), p. 74, l .12 ff.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 22 Seiten


Earth Day, a Story of Success
Progresses and Backstrokes of American Environmentalism During the Last Forty Years
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München  (Amerika Institut)
American Environmental History
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
958 KB
Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, USA, environmental history, environmental movement
Arbeit zitieren
Magdalena Natalia Zalewski (Autor:in), 2010, Earth Day, a Story of Success, München, GRIN Verlag,


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