I was at a wedding in the mid-1990s, it was a rich, celtic-tigery affair. In the middle of the celebration a drinks trolley clinked its way around the guests. Vodkas, gins, and whiskeys of the best proudly tempted the revellers. They looked and sounded expensive and I was in a mind to stick to the wine until a bottle caught my eye. It was a port wine. It had been fortified in 1970 the year I was born. It was strong and delicious and I gulped again when I saw the £18 price the next morning.
I like to think that I have grown up and am not lead by superficial urges that could govern me in my twenties.
What did that have to do with Earth Day? The annual celebration of our planet also began on April 22nd 1970; a mere 44 years ago today. When I found this out I was as attracted to write a blog post about it as I was to drink that delicious port wine.
Earth Day’s roots grew from the civil rights and the anti-war movement in 1960s U.S. Before the word ‘Environment’ meant something other than nature the people who began to highlight Green issues were called the “Breathers’ Lobby” by the Wall Street Journal and the emphasis was more on ‘conservation’ of parks and recreational areas.
The Breathers Lobby were made up such anti-air pollution groups like GASP (Los Angeles and Pittsburgh), the Metropolitan Washington Coalition on Clean Air and the Delaware Clean Air Coalition. Other movements which focused on water quality issues were also making dramatic inroads: most notably, the Lake Michigan Federation, and Get Oil Out in Santa Barbara, California.
Even Broadway shows were being influenced by the anti-pollution ‘phase’. Hair lampooned air pollution with a hilarious song called “The Air,” which ended in a choking chorus of coughs.
Students were being influenced by environmental messages from rock lyrics e.g. “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell.
By the end of the 60s the committed activists realised that urban environments would be the battlefield for years to come and they needed the American public and American political leaders to understand that as well.
Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, who had failed to impress many of his colleagues in Congress of the importance of environmental issues.
While he was travelling across the United States, he had noticed the effectiveness of the dedication and the expertise of the many student and citizen volunteers who were trying to solve pollution problems in their communities. He put this climate together with the Anti-War Teach-In idea from the previous decade and set the wheels in motion for the First Earth Day.
Hampered by a tiny budget (190,000), mainly a volunteer base for organisation and a similar idea being pitched for March 1970, Nelson together with Denis Hayes, the dynamic former President of the Stanford student body, managed to pull together the first earth day. A full page article in the New York Times was one of the major elements to its success.
In New York Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic between 14th Street and 59th Street. Manhattan was an eerie standstill. A bunch of demonstrators dragged a net filled with dead fish down the thoroughfare, indicating to passers-by, “This could be you!” Celebrities like Paul Newman and Ali McGraw, spoke from a raised platform looking out over a sea of smiling faces. There were Earth Day rallies in Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and may other areas in the U.S. 80% of them were urban affairs. In New York, as elsewhere, self-policing demonstrators left surprising little litter in their wake.
The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in December 1970. It pulled together from 44 organizations scattered in nine departments, and it gave a much stronger profile to and put the Environment onto the political map.
Finding out about Earth Day was more satisfying than that port wine and less expensive.