The first Earth Day was observed on April 22, 1970 and is the brain child of Senator Gaylord Nelson. He was concerned about a lack of political will from politicians to address environmental issues and felt it was time the country had a national awakening and discussion concerning the importance of the environment. He convinced the Kennedy administration to take up the issues of the environment and from there, Nelson began to build a grassroots organization of people concerned with the lack of laws to protect our natural resources and the natural world.
Throughout the 1960's, the grassroots effort began to pick up steam when a small number of scientists and conservationists began to speak out on the health of the environment. When Rachel Carson's “Silent Spring” was published in 1962, we were able to see and understand how DDT and other pesticides were putting toxic chemicals into the environment and killing bird and animal populations and putting our own health at risk. Carson's book began to open the eyes of people and it was her book that helped to start a movement and give credibility to scientific research about the environment.
Other events throughout the 1960's also played a role in shining a light on what was happening to our world. Air pollution had reached dangerous levels in many large cities like Los Angeles and New York and it was becoming clear how dirty air was impacting the health of humans. Population growth was having an impact on the environment when forests and fields were cleared away to make room for more houses for people wanting to live in the suburbs. However, one event became a defining factor and was one of the most famous environmental disasters of that era that highlighted the dangers of industrial pollution in this country.
The Cuyahoga River in Ohio had a reputation of catching on fire between 1936 and 1969 when the concentration of hazardous wastes, including oil, would ignite the floating debris from time to time. When it exploded in flames in 1969, it became a symbol of how the health of the environment had been ignored for too many year. The flaming river came at a time when Nelson was trying to bring environmental issues into the public debate and the burning river was a driving factor for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which resulted in environmental laws and regulations to safe guard the public and protect the environment. The Cuyahoga River wasn't the only river to erupt in flames.
The grassroots movement helped to get laws passed to protect the environment. The Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and Endangered Species Act were signed into law. Today, Earth Day is observed world wide and is a reminder to everyone living on the planet we call home, the importance of protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we live on and share with other species. When politicians talk about wanting to gut or eliminate any laws protecting the health of the environment, we should all be standing up and reminding our leaders why those laws are on the books and why they are needed.
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” John Muir