Earth Day Was a Ray of Optimism in a Dark Time

I don’t remember exactly what I did on the first Earth Day 40 years ago, but I remember exactly how I felt: deeply relieved.

You have to realize, the spring of 1970 was a tumultuous time. I was a junior at Yale, but most of us were essentially on strike. We never went to class, because we were far too embroiled in the political upheaval around us.

Students were up in arms about the draft. Protests against the escalation in Vietnam had reached a fevered pitch--indeed four students would be shot dead by National Guardsmen at Kent State that May. Meanwhile the National Guard had descended on the streets of New Haven because Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers, was on trial downtown.

It was a tense, stressful time.

And in the midst of this came Earth Day. It was the opposite of all the chaos surrounding us. Instead of war and killing, Earth Day was about peace, love, and optimism.

It was a spontaneous eruption of idealism. Sure, we could all see the planet was going to hell, but here was a group of people who believed we could turn it around and make a real, lasting difference.

The spirit of Earth Day was like a positive lifeline for many of us who were feeling overwhelmed by those turbulent days. Here is a picture of my from that time.

Image removed.

I hadn’t yet started to call myself an environmentalist then. I was majoring in Urban Studies, and it wasn’t until later that summer when I was working for the New York City Health Department on lead poisoning that I started seeing the connections between what I cared about and the state of the environment. Within a few years, I would be working at NRDC, which also started in 1970.

But I was first moved by the optimism of that first Earth Day. There was an idealism about it that resonates with me still.

Of course, Earth Day has changed over the years, but the fact that is has reached its 40th anniversary is a testament to its enduring values. Earth Day began as a happening, a burst of conviction, but there were a lot of those back in 1970. Most died down after awhile.

Earth Day remains. Its power no longer resides on the Mall in Washington, but instead is spread out across the nation, in communities, schools, businesses, and every day lives. It has morphed into an annual reminder of our commitment to the environment.

It is a time for people to take environmental action on the ground where they live. It is also a time when journalists, CEO’s, and elected officials are called on to take stock of environmental actions. Granted plenty of green-washing goes on every April, but I am still grateful for the way Earth Day brings the environment into the forefront of public consciousness.

Because the only way to sustain Earth Day’s values is to make them the mandate of everyone, not just the environmental community.

As Earth Day approaches again, I urge you to think about ways you take environmental action in your life. Maybe it is switching to compact florescent light bulbs, using public transit more often, or calling your senators in support of clean energy and climate legislation.

Whatever shape your environmental commitment takes, use Earth Day to bring it to the next level. Remember, studies show that many small actions add up to enormous change. Then friend me on Facebook and tell me what you will be doing this Earth Day.

I have already started thinking about my Earth Day Resolutions (here is a post about past resolutions). I will soon be planting my garden, and this year I will try to make it more abundant. I am also exploring ways to make my home greener and to solve some of the challenges of retrofitting a 120-year-old house. I am also helping my daughter plan her wedding, and we hope to make it as green as possible, from using paperless, recycled or bamboo invitations  to serving local Hudson Valley food and identifying the public transit options available in New York City.

And of course I will continue to push the Senate to pass clean energy and climate legislation later this spring. It will be a tough fight, but as the first Earth Day demonstrated, people taking positive action really can make a difference.